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The Man Behind The Wok

Mark is my uncle and he is the current head chef at Thai Orchid. He was born in Thailand and was the 5th out of 6 children in the family. He had a job as a banker, just living life in the Khon Kaen province in the Northeast region of Thailand. Like many 20-something years old, he had a decent paying job, a girlfriend, and played soccer after work regularly. If you asked him how many times he cooked a year--- he would tell you "may be once". That's because my grandma is a damn great cook and cheap good food are available everywhere. So why the hassle?


And suddenly everything changed


In 1997, The Tom Yum Koong Crisis began hitting Thailand. Many of you are familiar with the name Tom Yum Koong, ต้มยำกุ้ง. It's the sweet and spicy broth soup with shrimp. No... The crisis wasn't about the shortage of shrimp soup among the Thais. It was dubbed that name because it started in Thailand. It's the worst economic crisis Thailand has ever faced. The collapse was caused by many factors including bad debts and illegal lending practices. This economic meltdown hit hard, salaries were cut in halves, jobs were lost (including his), stocks plummeted, unemployment and suicides skyrocketed, investors pulled out of the country causing an international chain reactions. There was no future and no light at the end of the tunnel. Southeast Asia was on fire.


Then a call came from a 913 number


His sister, Wilai (my auntie) and my other uncle Rick, who were in Kansas at the time decided to invest in a little project. They put their savings together, with their parents help, bought a little store across from HyVee on Martway st. in Mission -- Thai Orchid. They just bought a business. They needed someone to help run the place. They heard about the situations in Thailand. Mark needed a job. They decided to trick their brother into flying across the Pacific to wash dishes for them by promising him a high paying salary ...I meant "To Join Their Team and build this thing together" 


Everything will be better in America


Mark received the offer from his sister. America had Levi jeans. Casinos are legal. The Broncos just won the Superbowl. There are many cigarettes options and he heard the steaks are pretty good in Kansas. He knew that there was nothing to do in Thailand.....Why not.


At the time, he didn't know that this decision would forever changed his life and he had no idea what he got himself into.


...So Mark accepted the offer to come help his siblings with the restaurant in 1998. He originally planned to come for 3-5 years max. His plan was to come be a manager-- to take care of the front of the house.


We all know that everything works according to plan....right?


The Turning point


One of the chefs that was working at the time decided that it was time for him to leave. That left us short in the kitchen and at the time we were growing as Kansas City started to seek out food diversity. Thai Orchid needed someone young, strong, reliable, and trainable.... who was a better choice than the soon-to-be front of the house manager, Mark?


Mark and Mark


The previous chef/owner, Mark Phanpruet, who was a true master of his craft, helped train Mark (my uncle) who knew absolutely nothing about cooking.


Mark started learning how to wash dishes, cut vegetables, prepping, making sauce, select good produce, and most importantly, cooking up some bomb-ass Thai dishes. 


With Chef Mark Phanpruet guidance, Mark became Thai Orchid's chef #2 in the next 4 months (two Marks in the kitchen...go figure).


Stepping up


The two became the greatest duo that Thai Orchid ever had up to that point (1999-2005). I would compare them to Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke during the Manchester United Treble 98/99 season...


Sorry!! --- How about Pat Mahommes and Tyreek Hill? 


You get it now!! 


They had the talent, chemistry, mentality, and the ability to manage the rush.


But all good times have to come to an end.


Chef Phanpruet became a Free Agent in 2005 and decided to move on. That's when Mark became the one that took care the recipes, inventory, maintenance, dramas between the appetizer and the curry, and occasionally give a therapy session for the line cooks....


But that still hasn't explained why he detoured from his main plan of 3-5 years in America --- and stuck around for 20+ years. 


Wasn't a Love at First Sight


When asked if he loved what he was doing, Mark's answer was...


"That's a dumb question. Do you think I'd still be around if I hate this gig?"




But cooking was not his passion. Food was.


Mark is a true foodie. He is obsessed with originality, authenticity, simplicity, and techniques. He is so great at remembering tastes and textures and would try to sense the difference from places that we went out to eat. 


Passion is found in the Process


He didn't love cooking at first. But after you put 60+ hours a week toward something for more than a decade -- you can't help but grow attached to it.


He immersed himself in the process and tried to figure out how to do it just a bit better. He slowly fell in love with what he was doing. He didn't magically find his passion by doing expensive psychological test, figured out his passion sub-type, and chased after it like what many internet gurus are telling young people to do today. 


He never imagined that he would become a head chef at a restaurant-- with a degree in accounting...


You never know where life will take you.


The Secret to Longevity


He would admit to you that it was really tough in the beginning. Going from an office job of 35 hours a week to a physical job with mostly standing at 55-60 hours a week. But he figured out his routine.


Many of you know that we are closed between 2.30pm - 5pm (2-5pm with the adjusted hours) and it's always been that way. We do that so the kitchen can get a little break, run errands if needed, and most


Mark said that he takes a daily power nap of 15-30 minutes during the break...something he hasn't done prior to working the kitchen. In the beginning, he was forced to, but now it became a routine.


Maybe this is the secret that kept him going for 20+ years....naps


"I just got lucky"


I asked him what it was like in the beginning in one of the interviews we did in 2019...


"In the beginning, I didn't know if I could do this. I had no experience nor training. I have never done anything this hard in my life. I figured I would give it a good shot --everyday for a year, and see where I'm at. If I am absolutely horrible after one year, I give myself a permission to quit.


I considered myself lucky and I thank God everyday that I happened to be able to do what I do, and do it well enough to make a living." 


At Thai Orchid, we take work seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. We laugh and joke around a lot. At the end of the day, if it was a good shift we celebrate with high fives (with gloves on)--- if we got our asses kicked, we try to figure out why and do better. 


At this point, Thai Orchid has already became a part of him, and vice versa. He plans on cooking for the community that he loves and sharing his talent for as long as he can.


In this (unreleased) video, he shares a bit more about himself, his perspective as a chef, and what Thai Orchid means to him.


I hope you enjoyed the newsletter, it's been fun to write.


See you at the curbside!


Jon "essential" Rojjanasrirat. -- Thai Orchid


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