The Long Journey towards Mix
When Mix Restaurant opened where my favourite watering hole the Drunken Flower used to be, I was not a happy camper. The charming rickety-creaky wooden house had been gutted, sexied up and turned into a dimly lit lounge bar. The cluttered and casual garden where I spent so many nights with friends was transformed into a sophisticated outdoor dining area. The humble Thai menu was replaced by a thick tome featuring hundreds of exotic and maddeningly enticing world cuisines. The drinks list offered pages of cocktails which read like a mad mixologist’s journal, replacing the ubiquitous Sangsom and beers of yore.
Reluctantly giving the new venue a chance, I had to admit that the drinks were pretty special, the setting rather cool and the many fusion dishes quite fascinating. I finally became a fan and today it’s one of my neighbourhood go-to destinations to meet friends for a few drinks and a nosh.
And so it was that nearly ten years after the opening of Mix Restaurant, I found myself sitting rather smugly in a sporty Mercedes next to Mix’s owner Narissorn ‘Jum’ Somswasdi, heading towards his hometown of Lampang. Having met socially many times over the past decade, and becoming more and more impressed with his Mix brand as well as his fine arts and wine collections, I decided that I wanted to learn more about him. While friendly, Jum has always been rather taciturn The only times he really talks about himself is when he shares stories of his family’s history or sends me food porn of his latest creations. So it wasn’t surprising that my request for an interview was met with a suggestion that we spend the day in Lampang visiting some of important landmarks of his family.
We left his home, waving goodbye to his infant son, young wife, mother and dog as I took one last lingering and envious look at the plethora of oil paintings which hang on just about every wall of his home. Soon we were merging onto the Superhighway, embarking on our journey as well as his story.
“Today we’ll visit my great grandfather’s home, which is now a cultural centre and then my family temple,” explained Jum. “I am a restauranteur now, but for a many years I was a historian, so my heritage is very important to me.”
As we drove south through the haze and past smouldering fires, Jum told me that his great grandfather was a successful Burmese trader in Lampang in the late 19th century who applied for, and received concession to trade teak from Louis T. Leonowens, the son of Anna from the King and I fame.
“Then when the Siam Commercial Bank first came to Lampang, they asked my grandfather, Mong Yee, to be a loan guarantor, as there was no system set for loans in those days and he was a respected businessman. As loans defaulted, many taken out by the Lampang royal family, he became even richer and soon owned the largest market in Lampang, Boribun Market, as well as tens of thousands of rai of land across the province. He also had nine children, and the family were prolific breeders, so while vast, the inheritance was spread rather thin, as I have about 60 cousins!” Jum grinned.
“My family is mainly an academic one, with many of my grandparents’ generation early graduates of Chulalongkorn University and my aunts and uncles lecturers. And that was why it was very humiliating for me growing up a bad student,” explained Jum as we started ascending the dry and barren mountains between the two provinces.
“My grades when I was at Prince Royal College were terrible,” Jum said with a grimace, “After a very indulgent early childhood in Bangkok with my grandfather, I grew up living in rural Doi Saket with my mother and her boyfriend where we caught fish, ran around with chickens and played in nature. One day when I was six I went into the kitchen and made my first fried egg which was such a success that I was making omelettes by the time I was seven, spending more and more time in the kitchen experimenting. My grandfather encouraged me to cook and he would take me to Bangkok and Hong Kong’s best restaurants during the holidays, so I grew to love food from a young age. School, however, was never that important to me, and it showed. So it was a complete surprise when I got into the History Department of Chiang Mai University. I didn’t even think I would graduate university, to be honest, as my first year’s grades were an embarrassing 1.6 but I fell in love with a very good student and didn’t want to be an embarrassment to her, so I took tutorials and worked hard, surprising myself by graduating with a 3.8 average.”
“After graduation I began to play with the stock market and managed to have all my savings wiped out following the ’97 crash,” he said as we entered Lampang city limits. “I sunk into a huge depression. My expensive car sat idle because I couldn’t afford petrol and I had to cycle everywhere. I had no idea what to do in life so I invested in a nightclub in 12 Huay Kaew with some friends and that was the first time I designed a venue. It was a huge hit until the police raids became a problem and it soon closed down so I decided to go back to university to get a master’s degree in history. I even considered ordaining at one point, but fortunately my grandfather encouraged me to learn cooking so I apprenticed at a Japanese restaurant for a few months and found myself loving it. This was pre YouTube era and the chef was quite guarded about sharing his knowledge so I had to watch, dissect, experiment and analyse dishes to recreate them. This was my first real experience in a professional kitchen and I loved it. But as pressure mounted to find a career a school friend invited me to apply to the newly opened Carrefour hypermarket where I spent two horrific months, sometimes working up to 20 hours a day. One day I looked at my old school friend who used to be smiley and fun and saw her face scrunched in misery as she made staff cry daily and I quit on the spot. I didn’t want that corporate life and vowed that if I had staff I would never treat them that badly.”
