“WHERE shall we go for dinner?” my friend asks, his voice excited, soon after we pass the Setia Alam toll plaza. “What do you suggest?” I retort in return, finding it difficult to concentrate after spending an entire day in Banting and Hulu Langat exploring ancient palaces and royal tombs.
Without taking his eyes off the road, my friend recommends that we find something to eat first before heading back to his place to rest rather than coming out later for a meal. “It’s Saturday evening and most popular restaurants around this area will be full by the time we come out again. I know of a restaurant nearby that serves authentic Thai food incorporating traditional ware.”
In less than 10 minutes, we arrive at the doorstep of Thai Syok Seafood Restaurant. Located right in the middle of Setia Alam’s bustling commercial centre, the restaurant takes up two ground floor units of shop lots. I’m duly informed that the place is filled to the brim during weekday lunch hours and weekend dinner sessions. It seems late comers have to dine alfresco style.
“Unless you already have reservations, it’s always safer to be here before 7pm to ensure there are seats available,” explains my friend as he effortlessly pushes the sliding doors apart.
The separating panels reveal an interior that’s stylishly decorated in tones of orange and gold framed in dark wood. There are lots of beautiful accents, including a wide assortment of Thai-inspired artefacts. The warm, soft lighting coupled with carefully placed Thai Buddha statues, lanterns and a plethora of wood carvings successfully conjure the right atmosphere for a sumptuous Thai meal.
We’re fortunate to get a table in a cosy corner and the knowledgeable waitress is a great help in recommending the popular dishes. Coupled with my friend’s previous dining experiences here, we settle on the orders in less than 15 minutes. A record for me as I usually have lots of queries when it comes to food associated with our northern neighbour.
Taking advantage of the lull before the main dining crowd make their presence, I decide to take temporary leave of my friend and head off to explore the physical aspects of Thai Syok. The many eye-catching items on display certainly warrant a closer look.
While admiring the fine details on an attractive Asian elephant oil painting, I bump into the restaurant’s owner Jeffred Tham. My intense interest in his place must have prompted him to walk over for a chat.
An affable young man with a more than obvious passion for the good things in life, Tham regales me about his early days before he started Thai Syok, peeling back the years to the day he graduated with a Diploma in Hospitality Management from Sunway University College.
“Even though it was in 2007, I remember everything as if they happened yesterday. My goal then was to be successful in life and I was willing to do anything to achieve it,” Tham confides, conviction in his voice.
That very year itself, through the recommendation of a close friend, Tham applied for a job with Wynn Macau Resort. To him, overseas exposure would be most ideal as that would enable him to gain ideas and experiences that would otherwise not be available if he had opted to remain here.
“I started off as a novice restaurant captain serving VVIP and high roller guests. It was an eye-opening experience for me as I began adapting to the fast-paced working environment there,” shares Tham, adding that within three months of joining he was promoted to the post of F&B trainer.
A year later, after mastering adequate service skills and conversational Cantonese, he once again climbed the corporate ladder to become the F&B training manager. “I’m particularly proud of that achievement as I got it in record time. The new portfolio came with more responsibilities such as planning and developing a fully equipped learning kitchen from scratch. I also helped to redesign the learning room, which could accommodate 1,300 trainees,” continues Tham, while admitting that starting from the bottom helped him perform better.
The new facilities worked wonders as Tham relates how his F&B team won numerous accolades in competitions organised by the Macao Occupational Skills Recognition System (MORS). Pointing to a trophy on display nearby, Tham says that he purposely brought the award back as a reminder of his success in the Chinese Special Administrative Region.
“Excuse me, sir. Your friend asks me to inform you that dinner is served,” a petite serving staff politely interjects from out of nowhere. I let out a quiet chuckle while glancing at my watch. My fascination with Tham’s determination and interesting work experience has made me lose track of time.
