Successfully Yours: Somsak Kavowthong

by Dr. Iain Corness

Mention the name Somsak and anyone who enjoys dining out will associate it with Somsak’s Restaurant on Soi 1, his venue for the past 15 years. Whilst Somsak may be settled now, the route to Soi 1 Pattaya has been very long, very tortuous and also very diverse.

Somsak was born in Bangkok in 1940, the eldest child in a family of three to a Thai farmer. The household was poor and Somsak went to the temple school until he was 14 years old. At that very young age he was sent to work as a goldsmith for his uncle. His wage was 60 baht a month. He also went to school to do another two years. He might have been working with gold, but his father certainly owned no golden goose.

When he was 18 years old he quit the goldsmithing business for the lure of big money as the controller of the long tail boats at Pratunam. He was placed in charge of 60 long tails and sold gasoline to the long tail drivers. Initially this was a goldmine, bringing home 4,000 baht a month, but with the opening of New Petchburi Road business crashed. After 3 years, Somsak found himself on the streets. Literally. He became a delivery boy for Pepsi-Cola for a monthly salary of 450 baht. At that time he also decided that, “One day I have to be boss, not just a worker.”

A turning point was to come in his life after just a few months of pushing Pepsi wheelbarrows - through the editor of the Bangkok World newspaper he met restaurateur Dolf Riks (now unfortunately deceased). It was Dolf who told Somsak, “Go to the kitchen.”

And to the kitchens he went, starting at the bottom in the kitchen of the Mariners Club in Klong Toey. He stayed there for three years, learning the basics, and then joined a shipping company to work in the galley. During three years at sea he visited the Philippines, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Arabia, the United States and Canada. The travel bug did not get him, but he brought back souvenirs in the form of ethnic recipes. In fact, Somsak was the first to bring the deep fried ice cream dessert to Thailand from America, many years ago.

Back on dry land he joined the kitchen of the famous Two Vikings Restaurant in Bangkok and worked under famed international chef Moogens Bay Esbensen. There he received training in the preparation and cooking of all the different courses. His salary? 300 baht a month! “I didn’t mind about that. What I wanted was learning.”

Following this time in Bangkok he returned to the sea, to make some money, but finally came back to help set up the kitchen in Pattaya’s first restaurant in Soi 5 called Charlie’s Hideaway. During all this time he had remained in touch with his mentor Dolf Riks, and when they found a suitable premises in Pattaya together they set up the first Dolf Riks Restaurant, with Somsak in the kitchen and Dolf at the front of the house. This partnership was to last 7 years, but Somsak still had that ambition to work on his own. “I like to work and kept on thinking that one day I would become my own boss.”

So Somsak became his own boss, but it was not the instant path to fame and riches. He called the restaurant “Cartier” but it was not the right time for a European food restaurant. It took 3 years before it went down, but Somsak said, “I lost everything - 1.5 million.”

He was back to being broke. “I had no money and I kept on thinking what I should do next. I retired for a year.” But during that year he formulated a plan on how his next restaurant should be.

Borrowing 500,000 baht from a friend he opened the new restaurant under his own name in Soi 4, specializing in Thai food plus some European items. This time it was the correct recipe and after 6 years he then moved to the current premises in Soi 1, where he has been for the past 15 years. “I have used my name for 21 years now,” he said, obviously with quite some pride.

In response to my question as to whether the restaurant business was a good career path for a young entrepreneur, Somsak was very definite. “Money is not enough,” he said. “Experience is what is important. You have to know what you are doing, too. You have to be able to cook yourself or otherwise you will have problems in the kitchen.” And isn’t that the voice of experience?

His ideas as to “success” have also changed over the years. “I used to say that to retire when I am 60 years old would be success, but I cannot (he is now 61 years old). I love to work, that is the problem. I love to see people laughing and talking. Sanuk is important. A happy life is worth more than money.”

He has no hobbies other than his work. “Every day I must see people. I love it. I don’t like to take holidays. This is my life. I don’t plan anything. If I can’t work then I’m finished.” Equally he has no regrets. “Loss is bad luck. Try again. Life is not for just sitting. You must learn. If I made a mistake before, then that is my teacher.”

That Somsak is a successful restaurateur is obvious. A year can be a long time in Pattaya, and many restaurants do not last that long. Somsak has been going 21 years, even though it did take him a while on the road to work on his recipe for success. That journey has made him quite the philosopher. “Life isn’t sweet like sugar.” That may be so, but at least Somsak is having fun living it!