The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market is a lonely place at midnight. And that’s just how Circles Thai chef/owner Alex Boonphaya likes it. The refrigerated temperature doesn’t phase him despite his short-sleeved t-shirt, and on this past Wednesday morning, he quietly looks over boxes full of colorful fruits and vegetables imported from around the world–trying to decide which will make the cut for his dinner at the James Beard House in Manhattan tonight.
To call Boonphaya unassuming is to speak a significant understatement. Though he continues to win “Best of Philly” awards and survived a year-long application process to cook at the famed Beard House, his manner is shy and his ego is most assuredly in check. As he ambles through the Essington Avenue warehouse, glancing frequently at a notebook where he’s written a meticulous shopping list, he thanks product runners graciously, simply answers “yes” to a cashier who asks if he’s a chef, and orders a humble tuna sandwich to go for dinner from the on-site diner.
“Chefs don’t eat very glamorously,” he says softly to a member of the three-person entourage who’s accompanied him on this evening’s errand.
Sandwich purchased and wrapped in tin foil, he strolls ahead to another of the 24 grocers, looking to complete his purchase of carrots, Brussels sprouts, corn, strawberries, ringer limes (at $18 a small box), strawberries, mini-zucchinis, coconuts, and greens called “beet bull’s blood.” Having bought enough produce to feed 100 heads, he sends members of his entourage out twice to unload his unfortunately undersized hand-cart into his Mercedes SUV. While they’re gone, he tells a merchant he can’t give him a business card because he has a bad habit of not carrying them.
On the way home, he says commercial cooking should be about the food, not the personality, and grumbles that Philadelphians don’t like to take risks with their dining habits. This is a curious statement coming from a man who’s about to create his own cuisine by opening a Thai-Mexican joint in the coming weeks. (Mexican food with Thai flavors, he describes.) He muses that he’d like to establish a non-Thai restaurant that uses superb ingredients and starts at a high price point; it’s a reaction to his inability to keep prices raised when he unsuccessfully switched to a higher-end ingredient concept at Circles.
But that’s a concern for a different shopping trip. At 1:30 on this Wednesday morning, he’s got an impending restaurant on his mind as well as a James Beard dinner to prepare for. And as the lights of the produce market fade into the rear-view mirror for the Thailand-born 30-something father who’s struggling through month of overwork, fatigue and contemplation, the fact that the he’s cooking the most prestigious dinner of his career in less than 48 hours seems almost an afterthought.
Watch this spot for upcoming stories in our series, Alex Goes To Jimmy’s House, all about the chef Boonphaya’s midnight shopping excursions, dinner prep and service at the James Beard House.