I would ask the reader’s indulgence to wax philosophical for a moment. Writing for the People of Hua Hin series has led me to pause and reflect on the commonalities and differences in the lives of the people I have had the pleasure to meet in this pursuit. When I chat with those who become the subject of an article, I am merely casting a spotlight on them and capturing a snapshot in that very moment. I am painfully aware of how inadequate words can be to record the essence of a person since everything about our lives is fluid and may change at any moment. We are all the products of each and every choice that we have made, and the paths that this creates for us are infinitely complex and meandering.
So, it is amazing that so many of us have found our “sweet spot” in Hua Hin, whether we are foreigners who are guests in Thailand, or of Thai birth. At the conclusion of my internet chat with Roberto Spina, co-owner of Little Spain, Hua Hin, I marvelled in our joint understanding that he was in exactly the right place for him to be right now. His satisfaction with his life was not smug, but wholehearted. Roberto has hit that “sweet spot” in his personal and professional life at the same time as being in just the right physical location for it all to gel into profound contentment, without too much introspection needed. Roberto is happy and he knows and appreciates it.
Hua Hiners, (or is it Hua Hinians?) are generally an adventurous lot. Expats certainly, because they have chosen to leave their country of birth to embrace a new culture and way of life in Thailand. Robert’s life so far has led him to live in England, Kenya, Spain, France, Australia and Thailand, although he was born and raised in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small town in central Italy on the Adriatic coast. On his father’s side of the family were the sailors, while his mother’s side of the family were all involved in some way in the hospitality industry, and it was apparent to Roberto quite early which career path he would prefer to follow.
Although he came from a loving family, Roberto knew that there was something missing from his life in his teenage years. He left school without finishing it after finding the train commute of 90 minutes each way to the school he had chosen at the age of 14 all too much of a daily grind. Roberto had been interested in both drawing and writing as a child but as he matured, he became a more physical, practical, hands-on person. After leaving school, Roberto found himself languishing in a factory, printing tee-shirts, a job that was soul-crushingly boring. It soon became obvious to young Roberto that life in small- town Italy was not providing him the opportunity to grow and prosper as he wished. In addition, there was the temptation of substance abuse that he saw many of his contemporaries succumb to and Roberto was wary of following that self-destructive path. He gave up cigarettes cold-turkey at the age of 24 and is certainly glad of that wise choice. If Roberto could give his teenage- self a single piece of sage advice, it would be to enjoy yourself, but to continue to stay clear of drugs which can lead to a miserable destiny.
So, by the age of 20, Roberto became a bit of a global nomad. His first stop was the bright lights of London where he worked initially as a bartender, appreciative of London’s nightlife and live music scene. Hard work and persistence saw him promoted to running the bar within a year. I highly suspect Roberto’s personable nature and his seemingly effortless ability to open interpersonal dialogue also had a hand in his quick rise in the business. Over the next decade or so, Roberto lived and worked in many places, making the most of opportunities as they arose, all the time appreciating that there was more to see, more to do, and most importantly, more to learn. This drive to keep experiencing new things and continuing to learn has been the most prominent common thread in all the lives of the wonderful individuals I have had the pleasure to write about.
Roberto is now 38 years of age and seems to have worked the wanderlust out of his system. He is ready to settle down and Hua Hin is just the right place for him to do that. Living 12 years in Spain had a real impact in his youth, so it is hardly surprising that Roberto and his Spanish partner Vanessa Humbert have chosen to build on their complementary skills and expertise in establishing their own little piece of Spain here in Hua Hin. Yet, it was not deliberate decision, but rather serendipity and fate which brought Roberto to reside in Hua Hin. He first visited 15 years ago and wasn’t particularly impressed with what he saw. He was visiting his uncle Enrico who is the founder of Lo Stivale, one of Hua Hin’s most long-standing Italian restaurants, which has operated for 35 years. At that time, Hua Hin seemed to Roberto to be merely the Italian version of San Benedetto del Tronto, just another place that wasn’t the right fit for him and so his journey of world discovery continued.
