November 24, 2012 8:07:44 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
The first thing you want to ask Sao Timratthana is how he went from being a cook at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet to owning a Thai restaurant on Wilkins-Wise Road in Columbus, Mississippi.
The answer is neither simple nor short, but on the Friday evening after Thanksgiving business was slow, and the charismatic chef had time for a chat. This after he had prepared Beth and me one of the best meals we can remember. This while Dean Martin was singing Christmas carols and on the TV over the bar Indiana Jones in a Chris Craft runabout was struggling with a villain as the propeller of a tanker was converting the boat to splinters.
As we were being seated, Sao showed us a picture of a seafood salad in a Thai cookbook, and asked if he could prepare it for us. We met a couple weeks earlier when I was picking up a to-go order. At the time I was wearing one of my father's rumpled tweed jackets, and Sao asked if I was a professor. I said I worked at the newspaper, and he said he had met the paper's owner, referring to son Peter.
"Yes, he's the fourth generation to work there," I said.
"Fourth generation?" he asked smiling and holding up four fingers and looking at them with childlike delight. "That's very good."
With the Thai chili, the salad exceeded what I thought was my high tolerance for spicy foods; the flavor was so good I couldn't stop eating. Good Thai cooking is multi-layered; you can get spicy, sweet, salty and sour in the same bite. Sao's dishes are subtle and delicately seasoned; expect spicy unless you request otherwise.
To end on a sweet note and to salve my still burning mouth, the chef sent us a dessert of green tea ice cream, fresh mango and sticky rice, a rice cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar.
The 11th of 12 children, Sao is the son of a Bangkok policeman. At 3 his mother died; at 8 he was packed off to live in a Buddhist temple in Tibet. There in the kitchen, he discovered and developed his gift for cooking.
He lived among the monks until he was 23 when he realized the celibate life was not for him. He went to Australia where he lived for six years and worked for a man who urged him to "do something different" in the kitchen. After that, Sao lived a gypsy existence, working in Germany, Korea, Burma and China before landing in Chicago.
There he met his partner, Saowanee Sattrakoune, who owned an established Thai restaurant. They've been together three years. Sao was restless in the Windy City and through the Internet discovered an opening for a sushi chef at Fritz Ehrentraut's short-lived venture on Military Road.
When that played out, Sao cooked for Two Stick, an Oxford sushi bar. Newspapers in Oxford and Tupelo published full-page spreads on his cooking.
"Everywhere he goes, he's famous," Saowanee says of her husband.
"God give her to me," Sao says of his wife. "She's good. She loves me. Why? I don't know why."
In April they opened their Columbus restaurant.
"I like Columbus," says Sao. "It's real life. It's a real town."
They get most of their food from an international market in Memphis where Sao has two brothers, one of whom is a chef. A local woman grows their Thai chili and Sao has an herb garden outside the restaurant with mint, lemon grass, oregano, basil and jasmine flower.
"When you eat my food and you're happy, I'm happy," he says.
One happy regular Friday evening was Depak Gopal, an engineer for PACCAR from Seattle, who is often in Columbus. He gives Sao Thai high marks.
Gopal says he often eats Thai food in Seattle and "this one measures up really good, actually."
A couple came in and asked that Sao prepare for them something he might cook for his grandmother.
As we were leaving I asked them about their dinner.
"Amazing," one of them replied. "I've had Thai food in Thailand, and this is like nothing I've had here."
As for Sao, his Buddhist upbringing permeates his business plan.
"I'm not trying to get rich. You support me; I support you with food."
"Life is too short," he continued. We're all going to die. Some people don't understand. When you die, you're not going to take anything with you."
The chef paused, cocked his head and smiled, then rose to go back to the kitchen to work. "Old man thinks too much," he said, tapping his head.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.