What is in this article?:
- Restaurateur John Kunkel talks Thai, barbecue
- Looking ahead
Kunkel's most recent projects include Khong River House and Swine Southern Table & Bar.
And how is Khong River House doing?
Of all the things I’ve done, I’m probably proudest of that restaurant. It’s been busy since the day we opened, but it was probably one of the more challenging things we did.
We took an extra couple of weeks to educate the staff, to make sure they were educating and not preaching to the customers about the food — doing it in a respectful way.
And we had to integrate the Thai and Western staff — get the Thai cooks to write down their recipe and the Westerners not to move things with their feet [a cultural taboo among Thais].
We really wanted to do it right, so for everyone it just became our sole focus in life. We didn’t want to serve food that, if you were Thai or knew Thai food, you’d say, [dismissively,] ‘Nice try, guys.’
We were adamant about not going off the rails. We stuck to the recipes, and we’re not serving pad Thai noodles or Panang chicken.
But you’re never going to re-train the American dining public about how they want to eat. So [even though Thais don’t serve meals as courses] we figured out what worked as small plates. And jungle curry [a rustic coconut-free curry] had to be pulled, because it was different from the coconut-based curry people expected. We reintroduced it as “jungle stew.” We’ve had to deal with [our guests’] perception, which is sometimes ignorance.
But the biggest win came at the 11th hour. We knew of a group of Thai farmers in Homestead, [Fla.,] who were growing Thai ingredients and only selling them to Asians. We went to meet with them, and then we went to their [Buddhist] temple and got approval from the monks, and the Thai farmers agreed to make us the first non-Thais and the first restaurant they were selling to. I absolutely think that’s the biggest win we could have had.
It was huge with the Thai community. It was like someone picked up the red hotline and all the Thais in South Florida seemed to come and support us.
What’s next on your agenda?
I want to bring authentic Chinese food and Korean food. I want some of these other fantastic cuisines to come to South Florida.
But right now I’m working on opening a test kitchen on Biscayne Boulevard in a place called The Sunshine Inn. The two upper floors will be our offices, and underneath that will be a place for the Miami culinary industry to use as a test kitchen for continuing education or developing new dishes.
I have 500 employees, and for the first time in 12 years Miami has some sense of [restaurant] community. I’m meeting with different restaurant owners and engaging in information sharing. It’s a really good thing for us as a company.
We have the James Beard Foundation, Johnson & Wales, Common Threads and the Miami Culinary Institute involved.
For me as a businessperson, this is a huge opportunity to work with other restaurateurs and keep them from making mistakes before they blow their life savings. Their success is our success in that we need a true culinary scene. We need another 20 chefs hanging shingles.