Way back in September 2013, Treadsack, the group behind Down House and D&T Drive Inn, announced that P.J. Stoops would be the chef for Thai restaurant Foreign Correspondents. Seventeen months later, it's still not open, but the good news is that it's now only two or three months away. Construction is under way at 4721 North Main, and diners got a preview of what's to come at a Kipper Club dinner this past Saturday night.
One of the P.J.'s most significant accomplishments -- and the thing he may perhaps still be best known for in Houston -- is that he helped bring awareness to fish known as bycatch. During commercial fishing operations, the nets bring in more than just the intended targets. For example, an expedition might be after lucrative, popular red snapper but a Warsaw grouper might come along for the ride.
Many times, these "unwanted" fish, or bycatch, are tossed aside as trash and left on the docks to rot. There's nothing wrong with them and they're still perfectly edible, but it's hard to find a market for them. There's a fundamental mismatch between the small quantities of bycatch and the quantities of individual types of fish needed by high-volume restaurants to get through a night.
Stoops helped bridge that gap, finding ecologically conscious chefs like Chris Shepherd at Underbelly who were willing to run small-quantity "when it's out, it's out" fish specials.
That's all very interesting, but what qualifies this guy to run a Thai restaurant? Well, Stoops didn't start out as a fishmonger. As profiled in this Texas Monthly article by Houston writer and barbecue columnist Chris Reid, he got his start in the culinary industry cooking in the '90s while a college student. He later went to France and while working in a restaurant there, dated a server from Thailand. He wasn't ready to return to the United States, so when she went back, he went with her.
That relationship didn't work out, but Stoops soon met Apple, the woman who would become his wife. After a stint managing a language school (Stoops actually has an English degree), he happen to meet the general manager of a hotel who was looking for a chef. Stoops went back into the kitchen and ran not only regular food service for the hotel, but a Northern Thai restaurant (that Stoops describes as "an awesome barbecue restaurant" that grilled lots of whole fish), and, oddly enough, an Italian restaurant. He returned to Houston--with a family--in 2007.
Stoops believes in using whole animals and fish when feasible, although he says in the restaurant industry it's not always possible.
He's not the only chef to espouse "nose-to-tail" eating in Houston. Fellow chef Richard Knight, who is also getting his own restaurant, Hunky Dory, via Treadsack, helped popularize the concept in Houston while one of the chefs at the defunct Feast. Feast operated from 2008 until mid-2014 and sold Stoops' bycatch for most of the years it was open. In a way, the two chefs' stories are intertwined.
The Foreign Correspondents dinner at Kipper Club was nothing short of a glorious, family-style, thought-provoking feast. This was not the Thai food normally seen in restaurants in the United States. There was a daringly spicy, pungent papaya salad. Stoops says that pungency comes from pla raa, a fermented fish sauce.
Then there was the Isaan duck laap, a succulent ground meat dish that demanded diners dive in for second and third spoonfuls. There's no waste in this dish, as Stoops used pretty much every part of the duck. A mystifying but pleasing crunchy texture was due to Stoops including roasted duck skin that was ground to a fine texture. The bones were used for stock served in a little cup alongside. (That's "bone broth" for you newbies.)
An easy-going crowd pleaser was the lightly battered deep-fried herbs (pak grawp). It was approachable, and yet made with herbs and vegetables rarely seen here-- water spinach, rice paddy herb and fish mint.
Why do other Thai restaurants not serve this kind of regional cuisine? Over and over, it's the same tired parade of red, green and yellow curries and basil stir-fry. Stoops says, "Since coming back in 2007, I've asked myself that every week. We have Thai people from all over running Thai restaurants. Generally, what's served is the same as in the hotels in tourist areas in Thailand. It is honest-to-God Thai food, but it's also like defining American food with hamburgers and pizza. Are they marketable items? Certainly. Things like green curry are palatable and easy to eat, but that's not all there is."
He credits much of his knowledge of other styles of Thai cuisine to his wife. "I got really lucky. I met my wife early and she's a badass. She's the smartest, funniest, most beautiful human I ever met and she also has the best sense of taste I have ever encountered. It doesn't matter whether it's Thai, French or from the planet IX. She likes to eat well and we'd take trips [in Thailand] to find good food. It's not easy to find if you don't know where to look."
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The remarkable thing is that even though the ingredients are authentically Thai, 80 percent of them are locally sourced. Stoops says it's something that is possible in Houston that wouldn't be in most other cites. He's working with a Cambodian farmer in Alvin who grows these ingredients and is working with Stoops to raise the kind of Asian ducks and chickens needed. "He's growing 15 acres of bamboo, both sweet and regular. He has 30 papaya trees. I go there once a week and get products of shockingly good quality."
Count Foreign Correspondents among the list of most highly anticipated restaurant openings. The remarkable, unique perspective on Thai cuisine is sure to be an eye-opener for many Houstonians.