The Covid pandemic of 2020 and beyond has resulted in a crisis of grief. Heartache for those who have lost loved ones. Heartache for those who are separated by borders or oceans.
Among that number were Jubby and Bruce Whitehead, who were forced to spend an unbearable 18 months apart, with no end in sight.
Jubby, originally from Thailand, then an international teacher and fashion entrepreneur, had practically remained a single parent in her home country, where she had gone to visit her family before the lockdown with twins Winston and Willow. While her husband Bruce, a PGA golf professional with a successful business that has seen him work across the Far East, Australia and America, found himself stuck with their pets in Shanghai for crisis.
Communication was through the Chinese equivalent of Whatsapp, which Bruce says led his children not to recognize him.
And there was no getting around the strict and complicated Covid rules and visas from either country.
There was only one thing for that – a move to the UK and Suffolk, where Bruce (who is from Monks Eleigh) grew up.
The belongings were stored in a warehouse. Animals left with foster families. All their finances, now untouchable, remained in Chinese banks. But at least, the couple say, they can finally be together.
Despite struggling emotionally and physically, trying to build a home for their children since landing last summer, Jubby and Bruce have managed to carve out a new life in the countryside. Specifically in Hadleigh, with Bruce giving up his golfing career to support Jubby’s unexpected new direction in life – cooking and selling his childhood food with his business, Real Thai Food.
Now, just three months after launch, Jubby has a fortnightly stall at Hadleigh Market, a place at Colchester Farmers’ Market, has been invited to cook in the ITFC Fanzone next season (after a successful trial), and offers take-out and delivery from her five-star cuisine almost daily.
It’s quite a different scene from their life in Asia. The couple met in Bangkok where, despite Jubby’s initial uncertainty, they worked together in their spare time to repatriate and rehabilitate around 100 animals together, including a severely disabled dog who had been run over by a pig.
When Bruce, whose business was in golf development, got the call to work in China, he continued to travel for months and months between Shanghai and Bangkok. It was their first taste of life apart.
“Jubby got pregnant after the first year and the children couldn’t travel until they were over a year old. I came home and my daughter didn’t recognize me. Then she would remember, and I would leave. It was difficult, but I knew my business would grow in China.
Eventually, Jubby, Willow, and Winston moved to Shanghai, with the ambitious, busy Jubby pursuing her teaching career.
“It was a nice, comfortable life,” she recalls. “In Asia, we have people who come to the house and help with everything. I came home from work and I had nothing to do. They helped me with the children and the household chores so that I could cook. Help is easy to get and not so expensive.
Jubby, who is self-taught, says she has always loved cooking. And once Bruce got her into shape, she became even more obsessed with cooking her meals herself, from scratch. “I don’t like buying food,” she says. “I don’t want to eat too much oil. I prefer good healthy food. And I’m always in the kitchen to feed everyone!
While working in China, Jubby took a bit of a hustle (one of the buzz phrases of 2021-22) selling pad thai and mango sticky rice. But she never could have imagined that it would one day become her main source of income.
In late 2019, she and Bruce began planning a visit with her family to Thailand for Chinese New Year.
At the start of 2020, Jubby remained in Bangkok, while Bruce worked in Orlando. “Covid news came in while I was there, and all my flights were cancelled. We had two dogs and cats in Shanghai, and the people who took care of them couldn’t keep them for more than two weeks!
In San Francisco, the news became more serious. “I knew I had to come back,” he continues. “On the plane, everyone wore these kinds of beekeeper suits. I didn’t know the extent of what was happening. We thought it was an internal problem in China.
Bruce’s business, which teaches high-level golf to promising young rising stars, had to close upon his return.
Jubby, then in northern Thailand with her family and devastated by the news spreading around them, had to return to her husband
“I booked a flight and then they said they had to cancel. Anyone outside of China was not allowed in. I was trying to come back all over the place. The kids had a visa [they have dual nationality] but mine expired so they could go, but without me, she laughs in disbelief.
“They were saying so many different things. I can go. They can’t go there. They can leave. I can not go there. I was so stressed. Everything was so disappointing.
“And it went on for six months, then a year, then a year and a half,” Bruce states solemnly. “We decided the only way to be a family was to fly to England and meet here.”
