Metro Weekly

Beau Thai’s Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield on Dining Out For Life and the joy of food

Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield's life took a new direction when they dove into the restaurant business with Beau Thai

(L-R) Ralph Brabham, Drew Porterfield, and Aschara Vigsittaboot: BKK Cookshop and Beau Thai — Photo: Todd Franson

Aschara Vigsittaboot had a dream.

“When I first came here, I worked as a server at Rice,” says the native of southern Thailand. “And during that time, I learned a lot of things in the kitchen, and felt like, ‘I can do that.’ I love cooking.”

Her brother-in-law, Pranote Thongpanchong, was a co-founder of Rice, the small, sleek, sophisticated Thai restaurant that helped pave the way for today’s restaurant boom on 14th Street. But Vigsittaboot was convinced she could do better. A chance encounter led to meeting a couple — Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield — whom she recruited to form her dream team just in time for the launch of the first Beau Thai in 2010.

Beau Thai’s two locations have since become a favorite among locals in Shaw and Mt. Pleasant. It’s even spawned a more informal, everyday Thai offshoot, BKK Cookshop, named after Bangkok’s international airport code and situated in the original location of the first Beau Thai. Pranote’s daughter, Nicha, runs the restaurant. “She is asserting a more youthful, vibrant Thai flair in all aspects of BKK,” Brabham says of the young chef, who went to culinary school in Thailand before becoming Vigsittaboot’s apprentice.

“It’s very enjoyable, it’s exciting, we get along very well,” Vigsittaboot says about her relationship with Brabham and Porterfield. “It’s just almost like family. When I want or need something, they are always helping me. Not just with work, everything.”

Styling herself as a kind of Thai culinary ambassador, Vigsittaboot sees room for improvement in both the average person’s perception of Thai food, as well as in her well-considered presentation of her native cuisine.

“When everything gets in place, you feel like you should do something else,” she says. “Thai food has still got a long way to go. I want to try to improve what I have right now. I want to get on another level…I have a lot to do.”

In fact, all three partners in the restaurant family have plenty more they want to do and achieve — they’re just not quite ready to talk about it yet.

BKK Cookshop: Spaghetti Drunken Noodles with Thai Sausage (foreground) — Photo: Todd Franson

“Ultimately, our goal is to open another Beau Thai,” Brabham teases. “We’re just working on the pieces to make it happen.”

Might there be a Southern-styled venture on the horizon? The model would be Dot’s Spot, the pop-up from last summer on the BKK Cookshop patio, where Brabham and Porterfield served up some of the hearty, heavy Southern breakfast staples they were raised on. “We definitely have goals and dreams to continue doing things in hospitality,” Porterfield says. “Things that aren’t necessarily Thai or Beau Thai.”

Whatever develops, you can expect a united front from Brabham, Porterfield, and Vigsittaboot. “If we open a Southern restaurant, I don’t think Aschara’s going to be cooking,” says Porterfield. “But in the same way she invited us to be a part of Beau Thai, we would invite her and want her to be a part of anything else that we do for sure.

“We’re two boys from North Carolina that didn’t know a lot about Pad Thai,” he says. “Thanks to Aschara, we’ve learned a lot, but we could not have made it before we started doing this.”

For the time being, the focus is on Food & Friends. This year, Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop will donate 25 percent of proceeds from lunch and dinner sales to the organization’s annual benefit, Dining Out for Life.

“This will be our fifth year participating,” says Brabham, settling in for an hour-long interview with Metro Weekly alongside his husband. “Pretty much since day one we wanted to be a restaurant that is part of the community and gives back and is more than just a place to grab a meal.”

Beau Thai: Papaya Salad — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLYLet’s start with Dining Out for Life.

RALPH BRABHAM: Dining Out for Life is just one of many fundraisers that we do at the restaurant to support causes that we hold dear. This year we’re expanding — we had never done it at BKK before, and we’re also doing it at both lunch and dinner at all three places. Additionally, the Tuesday night before Dining Out for Life, we’re doing another fundraiser here at BKK for Food & Friends as a kickoff for their volunteers and in anticipation of a busy night on Thursday. Every week we do what we call Terrific Tuesdays, where we donate 10 percent of dine-in dinner sales that day to a different nonprofit — such as Horton’s Kids or the ALS Association. The week of Dining out For Life, it’ll be Food & Friends.

