My story below is about the lovely folks behind that phenomenal Fairfield success story, Green Peppercorn (SBS Feast magazine, November 2014).
Since writing that story, they’ve opened above the Civic Hotel in Thainatown – see the featured video above for a look inside Green Peppercorn, Sydney.
Green Peppercorn, SBS Feast
By Thang Ngo
Thanks to restaurants like Green Peppercorn, Fairfield, 30km south west of Sydney, is emerging from the shadows of neighbouring Cabramatta and Canley Heights when it comes to food fame. While Cabramatta is a day trip to Asia, Fairfield is more around the world within a short stroll. This richness is reflected in the Fairfield food scene; here, Sydney’s first Iraqi restaurant is next to a Northern Chinese eatery and diagonally opposite a Filipino takeaway. They’re all a skip and a jump away from an Afghan bakery, Lebanese restaurant, Bosnian café, Chilean sweets shop and Green Peppercorn Lao/Thai, Fairfield’s food icon.
…some folks were scratching their heads and asking “Fairfield, where?”
Just over two years old, Green Peppercorn sensationally put Fairfield on the foodie map when this upstart walked away with the prize for Best New Restaurant in the 2013 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Under $30 Guide Awards. It was the first time a restaurant in Sydney’s west has won this category.
While some folks were scratching their heads and asking “Fairfield, where?”, Tona Inthavong and Coke Praseuth, two of the partners behind Green Peppercorn rejoiced that food in south-western Sydney was finally getting mainstream accolade.
…during pregnancy, his mother developed a craving for American cola so their parents decided to name their children after them.
Both came to Australia with their families from Laos after spending time in a Thai refugee camp post the Laotian Civil War that ended December 1975. Coke arrived as a 14yo with his parents and siblings, Pepsi, Fanta and Tem (a Lao version of lemonade cola) – during pregnancy, his mother developed a craving for American cola so their parents decided to name their children after them. Tona arrived later in 1988 as a seven year old with his parents and four siblings, including brother, Tony who pioneered classy Lao/Thai restaurants in Western Sydney with Holy Basil in Canley Heights.
The Praseuth’s first home was in a small two bedroom unit in Smart Street, Fairfield. “Back then, Fairfield was the place to be, with a thriving Lao community” says Tona. However as a centre for business, he says it was relatively quiet “a lot of people said we’d fail because other businesses have tried and closed”.
Coke adds while other restauranteurs were eyeing the foot traffic of Cabramatta and Canley Heights, they stuck to their aspiration of opening a restaurant in Fairfield: “We believe we could make Fairfield and Green Peppercorn a food destination”.
Lifelong mates, Tona and Coke have often joked about running their own restaurant. Coke’s family run a food stall at many local Buddhist temples during Lao New Year, while Tona has managed his brother’s Holy Basil restaurant in Canley Heights since it opened in 2009. Their opportunity came in 2011 when the O’Hara family bought the Fairfield Hotel and sought expressions of interest to run a restaurant in the hotel.
Tona says they snapped up the chance to elevate the suburb as well as Lao food into the food-mad consciousness of Sydney. “Thai is everywhere… it’s the Lao point of view that makes us different” he says. While the surrounds were up-market, the food was home-style authentic, recipes handed down by Tona and Coke’s parents and brought to life by Tona’s sister, Nicky from the kitchen. The success of Green Peppercorn took them by surprise. Within three weeks of the July 2012 launch, there were queues for the 180-seater.
A working blue tuk-tuk sits by the far corner and, together with the buzz from chatty diners, reflects the pulsating energy of south-east Asia.
Enter Green Peppercorn and you’re in a large, open dining area that is made deceptively intimate thanks to discrete down lights that also illuminate glittering asparas scattered around the restaurant. A working blue tuk-tuk sits by the far corner and, together with the buzz from chatty diners, reflects the pulsating energy of south-east Asia.