Even that was not easy.
“Thailand has become a ‘red zone’ so Jubby had to travel a long, very long way to Phuket to get a visa for herself just to be able to fly here.”
It was, says Jubby, “crazy,” especially with young children in tow.
“It was all difficult,” adds Bruce. “When I left, my children were three and a half years old. They didn’t understand where I was. They saw a plane in the sky and said “is that daddy?”.
“In Thailand, where we were, there was only one white man in the village. My son would say ‘is this my father? Can he play with me? says Jubby, adding that if they can’t be together soon, she fears their marriage will be over.
“What kept me going,” says Bruce, “was thinking that there were so many other people in a worse situation. I had a business. The children swam every day. We hadn’t lost anyone. »
Jubby landed in the UK last summer, followed by her husband, who was only allowed to travel with a 30kg bag. The couple have a house they rent in Hadleigh, who was a tenant so, with limited options, had to live with Bruce’s sister in her conservatory.
“We all slept in there for two months. We put in a cheap bed and had no curtains. It was really hard to fall asleep. But my plan was to be here for three months – my business needed me.
Unfortunately, children would only be accepted, says Bruce, with Chinese vaccines. It was time, they both knew, to rethink their future.
“I couldn’t go back,” he said. “My kids would have been so confused. They had been to about five schools since we were separated and they needed stability…to be with their mom and dad. We found them a great school here, they made good friends. They love it here so we had to make it work.
Jubby didn’t find it so easy. “When I moved here, I was pretty miserable,” she admits. “I haven’t had a job for two years and I’m a hard working person. A workaholic. When we arrived here, I said to myself ‘what can I do?’.
She volunteered to teach, but Jubby’s qualifications are not relevant in the UK. “I wanted to be independent.”
Friends from Asia had recently opened a restaurant in Shrewsbury. After visiting and seeing how they had done, Jubby wondered “what if I made Thai food in Hadleigh?”.
“There is nothing like it here. I was going to ask people if they had tried real Thai food and if they liked it. Then a friend asked me to cook for his birthday.
It was a resounding success. Guests at the event couldn’t get enough, asking when they could put their mitts on the booming chef’s food again.
Sensing there could be something in a take-out business that accurately reflected the cuisine of his culture, Jubby perfected his recipes, found sources for his hard-to-find ingredients, registered his cooking with Babergh, and followed a hygiene course.
And those who have tasted her food, whether at Hadleigh Market, takeaways from her kitchen or one of the many pop-ups she has hosted, say they love it.
“I cook with passion,” smiles Jubby. “And I also make sure my food is healthy. Not fat. People seem to really like what I cook. They can see it’s fresh. I have a lot of good feedback and it makes me feel good. If I have to be here, I want to participate in doing something for the community. I felt so bad when we moved here. I felt that I had no value. My options were limited. Whatever certificates I had in my life, they didn’t count. But I had my kitchen and no one could take it away from me.
It’s clear, from the way she lights up as she speaks, Jubby appreciates the path that fate has taken her.
Its best-selling dishes are pad thai, consisting of flat noodles in a sweet/salty/spicy sauce, with chicken or shrimp and a freshly fried egg nested on top. Then there are the crispy spring rolls with vegetables, pork or chicken, which are really very special.
There is satay. Thai salads. Shrimp toast. And the massaman, yellow and green Thai curries, which can be as hot as you want.
Orders can currently only be placed through Jubby’s Facebook page (see Real Thai Food in Hadleigh), with one day’s notice (if possible) required for orders on weekend evenings. Delivery in the Hadleigh area is free on spend over £30, otherwise diners have the option to collect.
Are there any plans for a Thai restaurant in Hadleigh?
Currently, the answer is no… but not ever. “We would like to have a unit in the future,” says Bruce, adding that their next step is a street food trailer to facilitate events.
“I’m enjoying life now, doing this,” Jubby smiles, to which Bruce adds. “At least we can see each other every day. This is the most important thing. I can wake up and take the kids to school, take them to feed the ducks, show them all the things I loved as a kid. Golf is my passion and what I do well, but being with my family? I would work as a dishwasher.