The restaurant business is a difficult undertaking no matter how you slice it; the reward a restaurateur seeks is the guest’s most expendable dollar. It is only after the rent and utilities are paid, the housekeeper’s wages accounted for, groceries purchased, and all of the other myriad of expenses of daily life are set to rest that one might decide it is time to be rewarded by dining out.
There are plenty of places in Cuenca from which to choose. Too many, if the number of monthly closures can be considered as an indicator. Nearly every day another ambitious venue turns on the lights and announces that they are open for business and eager to serve you. Meanwhile and more often and sooner than one would think possible, another door is shuttered, almost always with sadness, and always with loss. The volition rate for restaurants in Cuenca mimics Portland, Oregon, where 97% of the independent cafes that open in any given year will survive less than three. The reasons are complex and varied, but most often center on two consequential decisions, opening the doors prematurely with a poorly designed business plan that ignores the importance of advertising, and/or the lack of appreciation for the herculean effort required to become established and thrive.
Ronny Bustamante and his wife, Verita Boonyatarp, owners of Thai Connection (Honorato Vasquez 639 y Hermano Miguel), are stalwart artisans buffering the headwinds of an extremely competitive market. They both work just over 12 hours a day, six days a week, arriving an hour before noon, and leaving around midnight. They take the next 12 hours off. The routine has not changed and is not expected to. They understand that a successful restaurant requires personal attention, creative expression, and sacrifice. Nearly all social obligations are now wholly entangled in the restaurant. Birthday parties, gatherings of friends, and family celebrations are celebrated in the restaurant dining room. In fact, Bustamante and Boonyatarp’s lives, for as long as they operate the restaurant, will revolve around an establishment that has become more than a home away from home; it is home. Their ‘residence’ is a place they go to sleep.
I recently sat down with Ronny and Verita and asked them why they chose this most time-consuming commitment. Both are bright-eyed, although like most restaurateurs I’ve known over the years, small worry lines and canals of concern, are beginning to appear along the highlands of their cheeks.
“We want to chart our own path in a constructive way that nourishes our community, and satisfies us,” Chef Boonyatarp said. “Ronny was working in real estate in Quito when we learned that a Thai restaurant was for sale in Cuenca, a city we prefer for its size, beauty, and vibrant creative community. We decided this was the time to act.” Bustamante added: “We enjoy the company of ‘internationals’,” he said. “I believed that Verita’s style of cooking her native county’s renowned cuisine would appeal to world travelers and that this opportunity would allow us to work together, and in consort, to achieve our goals. It was a wise decision.”
Verita and Ronny are among a cadre of creatives with an unshakable belief that nourishing people is the highest calling. As a consequence, they and other serious culinary professionals are setting a new standard of quality in cooking and service in Cuenca — an ambitious mission we should all toast.
The restaurant scene in Cuenca is rapidly changing. It is no longer enough to stake your claim simply on the strength of your drinks, or that the offerings listed on your menu are trending in the media. The best culinary venues now require their staff to have a knowledge of culinary history, agriculture, a curiosity about new flavors, and above all, a desire to do the strenuous work of religiously adhering to the exacting techniques of proper food preparation.
Working in the kitchen is often an oppressively hot and dangerous environment. Coupling this with the long hours necessary to achieve success makes this among the most challenging of pursuits.
Fortunately, Cuenca provides ample resources for success. Over 70% of our food is family farmed, delicious, and grown within a 40-mile radius of Parque Calderon. The rest is up to folks like Bustamante and Boonyatarp; dedicated professionals who chose to immerse themselves in a calling that consumes them in fire.
We wish them well.
Frequenting your favorite restaurants will go a long way in helping chefs survive in what will always be a very turbulent environment. These creative professionals are dedicating their lives to pleasing us and feeding our bodies and it is our responsibility to provide them with the volume of business they need to continue to grow and blossom.
Cuenca’s expanding focus on tourism and the influx of international immigrants have brought forth fresh ideas and sophistication to the table. How fortunate we are to have a plethora of restaurants serving finely crafted international cuisine prepared by local, talented chefs every bit as capable as those toiling in the kitchens of Europe and North America.
Robert Bradley is a former chef and restaurant owner in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.