Oriental Connections

Ms. Nattanee Booncharoen started Orchid two years ago

Solomon Elusoji writes about a Thai restaurant in Lagos that delivers excellence
On Tuesday evening, tens of people gathered at the newly opened Orchid House Restaurant in Victoria Island, Lagos, to witness a remarkable celebration of Thai cuisine. Orchid was being awarded the ‘Thai Select Premium’ certificate, a piece of paper that cements the restaurant’s position as one of the only few restaurants in the world where authentic Thai cuisine is served.

Since the 1960s, Thai cuisine, renowned for its incredible combination of tastes, has become a global sensation, driving demand across continents. According to some estimates, there are approximately some 15,000 Thai restaurants around the world. However, due to the cuisine’s surging popularity, many restaurateurs try to attract customers by naming their business ‘Thai restaurant’, despite the fact that many of them do not even have Thai food on their menus.

Recognising this situation and the importance of maintaining high standard and quality of Thai food, the Royal Thai Government launched the “Thai Select” programme, with the aim of certifying and promoting restaurants who serve authentic Thai cuisines across the world. So, when eating out, Thai food lovers only need to look out for the ‘Thai Select’ stamp of approval to confirm they are getting authentic Thai service.

On Tuesday evening, Orchid, situated on Gafaru Animashaun Street in Victoria Island, became one of very few restaurants across the world to receive the Thai Select Premium certification. In attendance was the Thailand’s Ambassador to Nigeria, Wattana Kunwongse.

“I feel that this is the home of our people,” Kunwongse told THISDAY during a tour of the restaurant. “I don’t feel alienated. I am, right now, standing in another country while still in Nigeria. I feel that I am home. It’s a very beautiful setting. My colleagues came here last year and had a taste, and they confirmed that this is authentic Thai.”

Orchid’s history is a very peculiar one. Its founder, Nattanee Booncharoen – popularly referred to as ‘Tukie’ – went into the restaurant business after watching Nigeria’s foreign exchange crisis hit her import and export business severely. Tukie, a Thai who has been in Nigeria for more than 20 years, is a small woman with piercing eyes and graceful demeanour. “Nigeria is like my country already,” she told THISDAY. “I have lived here for so long, more than 20 years. So when the foreign exchange crisis affected my import-export business two years ago, I started to think of what to do and I thought of starting a restaurant.”

The first branch was opened in Apapa and things were excellent for the first year until the port city’s traffic gridlock caught up with Tukie’s bottom-line and she decided to move closer to her customers on the Island by opening another branch.

“The Apapa business is really affected because of the traffic,” she said. “I live in Apapa and our first year was very good. But in the second year, we started to notice a decline because of the traffic. The situation just gets worse and worse. Then I thought of bringing the business closer to where our customers are. So many people on the island love Thai food.”

The ‘Thai Select Premium’ certification comes barely four months after opening the second restaurant.
“This award shows if you want to eat authentic Thai food, you can come here,” Tukie said, a gleam in her eyes. “And, also, look at the decoration and arrangement of this place. If you come in here, you feel like you are in Thailand. So apart from the food, you also learn something about Thai culture. Our goal is to bring Thai here.”

However, Tukie remains circumspect about her expansion plans. “For these two branches, I feel my hand is too full already,” she said. “I don’t want to cheat my customer and start giving them less quality, in terms of meals and customer service. I worry about that. So when I train enough people, then I can open a new branch.”

Later on Tuesday evening, this reporter was treated to a sumptuous Thai dinner at Orchid. The food was stocked with herbs and, true to its (Thai food) reputation, had taste that combined sourness, sweetness, spiciness and saltiness. “This dynamism is the magnet of Thai food,” Tukie explained.

Expounding on this taste-dynamism, the Thai Ambassador, Kunwongse, said it was a result of Thailand’s ability to borrow from great cultures, infuse its own local content and produce something marvellous.
“Thailand is located between India and China, and we call it the Indo-China peninsula,” Kunwongse said. “So it is a kind of melting pot for the two great cultures – India and China and it is why Thai food is the mix between Indian and Chinese cuisine and culture. That’s why Thai food is unique.”