MW: How did you get into the restaurant business?
BRABHAM: I’m a recovering lawyer. I started off in D.C. working for a big firm, Arent Fox. Aschara signed the lease for the first Beau Thai at New Jersey and R and needed some legal help, and asked me to do some of the work for her. So I brought her in as a client at the firm. Then once the legal stuff was settled, she invited Drew and me to be investors in the first restaurant. We painted the walls, we assembled furniture, and we were just very vested in her success, ultimately, because we were small-time partners in it.

And then I found myself every Saturday going to the wholesale market with her to buy groceries, and bartending occasionally on weekends. And then one thing kind of led to another, and I wanted out of the law business. We figured if we opened another restaurant, it would be a viable outlet for me to do this full-time. Once we opened Beau Thai Mount Pleasant in February of 2013, it kind of steamrolled from there.

After Mount Pleasant, we were at a juncture with the original spot — we had kind of outgrown it. The lease was coming up, and so we started shopping for new real estate. In 2014, we moved to 7th & P. But we didn’t want to give up this space — we knew our neighbors and we just loved it. So we decided we would sign a new lease and re-vamp it and do something a little more fun than the traditional menu of Beau Thai. We opened it as BKK Cookshop in the summer of 2015.

MW: How does the restaurant business compare to being a lawyer?
BRABHAM: I love it. It definitely presents different challenges than working for a law firm, but I’ve found it very rewarding. I love all aspects of small business ownership and the creativity that affords, and just hospitality in general. I’m a people-pleaser.

MWDrew, you work full-time at Long View Gallery. How does that impact your time at the restaurant?

DREW PORTERFIELD: Yes, I’m the director at Long View. I come to the restaurants after work and do a lot of bar-sitting, and food-tasting, and drink-trying.

BRABHAM: His voice is most heard on the wine lists at the restaurants. He’s the “wine snob” among the three of us.

PORTERFIELD: Wow! Okay.

MWThat’s the technical term for it.

BRABHAM: We actually have a section at Beau Thai called “Drew’s Obsessions,” and generally speaking, it is one or two wines that no one in the restaurant buys, but Drew enjoys.

PORTERFIELD: It’s the most selfish thing in the world. I go to restaurants and have wine, and whenever I find something I fall in love with, I try and find out who sells it. It doesn’t always work out, but most of the time we can find a distributor, and I put it on our menu — we’ve had reds and whites and rosés, and also ciders. It’s a chance for our customers to get great wine at an amazing value that you would never be able to find at that price point anywhere else. But also, when I’m at dinner and I want a glass of wine, it’s there for me.

Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield: BKK Cookshop and Beau Thai — Photo: Todd Franson

MWDo you guys like to cook?

PORTERFIELD: We both enjoy cooking at home. Although I cook more often than Ralph.

BRABHAM: Yeah, fair. I’m a recipe follower. I like the security of following instructions, and Drew has that innate ability to say, “Oh, this will go together well.” And so he can be a lot more creative and he enjoys experimenting, whereas I like to know exactly what the result will be.

MWDid getting into the industry change what or how you cook?

BRABHAM: Before we had never used fish sauce at our house, much less had a bottle of it. Now it’s an integral part of everything we cook.

PORTERFIELD: We also have the benefit of having Aschara as a best friend and family member.

BRABHAM: Aschara is that dinner guest who will say, “Let me make this for you next time.”

PORTERFIELD: She always thinks she can do it better, even if it’s an Italian tomato sauce. She’ll say, “Next time I’ll make you tomato sauce.”

MWIt sounds like you’ve both developed a great friendship with her.

BRABHAM: Yeah, she’s part of our family. She comes home and spends holidays with us. Aschara joined us with some of Drew’s family for Easter Brunch. We all went to Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market and reserved the big table for 14.

BKK Cookshop: Pumpkin Empanadas — Photo: Todd Franson

MWI understand you also travel to Thailand with her.

BRABHAM: Yes. We go every other year.

PORTERFIELD: She still has a bunch of family back there, so we go to hang out with her family and travel around. It’s an amazing place.

Also, related to the restaurants, one of the things we always used to pick on Aschara for, some Thai dishes that she would want to put on the menu, we would say, “There’s no way that’s Thai.” Like empanadas. “Aschara, that’s clearly not Thai.” And she said, “Just wait until you go to Thailand.” Sure enough, there was a strip of stalls on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, with 30 Thai women folding and frying empanadas in a wok. She said, “See, I told you.”