Once again Jum found himself careerless, so when his mother’s friend asked him to help her manage a new restaurant on Nimmanhaemin Road called Sao Baht where all dishes cost 20 baht, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Within a few months we were making 600,000 baht a month, and that is when she decided to get rid of me and my salary,” he laughed as we pulled into Kham Saen, an old favourite of Jum’s, where we dug into a couple of bowls of delicious traditional beef khao soy. “Sadly Sao Baht soon went under, but at this point I was beginning to see a glimmer of a future so I invested in Blue Corner, a restaurant opposite the uni’s gate which took off immediately because it served up food previously only found in hotels at prices as low as 35 or 40 baht. I decorated the restaurant, designed the menu with the chef and for the first time did something that was truly my own. At the same time I thought it might be fun to be a lecturer at Payap University and I applied, surprising everyone when I was accepted. I committed to one term to teach history. Can you believe it, I finally quit a couple of years ago after ten years as a lecturer!”
“I had a story to tell, and I found it important to impart my message to students. The can-do mentality, the importance of finding a passion, of trying, failing and working hard, these are things that I think made me a good lecturer, I don’t know,” he laughed modestly as we pulled into old Lampang, rickety wooden houses effusing charm and nostalgia. A short walk took us to the well preserved home of Jum’s ancestor Mong Yee and we wandered its halls, Jum throwing out names and dates like a tour guide to match various sepia-faced ancestors framed on walls.
We hopped back into his car and spent the next hour wandering in and out of temples and historical sights, Jum pointing with pride to various plaques dedicated to his ancestors and land owned and lost over the years by members of his family as their fortunes ebbed and flowed.
“With the opening of the market in front of the university, Blue Corner’s clients couldn’t find parking space and that was when I remembered that my family was the landlord of the Drunken Flower whose owner had recently told us that he intended to move. So, decision made, I closed down Blue Corner and after finishing work at the university for the day, I’d grab a sketch pad and climb over the fence to sit in the garden of what is now Mix, designing my dream restaurant. My supportive grandfather gave me some seed money for renovations and two million baht — and every single credit card maxed out — later, Mix was born.”
Before launching into the story of Mix, we made one last stop at Wat Sri Chum, Jum’s ancestral temple towards which Mong Yee donated a massive 200,000 baht for its renovations and expansion, a sum which would be in today’s currency in the tens of millions of baht. Jum sighed as we wandered past kitsch and tacky statues and a scaffolded viharn being repaired following a devastating fire. We eventually found Mong Yee’s headstone and paid our respects. Sweat pouring down our backs, we decided to call it a day and headed back into the air-conditioned coolness of his car for our return trip.
“I think the name Mix is just about right,” smiled Jum, “I wanted to serve quality, but also experimental, cuisine. I loved designing the restaurant, the menu, our dishes and cocktails. It also reflects my journey which brought me here. It took a long time for Mix to really take off, but over the decade we have had multiple franchises of Mix as far afield as Bangkok, Laos and Myanmar. I feel that I have finally found myself and my passion and it all started with that pride I felt in that first fried egg when I was six years old!”
Mix Restaurant has been selected Thailand Tatler’s Best Restaurant in Thailand for over five years running and today has expanded to include a private dining room and art gallery, as well as a wine bar. Jum’s love of history has been transferred to the study of his family’s past. He has also developed a great appreciation for the arts over the years, supporting many local artists, by purchasing dozens of paintings worth millions of baht. Every day he is in his kitchen creating, tasting and designing and he also has shares in numerous restaurants in Bangkok.
“I met my wife when she came to work at Mix as an intern,” said Jum smiling as we turned off the highway towards his home. “She has developed a great love of baking and at first it was all just for fun, but following this year’s NAP Fair when she sold out all her baked goods, we decided to make another business out of it. So in the next few months we will be opening a bakery on soi 3 Nimman called Saruda.
We pulled into his driveway and I reluctantly got out of his sleek vehicle and into my little Jazz.
A few days later I found myself at Mix having dinner with some friends when Jum came up to show me pictures of some new dishes he had been working on, each so prettily presented they could almost be framed and mounted next to his oils.
“The most extraordinary thing has happened,” he told me excitedly. “I got contacted by someone in the US who is bringing ten people to Chiang Mai next month for ten days. They have given me a budget of 450,000 baht to create three meals a day for the duration of their stay, with no dish being repeated once. Isn’t this exciting?” he said as he rushed back into the kitchen.
Just as I am going to press, I walked over to Mix to fact check some dates for this article and met a beaming Jum who said that he had completed the design of his special menu and through the process created many new dishes to add to his menu, which already contains hundreds of dishes.
It has been a mixed and messy journey, but it seems as though Jum has found his groove.