by Alexandra DeMarco
Nestled between the bright lights of the Tennessee Theatre and the Regal Riviera downtown is a cozy restaurant that some call home: Fai Thai Kitchen or ร้านฝ้ายไทย.
At Fai Thai, food preparation is a labor of love. The idea for the family restaurant, which has met much success in its first few months, grew from the determination of Kultida “Fai” Blais.
Fai grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where she says many residents don’t have kitchens and instead dine on the delicious street food prepared by Bangkok chefs. Fai attended journalism school and graduated with honors from Bangkok University before working as a public relations executive at the luxury Athenee Hotel.
After a few years in her position, however, Fai decided to take a leap and head to America to join her parents, who were already living in New York, and work at improving her English skills.
“I decided to come to America, and it was such a dream,” Fai said.
After initially moving to New York, her parents’ brief stints at jobs in Knoxville led Fai to East Tennessee. Here, she discovered the English Language Institute at the University of Tennessee and enrolled in an English program.
“You feel very comfortable (at ELI) because all the teachers will try to accommodate you, like try to teach you, and all the friends, they’re all international,” Fai said. “So it’s opened my mind to understand we don’t have to be the same. We don’t have to do the same exact thing and people in general, we seek out different things.”
While her parents headed back to New York, Fai finished up her studies at ELI, where she made friends she keeps in touch with to this day, and put down roots in Knoxville; she met her soon-to-be husband, Nathan Blais, and settled into life in East Tennessee.
Seven years later — the best of her life, she says — her world is radically different.
“It’s like, so thriving for these seven years, to be here in America,” Fai said.
Ambitious to start her next endeavor, Fai began investigating opportunities to launch her own business after finishing at ELI. Because she grew up in Bangkok, she did not have a lot of experience cooking herself; however, both of her parents are experienced chefs and had instilled in her a deep appreciation of food — especially food prepared with family recipes passed down through generations. So, with support from a loan designated for minority-owned businesses from the Knoxville Area Urban League, she decided to try her hand at running a food truck.
The process of actually starting the food truck was not always easy, Fai said. She and her husband, both in their twenties at the time, were cheated out of investment money while initially launching the business, she says.
“We were young and stupid, so we lost a lot of money through that, but we finally got the food truck. … Luckily, I have my parents. … They taught me, and I have the basic skills already, so I can just pick it up and do it,” Fai said.
With a lot of hard work, business for the food truck eventually picked up. Fai was grateful for advice from mentor Kumi Alderman, director of the Knoxville Asian Festival, who she says is really “like her second mom.”
Fai worked in the food truck herself, cooking from recipes passed down from her parents and grandparents, even while she was pregnant. Her husband Nathan Blais continued working with the food truck as well.
When COVID-19 hit, the couple took a break from running the truck. Nathan got another job, and Fai spent time at home with her newborn son while also brainstorming ways she could improve her business.
“I had a lot of time to think through the business, because I just jumped into the business before … ,” Fai said. “So I wrapped the truck, used it for a few months and then found this spot.”
After returning from her hiatus, Fai soon found a brick and mortar home for Fai Thai in the heart of downtown Knoxville on Gay Street. At the time, it seemed like everything was falling into place; Fai’s parents, after being separated for decades, were married for the first time by none other than their daughter. They moved into an apartment on Gay Street, just a walk away from Fai Thai, to bring their years of cooking expertise to the restaurant and spend time with their new grandson.
In the restaurant’s kitchen, Fai’s dad Chatchai “Fa” Puchakanit expertly whips up the “Grandma Recipe,” formerly known on the food truck as “Street Food of Bangkok.” With decades of cooking experience behind him, Fai says that when her dad makes the recipe, it’s just different than when she made it on the food truck.
“The same recipe, but the cook is different,” Fai said. “He has 30 years of experience, versus like none at all.”
Fai enjoys her dad’s cooking just as much as any customer and regularly stops by the restaurant to eat even on her days off, she says, reflecting on how lucky Knoxville is to have access to the delicious food prepared by him.
“It’s such a comfort to me to have food from my parents, and you know it’s going to be good no matter what,” Fai said.
At Fai Thai Kitchen, the carefully-crafted cuisine is just one part of the dining experience, Fai says. The jazz music playing in the background, accompanied by soft lighting, sets the stage for the family-run restaurant of just eight tables, which Fai says is more like a café where she encourages people to sit and read if they would like.
“This place is like the home. … You come to my home to eat my food made with the family,” Fai said.
Though she’s always open to improvement, customers don’t always understand what Fai Thai is trying to accomplish, Fai says. They sometimes expect a more fast-paced restaurant experience instead of the personal, family-oriented one Fai offers — an experience where her parents carefully craft each meal ordered, a job she expects customers to respect.
“It’s like they come in and they want it quick. They want it fast,” Fai said. “It’s like, dude, it’s not McDonald’s, it’s Fai Thai Kitchen. … Being an Asian in general is not hard, it’s just like maybe we feel lesser. … But you come in here, this is our house.”
Fai, who loves her job, asks that customers talk to her respectfully when they have a concern with their food — and she’ll be happy to fix it for them.
“You tell me like I’m a human being. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m here to do your job, to service, as best as I can,” Fai said.
Now a successful business owner, Fai says her blooming restaurant is really just the beginning of Fai Thai. She has now sold the food truck to focus on the downtown location, and there’s no predicting exactly what the future holds. Fai plans to lean into the homey atmosphere for future iterations of the restaurant — hopefully including a restaurant in an actual house evoking a comforting “grandma” style, featuring a biergarten and outside seating.
“My end goal is to build my place. … That’s such an imagination though, but yeah, that’s the indefinite goal that I would like it to happen,” Fai said.
Visit Fai Thai Kitchen at 522 S Gay Street for a delicious dine-in or take-out experience, fueled by recipes passed down through generation after generation.
Jason Moody (865-974-5752, firstname.lastname@example.org)