Tona credits their success to great service, authentic food and up-market ambiance delivered a price that’s not too different from more humble ma-and-pa eateries nearby. On that subject he says, Green Peppercorn is, in its own way, a ma-and-pa business; Tona and his wife Sarah, Coke and his wife Karla both work in the business and recently, Tona’s eldest sibling, Ketmany and husband Thong Inthavong have joined as partners in Green Peppercorn (taking over from Nicky who has moved back to Laos).
“In every partnership there’s always going to be disagreements, but we always try to find the best way to solve it, whatever benefits the business, that’s the best way to do things” says Tona.
Coke chimes in “Our friendship keeps us going, we understand each other and our strengths and weaknesses and we work with each other on that”.
The ease with which they finish each other’s sentences is evidence of the successful ying-yang collaboration. Tona is the face of Green Peppercorn managing the day-to-day operations including customer service and publicity, Coke focuses on the back end of administration and finance while Ketmany runs the kitchen.
The menu is a mix of Lao and Thai favourites but Coke recommends Lao specialties for a unique Green Peppercorn experience – zesty larb salad; the national Lao dish which he describes as “comfort food”, nem khao; crunchy fried rice with cured pork and sai krok son; a different variation of Lao pork sausage with a tangy and sour centre, are all must-haves. He also recommends char grilled ox-tongue dipped in spicy sauce because it’s a peasant style dish and shows how Lao people never let anything go to waste.
Two months ago Green Peppercorn opened a new branch in the Civic hotel (388 Pitt Street, Sydney), in the heart of Sydney’s Thainatown. “Our customer base is growing and a lot of people who come from the city said they would like to dine with us more regularly if we were closer” says Tona.
In addition to the popular Green Peppercorn menu, the city branch adds an outdoor street food area with a cocktail and dessert bar. Satay skewers, noodles and other street food favourites are cooked on demand, evoking the street food stalls of Asia.
“We don’t see it as competition for the other Thai restaurants, there are enough customers for everyone. We hope Green Peppercorn will attract even more diners to Thainatown” says Tona.
The pair seem proud to showcase their heritage, “when we first came to Australia when we say we came from Laos, people said ‘where’s that?’. We’re proud of our heritage, people already know Thailand and Vietnam, I hope through Green Peppercorn people will develop and interest in Laos and Lao food” Coke beams.
Green Peppercorn, 1 Hamilton Road, Fairfield, (02) 9724 7842, greenpeppercorn.com.au
Lao/northern Thai flavours in Australia
Pop art meets Thai street food on Melbourne’s South Wharf and it will leave your nose running and eyes watering. The flavours are full-on and chilli is dialled right up, zesty and fiery som tum Isaan is a classic example. Cool the palate with sugary desserts; mango and sticky rice or tapioca and pandan pudding served with mango sorbet and lemongrass syrup.
35 South Wharf Dr, South Wharf, (03) 9245 9800, bangpop.com.au.
This eatery in the Valley’s Chinatown is buzzing day or night thanks to no-nonsense, snappy service, cheerful prices and a menu that includes many northern Thai and Lao favourites. When it gets hot, grab a seat outside and chew on grilled chicken and Lao sausages while downing a Beer Lao – you’ll feel like you’re back in south-east Asia.
Shop 48, 20 Duncan St, Fortitude Valley (Chinatown Mall), (07) 3257 0884.
This unpretentious neighbourhood eatery has a loyal, fanatical following which has something to do with generous servings of spicy northern Thai at cheap-as-chips prices. Larb gai (chicken) gets a universal thumbs up from the punters, as does nham klook kao; crunchy fried rice with raw pork sausage – an Isaan classic.
1 Beechboro Rd, Bayswater, (08) 9272 9189.
Great post Thang, and the Green Peppercorn story is very inspiring! Good to know there’s many good places to eat Lao food now. Another great Lao/Thai restaurant is Baan Latsamy in Manuka, ACT.