At the tail end of the 1970s, I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. From an early age I lost myself in issues of National Geographic, and travel became a passion long before it was a real possibility. I learned to hunt and fly fish, and how to clean and cook what I took from the streams and forests of Pennsylvania. But I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the world.
In my third year of college, I figured out how to do that, and headed to Beijing to continue my study of Mandarin and East Asian history. During that time, I traveled extensively in China’s Southwest, riding the rails to China’s far western reaches. I rambled to Xinjiang, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet. I ate goat head soup in the Gobi Desert, and drank Yak butter tea with monks in Tibet. My ideas about food and culture were deeply affected by my experiences in East Asia, and after graduating from Colgate University, I quickly moved back to China to travel, and to write.
In 2003, I got my first regular gig as a restaurant critic at an English language weekly in Shanghai. After several years covering China’s exploding restaurant scene, I became a freelance writer focusing on food cultures in China and Southeast Asia. My international food writing career began at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. My work has appeared in The Atlantic, Lucky Peach, The Art of Eating, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure and various magazines and newspapers across Asia. My last gig in China was collaborating on National Geographic’s China issue, where I wrote about the evils of shark’s fin soup, and the Great Wall of China. I also collaborated on two books about Chinese cooking, New Beijing and New Shanghainese Cuisine with celebrated Chinese chef Jereme Leung.
China really started to bum me out around the time of the Beijing Olympics, and in 2008, I moved to Thailand, in the midst of a coup, which I wrote about for The Atlantic. My family arrived during the siege of Bangkok’s airport, and I quickly filed a story about the country’s decaying political situationafter figuring out how to get our labrador out of the airport. I later became The Atlantic’s Southeast Asia correspondent, writing pieces where food, current events, and politics intersect.
I ate across Taiwan with Wu’er Kaixi, the Tien’anmen square leader in exile, and wandered through Bombay after the 2008 attacks there, sharing curries with soldiers, and explained Thailand’s violent political chaos through the prism of sour sausages. I cooked and ate with my wife's grandmother and her sister, separated since 1949, when one got on a boat to Taiwan, and the other didn’t.
I continued to work for that magazine, crisscrossing Southeast Asia to eat and cook, as a new narrative began to take shape: that of opening a restaurant in Bangkok. Freelance journalism no longer seemed like a viable career, as magazines struggled to monetize their online content, and pay their writers (still, alas, a problem). And so for over a year, I set out on a quest to find the best recipes across the country. To write about it, and then open a restaurant based on my experiences there.
In 2010, I opened my first restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, in Bangkok. The restaurant was received with much acclaim, and has been featured by the BBC, New York Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It was a hit. We were also featured in the Michelin Guide, where we won a Bib Gourmand.
After many years working with Thai food, though, I got itchy feet. I wanted to explore again.
In 2012 my friend and frequent collaborator Paolo Vitaletti moved back to Thailand, and we quicky laid plans to open an Italian restaurant. We headed to Rome to eat, and later opened Appia, which takes its name from the ancient highway built from the center of Ancient Rome, down to Apulia. Appia was a success, with a focus on straightforward, Roman food using the best products, carefully sourced from across Italy. After only a few months it was voted Bangkok’s best Italian restaurant, by Restaurant Magazine. A year after, Monocle named it one of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
Shortly thereafter, I went on to open a third branch of my Thai restaurant in Hong Kong, with Black Sheep Restaurant group, in 2017. I love Hong Kong very much, and it was a dream for me to be able to live and work there for awhile, with a talented cast of characters. I also opened a fast casual noodle and sandwich concept, Soul Food 555, in Bangkok in 2017, along with Peppina, a Neapolitan pizza restaurant in Bangkok, which is helmed by my friend Paolo (I remain a partner there, but Peppina is really the fruit of Paolo’s labor. I did the drinks, and happily sampled countless wood-fired pizzas.)
After several frenetic years opening restaurants, which likely shaved years off my life, I took some time to write my own cookbook, The Roads to Rome, which was published by Penguin Random House in the Spring of 2020. Francis Lam was my editor, and my dear friend Jason Lang shot the photos, while the recipes were written by Paolo. The Roads to Rome is a richly textured glimpse into the food traditions of Rome and the surrounding countryside, and I’m proud to say it was a finalist for Best Work of Historical and Literary Food Writing at the prestigious IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Awards this year. It was also a hell of a lot of fun to make.
Clumsily juggling so many restaurants during the Covid-19 crisis, in hard-hit Thailand, burned me out. I couldn’t keep my baby, Soul Food, alive in a country with some of the tightest restrictions on dining and drinking worldwide. I was depressed, and angry. That restaurant was kind of iconic, and it saddened me deeply to see it and so many other great places simply sputter and die under the erratic government restrictions in Thailand. It was the most difficult professional time in my life, and I’m still sort of reckoning with it. But it did allow my wife and I to make a very difficult decision to leave it all behind.
In August, 2021 we set out on a four-month road trip across the US. We lived out of an old Subaru, slept under the stars, and slowly untied the tangle of our losses in Bangkok, while warming to the prospect of a starting anew in a place that seemed foreign to us, after two decades away.
I now reside with my wife Candice, our son August, and our Thai pug Ernesto, in Bozeman, Montana. Ernesto is still learning how to pee in the snow. I am looking for things to do, in between taking long hikes, fishing for trout, and teaching my son to ski.
UPDATE: Recently, we opened our first restaurant in the US, here, in Bozeman. It's called Shan -- and serves food from Thailand's North and Northeast, with a smattering of Chinese things, mostly from Sichuan. But really, it's a restaurant that serves comforting food from here -- local meats, vegetables in our short season -- with the sensibilities I learned during my time in Asia. Come visit!