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Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, International Restaurateur

by Lawrence Ferber

Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, is an openly gay Thai restaurateur whose four-year-old New York City venue won a Michelin star in 2016 for its authentic, spicy, and downright inexpensive cuisine from Thailand’s northeastern Isan region.

It’s a perfect January night in Bangkok, the weather is hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a pleasant breeze, and barely enough humidity to fog an ice-cold glass or camera lens. I’m waiting on a dock along the Chao Phraya River, and with so many Bangkok landmarks and icons flanking the scenic waterway (the bell-shaped Wat Arun, the majestic and colorful Grand Palace, the neo-Palladian Bangrak Fire Station, and stately Mandarin Oriental, it’s a compulsory setting for a leisurely dinner cruise. Alas, by and large the only options here have entailed gaudy, neon-lit, disco-pulsing, cheese-o-rama river vessels (with crappy food) that make locals and expats wince in horror.

Enter Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, the openly gay Thai restaurateur whose four-year-old New York City venue, Somtum Der (www.somtumder.com), won a Michelin star in 2016 for its authentic, spicy, and downright inexpensive cuisine from Thailand’s northeastern Isan region. Launched in December 2016, his brand-new, 40-seat Supanniga Cruise (www.supannigacruise.com) affords a lovely, tasteful, nightly dinner experience that makes the most of the Chao Phraya and sunset.

Thanaruek Laoraowirodge and Tran Din Huy

Thanaruek Laoraowirodge and Tran Din Huy

Although reluctant and wary of Bangkok dinner cruises, my college friend Stuart, a longtime Thailand-based American expat, boards the long, mustard-brown, two-level vessel. A gay couple at a table near us is soaking in the romance and snapping selfies to preserve the moments.

Our six-course set menu includes a tom yum goong yai soup with giant prawn, a succulent cha muang leaf beef curry, crabmeat hor mok, and superb mango sticky rice doused withcoconut cream. A proper cocktail bar serves libations created by Bangkok’s mixology-driven Vesper bar/restaurant (honored as of “Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2016”), some of which incorporate Thailand’s Kristall gin. The service is elegant and exceptional, and without a blaring, tacky soundtrack to boot.

“You know, this is amazing,” Stuart concedes about two hours later, as the cruise is wrapping up. “I’m a fan.”

Supanniga Cruise, which also offers a daily hour-long drinks and nibbles cruise at 4:45 P .M., is the latest in a string of nonstop successes, and gay crowd favorites, from Laoraowirodge, a travel-addicted, effervescent fellow who casually goes by nickname Khun Eh, the Thai equivalent of “Mister Eh.”

His Supanniga Group umbrella includes Bangkok’s original, still-thriving Somtum Der, opened in 2011 within the super-gay Silom district; a 2016 Saigon, Vietnam location Supanniga Eating Room, where the menu is drawn from his grandmother’s Eastern Thai culinary repertoire; two Bangkok locations (trendy Thonglor and swish Sathorn); shopping center eateries Eat All Thai and Eat Rice and Noodles; and Supanniga Cruise. Beijing, China will see both Somtum Der and Supanniga Eating Room openings later in 2017, a second NYC Somtum Der is planned for 2018, and Europe is also being considered for sibling venues.

“Restaurant business was never in my head when I was young,” he tells me. Born in the Isan city of Khon Kaen, Laoraowirodge initially pursued economics at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and, traveling stateside, New York University. Once he earned his master’s degree at the latter he returned to Thailand, where he and ten friends, all yearning for the NYC-style bistro food and atmosphere that they loved so much overseas, decided to try their hand at such a restaurant, opening Minibar Royale in Bangkok circa 2010 (it closed in 2016).

“At that time, there was no restaurant like this in Bangkok and probably that was the reason for its success,” he muses, “even though none of us had experience in that industry. Minibar Royale was like the first school that introduced me to the restaurant business.”

Supanniga Eating Room

Supanniga Eating Room

The experience also sparked a personal epiphany and career direction for Laoraowirodge. For his second outing, he decided to focus on the Isaan food of his hometown and childhood, albeit “with a concept that no one had ever done in Bangkok before. Back then, there were many Isaan street food stalls, but I wanted an Isaan restaurant that is cozy and can be a hangout spot that suits cosmopolitan city life.”

Regarding its location in Silom, within spitting distance to gay nightlife strips Soi 2 and 4, and always packed DJ Station and Telephone Bar, Laoraowirodge admits he wanted an “open minded” atmosphere welcoming to LGBTs. As chef and business partner, he enlisted another openly gay Isaan native, Kornthanut Thongnum, who, despite being a non-professional cook, managed to impress Laoraowirodge with his expertise. They became co-founders of Somtum Der and developed the menu together, with highlights that include a range of freshly pounded papaya salads, raw shrimp topped with spicy green sauce, and garlicky fried chicken. They also dated for a couple of years. “We broke up, but we still work together,” he notes.

A year after founding Bangkok’s Somtum Der, the pair found a third partner to help open a New York location. Supanee Kitmahawong (aka Khun Nui), is the older sister of Laoraowirodge’s best friend and already had NYC restaurant businesses running at the time.