It wasn’t till after his sojourn in Australia that he stopped again in Hua Hin in October 2018 on his way back to Italy and looked at Hua Hin with a renewed appreciation, as he put it “looking with the right kind of eyes, instead of the bad kind of eyes”. His uncle Enrico invited Roberto to work alongside him at Lo Stivale and so Roberto began to put down some roots in Thailand. His eyes shine bright as he lists for me all the things that make him love living in Hua Hin. It is the same list I have heard from other expats: the open air, the beach, the mountains, the different recreational and sporting opportunities, (including biking, a love of speed gifted by his father), the welcoming Thais and the multicultural community all combining to make Hua Hin “the right place” for Roberto. That doesn’t mean that Roberto is blind to some of the niggles of daily life here such as the traffic and the crazy drivers, but rather that these pale into insignificance alongside the benefits of the town and its inhabitants.
While Covid crushed some and decimated others worldwide, leaving a trail of permanently closed hospitality businesses in its wake, to Roberto it presented an opportunity. He had noticed a gap in the culinary offerings in Hua Hin and was keen to exploit the growing market of Thai holiday-makers venturing to Hua Hin whilst other destinations were unavailable to them. Between them, Roberto and Vanessa had expertise in food and wine sourcing and preparation along with restaurant design and hosting, so the establishment and growth of Little Spain had a solid starting point in August 2020. Vanessa is in complete control of the kitchen, and Roberto is responsible for the front of house. For Roberto, there was another real opportunity for learning and growth as he has developed key skills in using multiple social media platforms to connect with potential patrons and promote the restaurant, which is located in Soi 102 and a little off the most well-worn restaurant strips in town.
Roberto chatted to me from the beautiful covered pool-side terrace of Little Spain, under the roof lined with a red cloth. He cultivates the image of being a rather laid-back, cool guy, but I have the impression this too is just part of his “on stage” persona. He is aware that in his role as restaurant host, he needs to be personable, witty, attentive and charming, all at the same time. He has a distinct “at work” character that isn’t exactly the same as his normal, much more reserved mien. I was quite puzzled at first to see his hair looking quite ginger until he pointed out the ceiling to me.
Roberto and Vanessa have been able to navigate the pandemic to build themselves a dynamic restaurant which combines a great ambiance with a menu drawing on very traditional Spanish ingredients with a twist of modern flair and inspiration. Starting and operating a new restaurant from scratch is perhaps the most difficult job in the world, according to Roberto and I certainly shan’t be arguing with him. It is working so well for him, I understand, because of the beauty of the restaurant, the teamwork of the staff, carefully selecting the best ingredients, touching them as little as possible, and having absolute trust in the skills and intuition of his partner Vanessa.
I asked Roberto to explain to me his understanding of the difference between Italian and Spanish cuisines. We discussed how the cuisines of the Mediterranean countries have many more similarities than points of difference and the role of both wine and olive oil in the culinary experience. He described Italian and Spanish foods as brothers. And talking of this brotherhood, our conversation had to extend to the World Cup 2022 currently happening in Qatar at the time of our discussion. I am still to meet an Italian man not a passionate follower of the round ball game, and Roberto told me how a great swathe of the Italian population is supporting Spain, since unfortunately Italy, cough, cough, DNQ (that’s “did not qualify” for the non-football fanatics like me, sorry Roberto and Italy!)
Roberto always strives to maintain a proper work/life balance. A day off will see him on the beach at Sea Pines with his fur babies, the 3 rescue dogs he and Vanessa share between them. He is justifiably proud not only of their work with Little Spain, but the time and effort Vanessa puts into helping a local dog rescue service.
Recently returned from a much-awaited trip back to visit his family in Italy, Roberto has also been able to look at his hometown of San Benedetto del Tronto with the “right kind of eyes” and calls it his favourite place in the world, because his family is there, and he misses them. It’s also where he can get the most authentic version of his favourite dish, spaghetti alle vongole. He is working hard so that in a few years’ time he will be a great economic position, enabling him to spend more time and do more things with his family and friends in Italy. I hope that the most difficult times of the pandemic are truly behind us and that Little Spain continues to prosper so Roberto is able to fulfill this ambition.
The subject of my next article is a wonderful chef and restaurateur who knows the power of synergy. I wonder if you will guess who?