Walking me to my table, Tham manages to add: “A few months later, the management enrolled me in a programme that involved collaboration with the Macau Labour Department. My task was to develop an effective skills training programme for jobless Macanese.”
This was a very important responsibility as those who did well during training could qualify for a job at the resort. “Needless to say, that programme received overwhelming response and the government was very pleased with us,” says Tham, before excusing himself to check on the kitchen.
Over the next hour, my friend and I tuck into a superbly prepared Thai meal. It’s amazing what a few mouthfuls of delicious food can do. I feel energised immediately and my earlier exhaustion is now a distant memory.
The pandan chicken presentation is the most interesting among all. I like the way the chef uses the kuih bunga mould handle to string up the pieces of wrapped chicken, turning them into an attractive towering gastronomic delight. My other favourite is the tomyam kung which comes with a generous portion of fresh marine caught prawns. The spicy and sour broth makes this dish an appetising addition to our meal.
“How’s everything?” asks Tham, suddenly appearing just as I’m about to scoop the last bits of galangal and lemongrass onto my plate. He’s at first a little taken aback to see me enjoying these condiments which are rarely eaten on their own. I tell him that these tender bits are actually very tasty after simmering in the broth for some time.
Joining us over some fresh mango and sticky rice desserts, Tham resumes his story. “After six years in Macau, I finally decided it was time to come home to Malaysia. By that time, I was the restaurant manager of Cafe Encore, Wynn Macau Resort’s exclusive restaurant.”
Aware of a ready market for wholesome Thai food, Tham began planning to start one in the relatively new and fast growing township of Setia Alam, located in Shah Alam. With Petaling Jaya and Klang close by, Tham figured that he could tap into both mature markets without having to incur excessively high rent.
“After coming up with the brand name on March 28, 2013, I suddenly realised I had erroneously failed to take into consideration the most important component in my plan — a chef. I panicked as there was no way I could come up with a menu without someone helming the kitchen,” recalls Tham, chuckling.
That revelation sent Tham scrambling up north. He took the next available flight to Thailand and tried to find a good chef. He admits meeting quite a few but another obstacle presented itself in the form of communication. They didn’t understand English and Tham couldn’t speak their language!
SEARCH FOR A CHEF
The genial restaurateur eventually returned to Malaysia. Despite this major setback, he was resolute in the pursuit of his dream. He passed word around and several weeks later a friend called up saying that he knew of a chef who had been laid off by his Malaysian employers.
“I acted on the tip and made several phone calls to the man who was in Hatyai at that time. You cannot imagine my delight when he replied in fluent English and Malay. We had a good ad hoc interview there and then. The week after, I went up to meet him. The rest, as they say, is history,” says Tham, his smile wide.
Today, 52-year-old Chef Khon is an integral part of Thai Syok. His resume boasts of work experiences with renowned hotels as well as restaurants in Malaysia and Thailand. Chef Khon, who joins us from the sanctuary of his kitchen, greets me with a firm handshake after I asked to compliment his labour of love.
With the evening crowd coming in fast and furious, the chef briefly shares a few thoughts before returning back to his realm. He reflects on Thai Syok’s early days and the restaurant’s teething problems.
“During the first week of opening, we kept getting complaints about the food. The customers felt that my creations were either too spicy or sour. I was a bit disheartened and began to think hard. Then, it dawned upon me that the Malaysian palate was not suited for the original Thai cooking style. I discussed the matter with Tham and he agreed to tweak the recipes. The fine tuning worked wonders. It was a relief!”
While finishing the remainder of my drink, it becomes clear to me that it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Tham. Thai Syok’s success today as one of the most popular Thai restaurants in Setia Alam comes as a result of sheer determination and perseverance. Apart from a great meal, my friend and I leave the restaurant with a great lesson — never ever give up in life!
Thai Syok Seafood Restaurant
No. 7-1-2, Ground Floor, Jalan Setia Prima H U13/H, 40170 Setia Alam, Shah Alam, Selangor.
Tel: +603-3359 6283