“She wanted to show me one of her restaurants that she would like to revamp in the East Village,” he recalls. “I took a taxi to see the place on Avenue A. I knew that area very well, because it’s close to NYU. I told Khun Nui that I would take this location. Chef Kornthanut and I planned to set up Somtum Der there and it took around three months.”

In March 2015, Kitmahawong and Chef Thongnum went on to open a second NYC venture, 8th Street’s Kiin Thai Eatery, where a range of dishes from Thailand’s Central, Northern, and Southern regions make up the menu, like a wonderfully creamy tom yum soup and ultra-spicy, minced Khua Kling.

Asked why he chose Ho Chi Minh for a third Somtum Der (another in Hanoi is currently in the works), Laoraowirodge replies, “It’s one of the most vibrant metropolises in Southeast Asia. I think that there are more opportunities for restaurant businesses there than in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. I was lucky to find a great business partner, Tran Dinh Huy. We communicate on the same wavelength, and he also has experience in restaurant business there. By the way, he also is my ex-boyfriend!”

On a more personal note, Huy served as catalyst for Laoraowirodge coming out of the closet, since the Vietnamese man was already out to his family and friends at the time. Laoraowirodge yearned for that same liberation.

“My previous relationship, which lasted seven years, was completely in hiding,” he recalls, “because my boyfriend at that time did not want to come out. It suffocated me. Friends were suspecting I was gay, but I had never confirmed anything. Even my best friend didn’t know I was gay and was in a relationship for seven years!”

Today, Laoraowirodge is involved with a boyfriend of over two years, Ake, a bespectacled marketing consultant who hails from Chiang Mai. Having first met at a small private dinner hosted at a friend’s Chiang Mai hotel, Laoraowirodge admits that he stalked Ake via Facebook for some time before successfully locking down a date.

Supanniga Eating Room’s first Thonglor location opened in 2012, but the businesses’ name actually harkens back to his mother’s ten-year-old Supanniga Home (www.supannigahome.com). A boutique property occupying 16 acres just outside Khon Kaen’s city center, it features three contemporary villas and a garden-set restaurant, Krua Supanniga by Khunyai. Khun Yai is nickname of Laoraowirodge’s late grandmother, and the restaurant and businesses are in remembrance of her.

In 2013, Krua Supanniga had the honor of catering breakfast and dinner for Thailand’s Princess Sirinthorn while she was in Khon Kaen. Supanniga Home is also a co-founding member of Asia’s exclusive Secret Retreats (www.secret-retreats.com) collection of hotels, resorts, villas, experiences, and tables (Supanniga Cruise is also part of the group). Some are very under-the-radar and exotic, and far-flung across Southeast Asia.

“My favorite Secret Retreats property is Rachamankha Hotel in Chiang Mai,” Laoraowirodge says. “They’re a small property with about 26 rooms situated in the center of Chiang Mai’s old town. I love all the singular details in architecture, interior design, and style that the owner, Khun Rooj, has created. The architecture is mostly Lanna Thai with Chinese-inspired interior items, which are taken from his personal collection. The ambience is very calm and serene, homey but elegant, and the service is friendly. I always feel recharged after I stay at this beautiful hotel.”

Somtum Der NYC

Somtum Der NYC

Although Laoraowirodge spends most of his time traveling around his restaurants’ respective cities, he and Ake love to vacation in Burma, and he visits India once or twice a year. In fact, January 2017 saw Laoraowirodge pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya for a weeklong monkhood immersion, accompanied by siblings Oat and Um, replete with head and eyebrows shaving. Raised within a Buddhist family, he had previously undertaken a 16-day monkhood experience in 2010, and takes spirituality, and the liberation that comes from deep meditation seriously.

“Supanniga Home is also a meditation center where my parents host eight-day meditation events, four times a year, for people who would like to develop themselves and learn what Buddha has taught us to practice to be a better person to be happy in mind,” he elaborates. “I’m feeling that I know more about who I am and what I want to do, why I have to be positive and make myself and people around me feel good and happy. This is how I develop myself as a person to live in this world.”

Laoraowirodge documented some of his monkhood experience on his frequently updated Instagram, @eh_lifestyletraveller. The account is also riddled with photos of another source of enlightenment and joy: food. “Street food is actually my favorite,” he insists, “and I eat it almost every day. I especially love flat rice noodles with fish balls and fish cakes. There are a few Bangkok vendors I frequent around Soi Sathorn 10 and on Convent Road in Silom.”

Pressed for his favorite, comparatively formal venues, he volunteers a cozy Bangkok Japanese Izakaya called Daimasu, and Southern Thai restaurant Khua Kling & Pak Sod, which has branches in Bangkok’s Thonglor, Ari, and Asoke districts. As for Ho Chi Minh City, he notes that… “their food culture is quite similar to Thailand’s, and their street food is even more distinct. I enjoy every regional street food available there, but if I have to choose only one, I pick Oc Chi Em, a local seafood restaurant that serves a variety of Vietnamese snail dishes with Vietnamese French baguettes. For bars, I would recommend Xu Bar on Hai Ba Trung.”

And New York? “The East Village and Lower East Side are my favorite neighborhoods, and my favorite soba restaurant is called Sobaya in the East Village,” he says. “I love this bar called Amor y Amargo right on 5th Street, between Avenue A and 1st Avenue. It’s a very small, 15-seat bar. I think they serve the best Negroni in the world.”

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