BRABHAM: That particular dish is actually global — Thai people will often call them curry puffs, but the concept is the same.

Analogously, sometimes we’ll say, “Aschara, we’ve got to put this on the menu somehow.” Take brunch, which is not really a meal, per se, in Thailand. We wanted to offer a brunch menu at Beau Thai. And so we had Aschara pull together dishes that made sense at brunch. We call it Bangkok Street Brunch — some sweet, some savory dishes that kind of feel more breakfasty to us, as Americans, than other Thai dishes. So that’s kind of a way in which we influence the food menu without being in the kitchen.

MWDid the two of you meet in D.C.?

BRABHAM: No, we met in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a stage in life where we both happened to be in North Carolina. I clerked for a federal judge after law school for a year. Drew was teaching at the time.
PORTERFIELD: I was a high school math teacher for a while. Then Ralph moved to D.C., I moved to New York and went to Parsons for my photography degree, and then I ultimately moved to D.C. I was a struggling artist, he was a lawyer. New York was too big for me. This is closer to North Carolina, it just seemed like a better fit.

MWAre you both from North Carolina?

BRABHAM: Yes, we actually grew up 30 minutes apart from each other, door to door. But we did not meet each other until we were adults. I grew up in Greensboro. Drew grew up in Burlington.

PORTERFIELD: Also, Ralph is a lot older than me. So we weren’t in high school at the same time, or maybe we would’ve met.

BRABHAM: I am five years older than Drew.

PORTERFIELD: I’m 36.

BRABHAM: I’m 41. He’s almost 37.

PORTERFIELD: You’re closer to 42, also.

Beau Thai: Pad Se Ew — Photo: Todd Franson

MWWas coming out a struggle for either of you?

PORTERFIELD: It was as hard for me, I think, as for anyone. But my family was super-supportive from the beginning. It was hard to say it, and then as soon as I said it, I had a ton of support and it was a non-issue after that.

MWBurlington is a small town, right?

PORTERFIELD: Super-small, yeah. My mother and my stepfather were both public school teachers. I don’t know why they were so okay with it. There were no hang-ups for them, or for my father and stepmother, or my sisters. I do have an older step-brother who had come out before me, so maybe he kind of greased the wheels, if you will.

BRABHAM: It was a struggle for me. I come from a very conservative family. They didn’t really have anything or anyone to relate it to, other than right-wing portrayals of what gays can be. And it was also somewhat of a self-imposed struggle, because I knew I was gay with my first sexual feeling in fifth or sixth grade. But I also perceived that it was not okay to be gay. So toward the end of college, to deal with it, I went off the super-conservative Christian exit ramp of the Highway of Life. [Laughs.]

MWAs in conversion therapy?

BRABHAM: Yeah, I went to Exodus International events. It never really worked, but I did seek counseling for a solid two or three years.

PORTERFIELD: It felt like for Ralph’s family, coming to our wedding was somewhat of a transformative experience. Ralph’s father was very sick at the time we got married, my mother was very sick at the time we got married, but they both lived long enough to be at the wedding, and for whatever reason, it felt like when the wedding happened, everyone was, “Oh, I got it, this is not just a thing you’re talking about. This is a real thing.”

MWWhere did the wedding take place?

BRABHAM: At Long View, actually. It was secular. One of our best friends, Guy Cecil, married us.

PORTERFIELD: It was a really fun party.

Beau Thai: Green Curry — Photo: Todd Franson

MWWhat is it like working at Long View, Drew?

PORTERFIELD: I think it’s the coolest place to be in D.C. I love working there, I like the work that we show. It’s an amazing event venue. I started at Long View soon after it opened, when it was in a different location than it is now — a 600-square-foot space a block up 9th Street. We had floor-to-ceiling art, a frame shop, candles, cards, it was a whole thing.

When Long View moved into the big space in 2009, we had to figure out something to do to make our business successful and profitable. The idea of combining a fine art gallery and an event space, I feel like that had not been done, definitely not in D.C. It was a risk on our part. We were renting a 10,000-square foot space hoping that people would want it to host private events and to buy art, in a neighborhood that no one was living in or going to at the time. But the combination of the businesses has been extremely successful. We host, on average, two to three events a week. That’s 1,000-plus people a week who have to look at my artists’ work on the walls, because we don’t allow anyone to take art down during an event.

