Talks in Thailand: The burger chef

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

That little burger stand in Chiang Mai, Thailand is Ms. A’s baby. She’s there every day from early afternoon until late at night cooking, taking orders and chatting with her regular customers.

She’s not the only one who works there. A young man and woman, a couple, also work at the burger stand. But it’s her baby.

I asked her if she has any hobbies during the few hours a day she’s not at the stand. She said she makes sandwiches. So when she’s not cooking at work, she’s cooking at home.

She makes those little sandwiches you see in the glass display at coffee shops. This lady exists to feed people.

I started the interview by asking how she got started cooking burgers. I wanted to know because all of her food tastes exactly like home. She served a variety of American meals like steak, burgers, salads, and mashed potatoes.

The mashed potatoes stood out to me. It’s rare to even see potatoes in Asia, but this little burger stand in Chiang Mai served the softest, graviest potatoes I’ve ever had. Anywhere.

After living overseas for a while, you start to crave foods you never even knew you liked. That was potatoes for me. I thought I was sick of them after having potatoes at every dinner while growing up. But a year and a half into my time in Asia, I savored those mashed potatoes like they were ice cream.

The point is that I thought she had lived in America for a while, but that wasn’t the case. She got her start by working in a Western food chain called Mai Burger.

“I always loved foreign food,” she said.

When the Thai economy took a dive, a lot of people lost their jobs. Ms. A was one of them.

“We didn’t know what we could do to get money,” she said. She’s married and has six children.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

She struggled to find another job. However, she couldn’t take her mind off this one street food vendor.  Amid all the rice and noodle vendors, this one food stall sold Western style chicken and beef dishes for very cheap.

You can’t walk five minutes in Chiang Mai without passing a food stall. Most of them sell simple Thai food like rice and noodles. It’s rare to sell Western dishes from a food stall.

“I talked about it with my husband,” she told me.”We looked at the streets here and saw they had no burger shop. No steak shop.”

She knew she there was a market and she knew she could make good food, but it was still a risk to open a shop without much savings. “First we thought about if we’d get customers or not because people didn’t know about us. They know McDonald’s. They know KFC.”

She continued, “When we opened, we tried to catch some customers from the university. Some not so rich people.”

Most street vendors sell dishes for about 40 to 50 baht, which is a little over a dollar. A typical McDonald’s meal in Thailand is about 150 baht. She managed to make burgers at her stall that taste better than McDonalds and only cost 50 baht.

“Was it okay at the start?” I asked.

“No!” she said. “For the first day, I could sell only 375 baht.” 375 baht is about 10 bucks.

But they kept at it. Eventually other street vendors opened shop around them, which helped draw more customers. They also got a feature in a local English magazine after one of their writers ate at Ms. A’s burger shop and loved it.

They didn’t have a name for the shop when writer came. At the time, they were still a grill on wheels with a menu written on a whiteboard. They had to make up a name for the article feature, so they went with “Mark’s Burgers.”

I asked, “Who’s Mark?”

“There is no Mark,” she said. “Just a good name.”

Business got better. At one point, I asked what she does when there are no customers, but she laughed and said, “Always have customers.”

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

Our conversation was a lot of fun, as it was every time I talked to Ms. A. She was friendly and had a good, honest laugh. But when I asked a question I thought would make her proud, it took a turn.

“How long have you owned this shop?” I asked.

Her shoulders sank and I could sense that my question brought up something awkward. With a sheepish laugh, she said, “Now, I’m not the owner. I gave it to her, she’s the owner now.” She pointed at the younger girl who works there.

Ms. A explained that her children had medical problems over a long period of time. As soon as one got healthy again, another would get sick. At first, she tried to borrow money, but the interest rates were killing her business. She had to sell the shop

The younger girl’s father is a business owner. He bought Ms. A’s burger shop and gave it to his daughter. Ms. A still runs the kitchen with a smile and teaches the younger girl how to manage the shop. She never hinted that it upset her to answer to a new owner, but I wouldn’t blame her if it did. She built that shop out of nothing.

Ms. A went on to explain the medical problems her kids had. She told me that Thailand has national health care and public hospitals, but it’s limited.

When her kids got sick, she first took them to the public hospital. If they didn’t get better, she had to transfer them to one of the private hospitals that can offer better care but costs significantly more.

She also told me that while people are happy with the national health care–without it, Thailand’s poor wouldn’t have any medical care at all–it does have significant problems.

The public hospitals are limited on the types of medicine they can prescribe. They often give a plethora of pills whose combined effects achieve what one better, more expensive pill could do from a private hospital.

Taking so many pills causes wear and tear on the body. She told me that this results in widespread kidney failure among Thailand’s lower class.

Trying to find common ground, I told her about some of the issues in our own mess of an American medical system. I shared the story of one of my students in Los Angeles who had a seizure during class. We called an ambulance and got her to the hospital. They got her feeling better again until they handed her the massive bill which included $2,000 for the ambulance trip alone.

We went on for fifteen minutes talking about hospitals and medicine and insurance until we remembered we met to talk about burgers. That’s how it was with Ms. A. She made you feel comfortable enough to just ramble on.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

“What are your plans for the future?” I asked.

“If I can clear my money problems…” she thought for a moment.

She told me about an idea for a baby food service. Customers could place orders online and she would make the food with fresh, local ingredients which are clearly marked for parents to see. She said she’s not sure if she can do it, but that’s her dream.

“I think that’s a great idea,” I told her. “So you just love food business, huh?”

“Yes, because I like to eat,” she laughed.

There’s a lot of things I miss about Thailand, but more than anything I miss the warmth of its people.


Pictures: Masha Kudrina
Words: Michael Smit

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