There is nothing quite as rewarding when you can fuse a career and hobby together that defines your purpose and who you are as an individual.
For Pai Pongsupaht, he is just straddles away from finding that satisfaction. By summer 2010, Pongsupaht will launch his very own “Pai” food truck—serving Thai-born and Hawaiian-raised cuisine in convenient plate lunches with the quintessentials of rice, vegetables and an entrée. While most start a business to find monetary value, Pongsupaht is searching for something beyond the tangibles. The food truck is a representation of his cultural background. The food truck tells the story of Pongsupaht’s passion for youth empowerment, social justice and above all—a love for the community and its people.
After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in American Ethnic Studies, Pongsupaht began his journey in the non-profit sector. His experiences in the public service arena grew after being a volunteer in various organizations and eventually as a contractor for the City of Seattle. However, Pongsupaht’s deep commitment for youth and social justice always led him back to The Service Board (TSB). A nonprofit organization based in Seattle’s White Center, TSB uses a social justice framework to instill the area’s most culturally diverse population of high school aged youth to build a strong sense of community through snowboarding and public service.
After seven years as a volunteer mentor for the youth at The Service Board, he became a staff member with a dedication to build a stronger community.
Pongsupaht always loved food. He credits his mother for being adventurist with food and always providing good meals on the table no matter where they were socioeconomically. He saw his passion for food and also the possibility of using food to teach the youth the importance of sharing and breaking bread. His vision was met when his proposal for the Food and Nutrition program was approved.
“The birth of the Food and Nutrition program was in 2005 when I proposed it to the Board of Directors of TSB,” says Pongsupaht.
The program’s initial budget was limited. But, Pongsupaht never gave up his vision of using food to create a sense of family, community and dialogue at the table. He became the chef that fueled the youth at TSB to celebrate delicious meals together with flavors that reflect their culturally diverse backgrounds.
“Food is a really good outlet for young people,” says Pongsupaht. “It’s instantaneous gratification where you see the fruit of your work. And, it’s that notion of selflessness and sharing.”
Pongsupaht eventually left his position. Years working in non-profit, he decided to work for the City of Seattle as a contractor.
However, his love for TSB and food never died. After two years working for the City of Seattle and later being laid off when the economy hit a huge slump, Pongsupaht didn’t want to join the anxiety filled life of job-seekers.
“Maybe it was time to pursue a dream,” says Pongsupaht. “I talked to my mom and she has a successful business as a fruit exporter in Thailand for nearly a decade. She said she was going to support me.”
Pongsupaht felt ready. With the financial backing and support from his mother, Pongsupaht was confident in pursuing the dream: he purchased a food truck—a 1979 Ford Step Van.
“I don’t want my food truck just to make money,” says Pongsupaht, “I want to see positive changes out of food—whether its people smiling and buying my food or that I’m ingraining a consciousness about something they eat.”
With a food truck, Pongsupaht can maintain a catering aspect for his business while having the luxury to have mobility.
“I want to create street culture,” says Pongsupaht. “Food trucks are up and coming in Seattle. I don’t want to be situated. I can go to parties and it’s just fun.”
Having no professional culinary experiences, Pongsupaht’s food truck is all about genuine love and passion.
“I did not go to culinary school,” says Pongsupaht. “But part of being a chef is I know I will continue to make mistakes and I will grow from it. It’s about my clients. It’s about the community and what they want.”
And because it’s also about genuineness, Pongsupaht’s food truck will essentially deliver Thai-born Hawaii raised style plate lunches.
“I don’t want to deliver something that’s not me. I want to be true to my clients,” says Pongsupaht. “It’s a combination of everything I grew up with. At home, I ate Thai food. With my friends in Hawaii, I ate local food.”
The plate lunch concept fits perfect. Remaining true to Pongsupaht’s street culture love and his Hawaiian roots, a plate lunch is simple but still able to provide a hearty and healthy lunch formula. For Pongsupaht’s food truck: an option of a chicken, beef, pork or tofu entrée with two scoops of rice and variety of sides to choose from.
“Plate lunch is just whatever I feel like cooking for you. It’s offering with variety,” says Pongsupaht. “That’s exactly what you need for lunch—enough to sustain you before dinner.”
If the concept of plate lunches with Thai and Hawaiian flavors and ingredients is still a blur, think grill chicken marinated with flavors like ginger, coriander, and cilantro.
“I’m the only few people I know that are Thai-Hawaiian. My food will be fairly unique,” says, Pongsupaht. “It’s the way how my mom use to make meat and grilled in our backyard.”
At its core, Pongsupaht wants his food low-budget and affordable using fresh ingredients that resonates back to the simplicity of comfort food made by your aunties. Most importantly, he hopes to build a community oriented business mindset using food as a way of giving back, sharing and conveying a positive message to have people make conscious decisions of what they eat.
“I don’t claim my food to be the healthiest,” says Pongsupaht. “But I know it is to be fresh and I am very conscious of my ingredients put together with love. It’s a catalyst to help people stay away from processed food and recognize what you eat.”
By summer 2010, Pongsupaht will launch his food truck on Seattle’s Ninth Avenue and Cherry Street. Hoping to attract the hospital crowd to start off his business, Pongsupaht welcomes anyone to visit his website at www.paisfood.com for future locations and to keep him in mind for your next possible catering, party and fundraising needs.
It’s about food. It’s about cooking. It’s about being Thai-born. It’s about being raised in Hawaii. It’s about using food to promote social justice. It’s about remembering The Service Board who gave him so much love that portions of his proceeds will be donated to the organization. It’s everything that encompasses “Pai’s Food Truck.”