We have a team at the gallery who takes care of the events stuff, because it stresses me out. There are so many people and things in there so close to the art. But what people can do with lighting and décor and all of that stuff, it’s amazing to see how it can be transformed.

MWYou’ve certainly established roots in D.C. Do you like being a part of this community?

PORTERFIELD: I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Especially once the house is finished and we can get back in.

BRABHAM: We are renovating.

MWOh, you’re homeless renovators right now?

PORTERFIELD: We are currently living in a friend’s basement while we are watching a very slow renovation of our house.

MWWhen is the renovation supposed to be completed?

BRABHAM: Originally May, now it’s looking like June or July. At least July. We bought the house in ’06. It’s a great house. We just have lived in it long enough to realize some ways it could be better and more us.

PORTERFIELD: Part of the emphasis in renovating it is to make it a little bit more usable as an entertaining space. It was a perfectly wonderful house, we could have lived in it forever the way it was. But after living there for over 10 years, and talking about all the things we would like to be different, it was just, “Let’s do it, let’s make it the house we want it to be.” Also, in full disclosure, looking around our neighborhood, if we wanted to buy another house, we wouldn’t be able to afford it — in Shaw, anyway. The only way to get that is to stay in the house that we bought way back when and make it something closer to something that we want. Everything in this neighborhood is way too expensive.

MWWhat would you say is the key to your success as a couple after 13 years together?

BRABHAM: We always say complete, brutal honesty. Just yesterday a friend of ours asked me, “If I tell you a secret, will you not tell Drew?” And I was like, “No, of course I’m going to tell Drew!”

PORTERFIELD: I think it’s kind of a cop-out answer, but it is the truth. “Say what you want, say what you don’t want, and be okay with maybe hearing something you don’t want to hear, and then realize you have to talk through it afterwards.” But you have to say things, that’s what I think has made us work for this long. Also, he’s so cute.

BRABHAM: [Laughs.] Go on.

BKK Cookshop: Tom Yum Cashews — Photo: Todd Franson

MWWhat does the rest of the year hold for Beau Thai and BKK?

BRABHAM: We’re planning another charity event for this summer that we’re calling War of the Rosés. Our goal is to have 10 to 12 restaurants — we want it to be kind of a small list — and every restaurant participating selects a charity of their choice and agrees to give 10 percent of their rosé sales in July to charity: 5 percent to their charity, and 5 percent to the restaurant that sells the most rosé that month. So one charity is going to get a big windfall from a restaurant. The goal is for it to be a lot of fun and for every restaurant to kind of go all out in terms of their menus and offerings. So at Beau Thai, our bars are both going to have an explosion of pink roses. We hope people will really get into it.

MW: How did you come up with the idea?

BRABHAM: Like all good ideas, it came up while we were drinking rosé. One of the distributors hosted a rosé tasting event and had a bunch of producers come in.

BRABHAM: We all liked it a lot. And I think it was Melissa Smith, the bar manager at Rappahannock, who said, “I bet we can sell more of this than you.”

PORTERFIELD: Ralph has a very deep-running competitive streak, so if you say something like that, he will take it and run with it.

BRABHAM: Initially it was going to be a competition over this one rosé between Beau Thai and Rappahannock, and then as more rosés were consumed, it grew to a bigger idea.

Beau Thai: Duck Roll — Photo: Todd Franson

MWWhat’s the name of the rosé that started the war?

BRABHAM: It’s called Natura.

PORTERFIELD: Yeah, it’s from Chile. It shouldn’t be good — if you read the label and look at it, I don’t know that you would ever buy it. But for the price point, it is the greatest rosé I’ve ever had in my life.
MWRosé has exploded in popularity recently. How long have you been a fan?

BRABHAM: Yeah right, I wasn’t drinking it 10 years ago.

PORTERFIELD: We’re with all of the Beckys who love rosé now. [Laughs.] It’s part of what we do for fun: We like to go out with friends, sit in the sunshine and drink rosé. And eat good food.

Beau Thai is located at 1550 7th St. NW. Call 202-535-5636. Also at 3162 Mount Pleasant St. NW. Call 202-450-5317 or visit beauthaidc.com.

BKK Cookshop is at 1700 New Jersey Ave. NW. Call 202-791-0592 or visit bkkcookshop.com.

Read about all of the restaurants participating in Dining Out for Life on Thursday, April 12.

BKK Cookshop: Thai Gyoza — Photo: Todd Franson

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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