Soo attributes his success to fresh ingredients, long hours, and a wicked sense of humor. We had the opportunity to speak with Soo about Talay Thai, family, and food. This is part one of a two-part interview.
Clean Plate Charlie: Charlie, I understand you used to be an investment banker -- wha?
Chef Charlie Soo: I was in mortgage-backed securities. I got out long before all the mess. My father was an engineer, and he said don't go into engineering. There's no money in engineering. Learn how money moves because once you learn that, you can take that knowledge anywhere.
How did you wind up in the restaurant industry?
The transition into the biz was easy for me. I grew up Thai and what Thai people do is run restaurants. My father also told me don't go into the restaurant industry. And now my father is with me at the restaurant. He's 75 and I own the place, but I guess you could call him my boss. He tells me what I'm doing wrong. I'm living the dream, working with my dad.
So, Talay Thai is a family affair?
My dad works here. My mom also works at Talay Thai. She's the gatekeeper. You can't get past her when it's busy -- it doesn't matter who you are. Right now, I'm doing the best thing I can do -- spend time with my family. My wife is an attorney, but she also works with me now. So I work 100 hours a week with my family.
How do you like the restaurant industry compared to investment banking?
The restaurant industry is one of the worst things that happened to me because there's no such thing as a weekend or a holiday. Take Christmas, for example. This is a Jewish neighborhood, so everyone is here. It's jammed. Seriously, this business is much better than banking, though, because when I was in banking, I looked like a toad. I was 40 pounds heavier because I was sitting at a computer for 14 hours a day. Never again.
What is your food training and background?
I went into the restaurant business as a silent partner in 2001. A bad partner is worse than a bad wife. I decided that there's no way to run a restaurant without knowing everything about it. My aunt has a restaurant in Atlanta, so I went there to learn from her. It helps to have the godmother of Thai cooking in your family. I moved back down here and worked for Legal Seafood, which was great to learn the corporate side of the business.
Talay Thai has won numerous awards and is probably one of the few restaurants I've seen where bloggers are extremely kind. What's your secret?
It was a confluence of many things, but it's mostly my staff. They make me look great. With any new business, the first year, you're terrified. Even though we have good food, is it enough? In 24 years, there were 17 different restaurants in this very spot where we're at. We're number 18 and hopefully the last.
Is it enough for a restaurant to have good food these days?
No. You have to have good service. You have to have something the people want. Thai food is a niche. It's one of those rare foods that has dozens of ingredients, so you want a Thai chef in that kitchen all the time. You have to grow up with Thai ingredients, you have to grow up with Thai food to be a good Thai chef.
Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Chef Charlie Soo, coming soon.