In the 1990s, when the Asia-Pacific Trade Conference was held in Seattle, comedian John Keister joked: “The Prime Minister of Thailand was impressed that there were more Thai restaurants in Seattle than in his own country. The craze for Thai cuisine took the United States by storm in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and at least in the Pacific Northwest, Thai and ‘Pan-Asian’ restaurants are now more numerous than Chinese restaurants.
It seems everyone loves Thai food, but what do we know about the people who serve it to us? I have been going to the Thai House every week for the past 16 years, and the owner and waiters feel like family to me. Indeed, when one of the waiters hosted her daughter’s wedding reception there and the restaurant was closed for the party, the door opened as I walked away and I was pulled away. inside by my sleeve – “Don’t be silly you’re family, come in here!” said owner Nimnual Boe.
Jenny, a waitress, once brought me an adorable pair of checkered pants after returning to Thailand for a visit. We now exchange little treats every time I go to take out.
Yet what did I know about these people? What do we know about the lives of our gracious Thai hosts? I decided to interview Nimnual (NIM-new-all) to learn how a woman born in Thailand grew up to own Thai House in Bellingham.
Nimnual was the 10e
of 12 children. Opportunities were limited in rural Thailand, and one of Nimnual’s sisters, Amorwan, emigrated to Seattle in the 1980s. Amorwan opened the Thai House in Mount Vernon, taking advantage of lower rents and less saturation of the market. market, then opened a Thai House in Bellingham in 1990, in the space currently occupied by Taste of India (across Telegraph Avenue from its current location).
Nimnual visited her sister in the United States in 1990 and was inspired by her success. She moved here with her two children in 1994. She wanted to be an accountant, but as she learned English and acclimated to her new country, Nimnual was working part-time for her sister as a waiter at Mt. Vernon and at Bellingham. , and part-time in the Haggen Chinese Express kitchen. By the time she was ready to attend Bellingham Technical College, she decided she loved cooking more than accountancy and began studying for her Culinary Arts degree.
While working at the Thai House, Nimnual had an attractive client named Dale who kept asking him out. Nimnual was not interested. Finally, Dale asked if she would go out with him if he was doing the dishes at the restaurant for a day. Thinking he wasn’t serious, she said yes. The next day, when she showed up for work at Mt. Vernon, she found Dale in the kitchen, wearing an apron and doing the dishes. She held her end of the bargain and they tied the knot a few months later.
“I never want to be on her bad side,” Dale said with an evil twinkle in his blue eyes. “She has so many friends, and they would all defend her and kick me out of town.”
Amorwan decided she was ready to move on in 2002 and sold the Mt. Vernon restaurant. Nimnual bought him the Bellingham site. Nimnual also opened a food stall at Bellingham Farmers Market, in the well-founded hope that people would come to the restaurant after tasting their food there. Like her sister, she has a marketing mind and she often has food stalls at local festivals. A year since she attended the Bluegrass Festival, a large group of musicians came to eat at the restaurant and put on an impromptu musical event.
Amorwan made a career out of opening Thai restaurants in Idaho and California, then when their success stabilizes, she sells them and moves on. Nimnual has found a home with his Thai house and enjoys using it to foster community. The restaurant has provided starting jobs for family members and other Thai immigrants as they learn the language and settle in.
Jenny, the waitress I have known the longest, told me about her immigration experience. Jenny grew up in poverty that few American citizens can imagine. There was no job offer in her village and she remembers coming home from school to spend the evening making cardboard boxes. They bought cardboard in rolls and cut the boxes with knives, gluing the flaps together and drying them in the sun. That’s what her family did together, every minute that wasn’t occupied with school, cooking and cleaning.
Jenny grew up selling clothes on an open market and then got a job with an international cosmetics company. She had two children and then started working for an insurance company. “I was surprised to have the extra money,” she says. “I had never had too much money before. ”
She visited her aunt in the United States and then decided to move here. “I couldn’t believe I had a choice,” she said, her eyes wide. Jenny works long hours at the Thai House, but she enjoys it and is grateful for the opportunity to earn some money. After 16 years, she is still working to learn the language. She converses easily but says, “When a client uses a word I don’t understand, I consult or ask. I want to learn all English. “
For the 25 of the restaurante
anniversary in 2015, Nimnual held a huge festival with Thai musicians and dancers at the farmer’s market and restaurant. She welcomed members of the Thai consulate to her home. On Lunar New Year, she organizes a meditation session for the monks who visit the monasteries of Olympia and Woodinville.
As much as she enjoys being a part of the Thai-American community, so much Nimnual believes in being a part of the wider local community as well. She loves gardening and participates in gardening groups. She grows a lot of fruit and slips plums and apples from her garden into the take-out bags of her regular customers. She returns to Thailand to visit her family every year, but she also wants to see other parts of the world and travels when she can. She did a European tour with her daughter a few years ago.
There is a story behind every Thai meal served in the United States. Learning these stories after all these years of taking their hospitality for granted has enriched my connection with my favorite restaurant and given me a new appreciation for the immigrant experience.