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How Jam Santichat’s Roommate Dinners Became Thai Fresh

What started with a meal for Jam Santichat’s roommate is now a 15-year-old Austin-based restaurant

Jam Santichat
Chef Jam Santichat (photo by Jody Horton)

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Unsurprisingly, Jam Santichat has done a little bit of both.

If you’ve been in the Austin food scene for the past decade, you’ve probably met Santichat — chef and co-owner of local restaurant Thai Fresh and owner vegan ice cream shop, Gati. Last month, Thai Fresh celebrated their 15th anniversary, and Gati is set to celebrate its third anniversary next month.

From preparing meals for her roommate to now a well-known neighborhood restaurant, Santichat’s journey is enriched by both her love of food and passion for sharing it with others.

“Good food brings people together,” Santichat says. “That’s what I learned at a young age.”

Jam Santichat and her mother at a Thai Fresh Cooking Class (photo by Jody Horton)

First, You Feed Them…

Growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, Santichat recalls that cooking came naturally to her family. At 5 years old, Santichat remembers helping her grandmother in the kitchen, handing her tools and ingredients.

“I was absorbing, without knowing, the art of (cooking) the way she does it,” Santichat says.

When Santichat and her family moved away from her grandmother, Santichat became her mother’s helper in the kitchen. Santichat remembers friends coming over because her mom was cooking — one of her mother’s friends once brought an entire raw chicken, asking Santichat’s mom to make chicken rice. For Santichat, cooking was ingrained in her life.

“I don’t even think I was interested in (cooking),” Santichat says. “It was just there; it came so naturally that it was just part of my life.”

When she grew older, Santichat cooked for her father every Saturday but didn’t truly start cooking regularly until she moved to Austin in 2001 when she was almost 30 years old. She initially moved here to pursue a master’s degree in public speaking training but ended up studying health communications due to professor availability. But this career path was no match for her love for cooking.

Soon after moving here, she began cooking meals for her roommate, which eventually turned into hosting parties with her food as the centerpiece. Word quickly spread and, for two years, friends of friends gathered to enjoy Santichat’s cooking.

“It’s (the) same experience — seeing it happen at my mom’s and seeing it happen in my own apartment,” Santichat says. “They were showing up for my food; it was crazy.”

Thai Fresh owner Jam Santichat hosts a cooking class (photo by Jody Horton)

…Then, You Teach Them

After a few years, Santichat realized she wasn’t limited to cooking for others; she could teach them how to cook, too. So in 2004, she started hosting cooking classes, first in her own home and eventually in other students’ homes.

“Teaching is so rewarding,” Santichat says. “You have helped someone (who) was not able to do this an hour ago now (make) all of these, eat it and then come back three days later (saying), ‘I made it at home again, and it was so good.’”

Around this time, Santichat also completed her master’s program and took a year off from school before pursuing a doctorate in health communications. During her gap year, she worked in the food industry, teaching classes and waiting tables at Hoover’s Cooking where she met her now husband and future business partner Bruce Barnes. When the time came to return to school, Santichat realized health communications wasn’t her passion.

“With a scholarship, I was gonna get the whole (program) covered,” Santichat says. “But after thinking, I was like — this is not what I came here for.”

Santichat left her doctorate program and started pursuing cooking classes full-time, along with opening a stand at the local farmers market.

Tofu Pad Thai (photo by Jody Horton)

Building a Business

After teaching cooking classes for several years, Santichat wanted a space to support her classes. So in 2008, Santichat and Barnes opened Thai Fresh as a small deli operation where she could continue teaching.

Eventually, the business — and therefore, the need for a bigger space — expanded. By 2012, Thai Fresh bought the second half of the building and transitioned to a cook-to-order restaurant. By 2018, they instilled a livable wage for employees to help retain staff.

RELATED: A South Austin Favorite Continues to Delight with Authentic and Craveable Thai Dishes

Shrimp Pad Thai (photo by Jody Horton)

Amidst the expansions, Santichat has not lost her touch in the kitchen over the years. Though Thai Fresh’s menu doesn’t often change, some popular dishes have emerged from Santichat’s keen ability to improvise when necessary. For instance, her ice cream shop Gati was created merely from having too many mangoes (thus, mango lime ice cream was born).

“There’s always something good coming out of every disaster,” Santichat says. “You learn things you haven’t learned (…) because (you’re) forced to think of something new.”

Some new dishes come from a visit back home, as Santichat remembers forgotten meals (like Thai beef jerky) or Thai cooking techniques to try here (like using Thai banana batter to fry shrimp). When it comes to mixing cultures, Santichat says she has no problem with it.

“The more I’m in the food business, the more I realize fusion is not a bad word,” Santichat says. “It’s actually good; that’s what everybody (has been) doing for centuries.”

Chef Jam-Credit to Jody Horton
Chef Jam Santichat (photo by Jody Horton)

The Future for Santichat

Though the operation has grown, Santichat still commits to teaching classes, which are now held at Confituras Kitchen to allow more space. When she thinks about the future, she has a lot of ideas but knows she doesn’t want to open another restaurant.

Looking forward, the sky’s the limit for Santichat. She could see herself retiring and focusing purely on Gati; perhaps she’ll transfer Thai Fresh to be employee-owned; maybe she’ll package Gati’s ice cream to sell in stores; or maybe she’ll start an ice cream factory. Wherever her dreams take her, Santichat knows she wants to continue her core loves — feeding and teaching.

Gati Ice Cream Gluten Free Cone
Gati ice cream (photo by Jody Horton)

“Having a restaurant is a happy business because food is associated with happiness; you see that smile after the second bite,” Santichat says. “Teaching brings the same joy to me (…) I could just do that for the rest of my life.”

Learn more and sign up for one of Jam Santichat’s cooking classes online here.

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