Hua Hin is packed full of people who reinvented themselves when they came to live here. I am an example of that, a long-time teacher now flexing my recently rediscovered writing skills. But I lived out the pandemic wave in relative safety in Australia for two years. Since I was retired and no longer needing to make a living, staying mainly in the sanctuary of my home was not such a hardship.
Khun Gigee, as Nattaporn Janthakhet is known to her friends, didn’t have the same level of luxury. As both a hotelier and owner/manager of a separate fine dining establishment called “The House” in Bangkok, Gigee felt a great sense of responsibility to the long-stay customers of the 33- room boutique hotel she was running as well as for the 22 staff she had working for her at the beginning of March 2020 when the first Covid wave was hitting Thailand. Gigee is meticulous, checking and double-checking things since she is very keen to always maintain a high standard in everything she undertakes and she certainly wasn’t going to leave all those people in the lurch.
Gigee counts herself very lucky to have a loving life-partner in Matthias, yet she had to manage the difficulties of the first wave mainly on her own, as Matthias needed to return to Germany to care for his elderly parents, leaving her alone in Bangkok with this huge responsibility from late March 2020 until mid-September that same year.
A lesser person might have buckled under the weight of this burden, but not Gigee, who managed to keep her obligations to all despite the intense pressure and uncertainty she felt during this time. Gigee is warm and friendly, and certainly makes a great hostess and soup maker extraordinaire at her restaurant, Avatar Garden, but she admits she can be overly serious at times. Whereas the adage says the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, for Matthias, the way to Gigee’s heart was in making her smile and laugh like no other person had been able to previously. She now admires him immensely for not only his humour, his calm and analytical approach to problem-solving but also for the creativity he brings to her life, with his wealth of worldwide travel experience.
Gigee has had lots of international travel experience herself now. While still at university she undertook a 3-month internship in Belgium which whet her appetite for travel. Extensive European travel has followed, with Gigee particularly attracted to riverboats and vineyard visits. In the middle of this year, she plans to spend a month exploring some of the small villages outside the Portuguese capitol of Lisbon, to immerse herself in local culture.
The story of the couple’s first meeting would bring a smile to any face. It was a business meeting, and it had been rescheduled three times already. Gigee was frustrated by this delay and was almost ready to cancel the whole thing, but was convinced by a colleague who thought the pair would be good together. Gigee attended in her gold-coloured work uniform, and their love story began with a pick-up line that will go down in history as likely the lamest on record, “Hello, banana.”.
By August 2020, Gigee could no longer continue with the businesses which had been the basis of a very successful career before the intervention of the pandemic, and she decided a relocation to Hua Hin with its pleasant coastal and also mountainous natural environment which would allow her to relax a bit more. Gigee saw the move as a way to reduce the burden she was feeling and cut her cost of living when compared to Bangkok. She had previously visited Hua Hin in 2016 when she had been working on a golfing book with a company called Bangkok Book House (now Asia Books). It was her first full-time job after graduating from university with a Bachelor’s Degree in International Business, and she had was impressed by the friendliness of the Hua Hin locals she encountered.
It was also a huge relief to soon have her partner by her side again in Hua Hin, though his family responsibilities have now seen him do a total of 7 periods of quarantine as he has had to travel between Europe and Thailand. This is a record I certainly don’t admire.
Gigee tells me that as a little girl, she grew up as the third child out of four, of rice farming parents in Surin, close to the Cambodian border, which is why she is still a fluent speaker of the local version of Khmer. Gigee was a self-confessed tomboy who showed little interest in traditional female pursuits. Whereas her sister would be up at 4am, helping her mother and learning how to cook all the traditional dishes that the family enjoyed, Gigee was content to stay in bed and then go and play outdoors with her two brothers and their friends. In retrospect, this is something she might change if she could have her childhood again.
Those who have been customers at Avatar Garden will know that Gigee’s wagyu beef noodle soup is the stuff of legends. When she decided to make this personally as a contribution to the menu, which features both Thai and European dishes, she wasn’t fazed that she actually didn’t know how to cook it. Even more, she had never even used charcoal to cook. She just took a weeklong trip home to Mum and the family, learnt the braising techniques she needed, and voilà! Problem solved. Much as she adores traditional Thai fare, Gigee has now also developed a taste for European fare, and her last meal, given the choice, would definitely be grilled tuna cheeks. Yummy indeed!
An inability to say “No” to friends is perhaps Gigee’s biggest weakness. She would like to think that the kindness and care she shows to others would be returned to her, but has found that this is not always the case, and she has been burnt. Despite the best of intentions, this may happen again, because when people ask for help, Gigee’s trusting nature kicks in automatically.
According to Gigee, she is a simple, lovely person with the ability to think big and the persistence to follow her dreams. Certainly, as a child, she would never have believed that restaurants were in her future, yet here she is. Gigee had worked mainly in an office environment before meeting her life-partner, but has readily embraced life as a restaurateur. She has become a sophisticated user of social media and her ever growing group of regular customers is proof of the reputation she has so successfully built using Facebook in particular. She credits Patrick Jacobs with inspiring her to post regularly with photos of the delicious dishes available at Avatar Garden.
Gigee has a wide circle of friends, but a smaller circle of really close friends, those who are there to listen and provide feedback and advice in tough moments. The mantra Gigee shares with this select group is “Eat, talk, laugh.” She is particularly thankful for her parents and family who have always supported her aims and ambitions. To give her access to the best possible education, Gigee’s parents sold off a significant portion of their farmland in Surin to purchase a house in Samut Prakarn so that she was able to attend university more easily. Gigee’s most treasured material possession is an amulet, given to her by her sister, that she credits with ensuring her success in life. Since she has no children, she is currently planning who to pass the amulet to next.
Gigee’s “simple life” includes morning coffee on the terrace with her dogs as company. She is very attached to her fur-babies, as they are to her. Pablo, a French bulldog, is her #1 boy and father of her puppies, but she has 4 dogs in total, 2 of whom are still living at the house in Samut Prakarn, though they visit periodically. Pablo and his girlfriend Bella had a large litter of 7 puppies, 4 of which have emigrated to live in Switzerland with Gigee’s ex- boss. Another aspect of the simple life for Gigee is her adoption of the sport of pickleball, which is what you are likely to find her doing on her day off. Either that or listening to classic rock music for the 1970s or 1980s such as Guns N’Roses and Metallica, though the 1990s British group Tindersticks also features prominently on her playlist. I think that a bit of dancing on the terrace around the pool might also happen when no-one is watching, unless the gardener has left if wet, dirty and slippery again as is his annoying habit.
Even with having achieved so much already, Gigee’s “To do” list is not yet exhausted. She needs to overcome her fear of flying alone after an incident on a Turkish airline in 2006 left her traumatised. She has a desire to travel to Argentina and in particular to explore Patagonia, a place which has fascinated her for a long time. And she has a five-year plan to perfect her dry rub for barbequing meat which will necessitate her hunting the whole of Europe for the perfect combination of ingredients. Gigee aims to have her eponymous rub on the shelves everywhere before her 5 years are up, and with her diligence and clarity of focus, I believe it is likely. I just want her to ensure she has an Australian distributor as well.