Mrs. Somprid Ballard has broad smiles and she smiles a lot. Well, she has good reasons to do so. Her restaurant, Le Jardin de Thailandaise, is one of the best Thai foods in Africa. Her partner, Frank, a former architect who worked in Thailand and Southeast Asia left a strong mark of Thai culinary scene in West Africa.
Somprid is happy as her restaurant recouped all the profit within four or five months after Le Jardin was open in 1999. “Customers here spend around 50 dollars for two at our restaurants. You cannot make that kind money in Thailand,” she added.
Her restaurant was nicely decorated with motifs and artifacts from Thailand including family’s personal collections. The ambience is a truly Thai.
Guests are mainly from the embassies, tourists and those well to do Senegalese who have learned how to appreciate Thai cuisine. “They visited Thailand or learnt about the country from their friends. They want to try out new cuisine,” she said.
It has taken her sometimes to adjust taste and presentation of Thai cuisine to suit the palate of Senegalese restaurant goers. They do not like oily food, especially those made of coconut cream. When preparing the curry, she said, she will only use the diluted coconut cream, not the cream of cream that the Thais prefer.
Since it is a family restaurant, everybody helped out. She still cooks everyday with two assistants in the kitchen. So, whenever guests complaint about food, whether it is too hot or too sour, “we will be here to handle it,” she said. Last week, she said the restaurant earned about 70,000 baht per day over weekend.
She said it is easy to open a restaurant here and making profit is not difficult because there are very few Asian restaurants, which are still dominated by Chinese food.
Of course, the ingredients are also easy to find, some of them are available locally such as lemon grass, ginger, coriander and other vegetables and nuts.
Senegal is the world’s largest exporter of peanut. The only thing that she must get from Thailand is krabi, the stinky shrimp-paste, a must ingredient in Thai food cooking.
One thing she would not compromise at her restaurant is the quality of rice. “We use good Hom Mali rice, and it is for free with every plate of dish you order,” she said, adding that offer ing free rice, is a very Thai thing to do. Africans preferred broken rice imported from Thailand, Vietnam, India and Indonesia, which are vying for expanding markets throughout the 54 African countries.
She said she was aware of the Thai government’s campaign to promote Thai food overseas. But she does not need any help. At the moment, as part of the promotion driver, qualified Thai restaurants overseas will be given “Thai Select” by Department of Export Promotion, Ministry of Commerce.
“To me, the Thai select probably will not help. The restaurant has hundreds of regular clients, who drop by at my restaurant every now and then,” she said.
Not far from her restaurant, Bandit Hoichan, 36, from Buri Ram is also cooking but for a different purpose. Bandit, popularly known as Khieu, is the personal cook of the Japanese ambassador in Senegal. He is one of two dozens or so Thai-born Japanese cook who is employed by Japanese government to serve selective Japanese envoys stationing throughout the world.
He has been living in Dakar for the past five years preparing thousands of meals including high-level guests who dined at the ambassador’s residence. His latest guest was Director General of Unesco, Koichiro Matsuura who was here to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day.
It was amazing to hear Khieu’s life story because he did not have formal or higher education, only experience in Japanese kitchens. And his salary is at the Ph.D level.
For nearly 6 years he worked in different Japanese kitchens learning how to use various Japanese knives, how to debone fishes, grill and boil vegetables and meats before he works as a personal cook. After he was selected, he went for three-month intensive training at a laocal Japanese restaurant, which was under contract with the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
He would learn how to serve Japanese dishes and different ways to arrange the menu for guests including Japanese table and dinning etiquettes. Lessons in Japanese language related to cuisines and other cultural matters were taught.
At this moment, Khieu’s friends are working in various Japanese embassies around the world. It is well-known that Thai-born Japanese cooks are much in demand, especially in high-end market in major city of the world such as New York, London and Paris. Young Thai teenagers from Isarn, who have spent six to ten years in Japanese kitchens in Thailand, can fetch several thousand dollars a month. Those with English ability get higher salaries.
Khieu knows every nook and corner of Dakar’s fresh markets, especially places where he could obtain fresh vegetables and fishes. “We have to know the time when the trawlers arrive so you can get the freshest fishes. We can prepare sashimi right there,” he said. Thai embassy staff here also benefit from his culinary skills, he clandestinely cooks for them several times, he confessed with a broad smile.
As a Japanese cook, he said he could prepare at least two hundreds of Japanese dishes including making fresh soba (buckwheat noodle) and fresh tofu. “Well, we have fresh soybean here and we make our own tofu and other goodies,” he said.
Khieu would like to stay as a cook as it is a secure job and he has a good life including chances to travel with his family. His wife is with him in Dakar.