Nancy Edmonds Hanson
It’s a family restaurant, start to finish. Mom’s recipes are on the menu. Dad’s business savvy runs it from day to day. One sister keeps an eye on pleasing customers, while the other rules the kitchen.
Except “home,” for the Osathanukroh family that operates the Thai Orchid restaurant in downtown Moorhead, is 8,000 miles away. So is the inspiration for the small restaurant in the Center Mall – from the fresh herbs and spices of Bangkok street-food favorites to the noodles, stir fries and curries that have made it a favorite among locals looking for the sweet spot between exotic tastes and comfort food.
The Osathanukroh family – daughters Anne and Name and parents Addy and Pasorn – is celebrating its fifth anniversary at the Thai Orchid this month. Like many a Minnesota restaurant family, they’ve come to recognize their customers and know their favorites by heart. But how they chose Minnesota as their home is a story uniquely their own.
“My husband was born in Fargo while his parents were studying at North Dakota State University,” says Anne, who’s something of a spokesman for the warm and welcoming group. Though Saranyu Viriyavejakul was still too young to make memories when they returned to Thailand, his dual U.S.-Thai citizenship was a powerful force in his life.
Twenty years later he crossed the Pacific with scholarships in hand. He would spend the next five years completing doctorates – five in all – at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Stanford University and UCLA. An officer in the Royal Thai Army, he and his family spent three years in the nation’s embassy in Washington, D.C., as a military attache for the U.S. and Canada.
Anne got her first glimpse of Fargo-Moorhead shortly after the couple was married in 2004. “I came here to visit my close friend Farah. She and her husband opened the original Thai Orchid,” she reminisces. “She was a very good friend – in fact, she was the matchmaker who brought me and my husband together.” The visit was brief, but it planted the seed of an idea.
Ten years later, as her husband’s assignment in Washington was drawing to an end, they learned the restaurant in Moorhead was for sale. While Saranyu – now a brigadier general – returned to wide-ranging army assignments on the other side of the globe, Anne and their two young daughters, along with Grandma, Grandpa and Name, moved here in 2014 and took over the restaurant.
Today, Anne and her husband maintain perhaps the longest long-distance marriage on Earth, with him visiting each year and her spending three out of every 12 months in Bangkok. “He and our daughters are dual citizens of the U.S. and Thailand,” she explains. “We decided we wanted our kids to grow up here and have the advantages of an American upbringing and the American educational system.” Their older daughter, Honor, entered Moorhead High this week, while 7-year-old Country began 4th grade.
Meanwhile, her parents brought long, hands-on experience with large, successful restaurants in Bangkok. “They had managed three branches of Chan Yong for 10 years,” she says, describing a trio of 200-table eateries each serving the cuisines of Thailand, its northeastern E-san district, Japan and China.
When the Osa family (Anne uses the shortened, more easily pronounced version of the family name) took over Thai Orchid, mother Pakorn set out to reinvent its menu from top to bottom. She not only has a nutrition degree from a top Thai university; she also learned to cook in the kitchen of her grandmother, a renowned chef whose cooking was famous in her home country. She developed the elements they continue to make from scratch, including six dipping sauces, six curries and six fry sauces.
Meanwhile father Addy applied his expertise in accounting and experience in their own restaurants to their new business in Moorhead. Anne, whose two doctorates include one in business from the University of South Australia, laughs when she talks about how his practical experience overruled her ideas. “I’m very strong in my ideas. But after four years of managing the Thai Orchid, I realize I am so lucky to have my dad here. Experience is much greater than a degree. He knows everything!”
Anne and her sister Name (pronounced just like it looks) are extremely close. Name has accompanied her and helped with the children, who she says are as close as if they were her own. Today Name, who has a master’s degree in hotel management from Stratford University in Virginia, rules the kitchen. “Our mother has passed on her recipes to Name. She passed them right over me,” Anne reports. Rather than cuisine, she says, her own strengths lie in marketing and communication.
The family plans to debut a new menu in mid-September. “When I am in Thailand, I get a lot of ideas,” Anne says. Many are taste-tested by customers as monthly specials. The most popular dishes will show up on the new bill of fare. It has not been as easy as compiling her favorites from home, she explains, both because they must suit Moorhead tastes, but also because some of the fresh herbs and vegetables are only available in certain seasons.
“We want everything to be as fresh as possible. Every dish is cooked separately exactly to the customer’s order,” she explains.
Name adds, “We put exactly what you want in your order. If you want gluten-free or vegan, that is how we prepare it. Pad Thai has egg, but if you are vegan – no egg! If you don’t like carrots – no carrots! We want people to get what they want, just like if they were at their home.”
Anne confides the past summer of construction on Center Avenue was “bad, very bad.” While she returned to her homeland, as she does each year, the rest of the family actually closed its doors for a week. They were carried through in part by their catering, as well as an arrangement with Microsoft in Fargo, where they serve a hot, fresh lunch every Tuesday.
As they look toward their next five years, Anne says other ideas are in the works. Among them: an American-style coffee bar with comfy seating and wifi, and cooking lessons, perhaps starting with carving fruit flowers. She is also in the middle of building a bed and breakfast back in Bangkok and offering small group tours she’d guide herself on her annual sojourns to her home country. In the meantime, though, she and her chef sister are focused on introducing the new menu and satisfying their customers’ very personal dining needs and preferences.
“Thai families are very close,” she says. “We are fortunate to be able to work together, and that our parents are so close to their grandchildren.” After five years, that family circle extends to their customers as well. “Our very first customer still comes here,” she points out. “Our children play together. It is like having friends in our home.”
Family cooking – Thai Style
Nancy Edmonds Hanson