New restaurant announcement! Say hello to Foreign Correspondents

Posted: // Filed under: Hunky Dory, Treadsack.

We’re very excited to announce our latest project, Foreign Correspondents, with chef PJ Stoops! Foreign Correspondents will be a farm-to-table Thai restaurant at 4721 North Main St. 77009. The restaurant is being designed by Tyler Swanner and Always Creative.

Foreign Correspondents will seat 105 in its dining room and an additional 50 on its covered patio.

What is “farm-to-table Thai”? What’s the beverage program gonna be like? What’ll be on the menu? Great questions. We did a little interview with ourselves (Chris Cusack, owner; Benjy Mason, Director of Operations; Richard Knight, head chef of Hunky Dory; PJ Stoops, head chef of Foreign Correspondents) to address all those questions and more.

So how did this happen?

Chris Cusack: The short version of it is that we really love Thai and Southeast Asian food. We knew that PJ has had quite a bit of experience working and cooking in Thailand, and Benjy and I thought he’d be a good person to ask for advice. I had no idea that he had such an incredible cooking resume, or that he would even consider going back to the kitchen. When he said he was interested, all I could think was, “Let’s get this guy in front of a wok and see how we work together.” So we put together a pop-up, Midnight Sticky Rice. We all had a blast, the food was incredible, and the attendance and feedback from the guests let us know that we were really on to something.

What does “Farm-to-Table Thai” mean?

PJ Stoops: Houston is not tropical, but it’s not so far away from it either. Northern parts of Thailand are tropical but really not that far from the Tropic of Cancer. Both areas are ridiculously hot (though we do have a winter that sometimes lasts a whole week). In other words, agricultural products, cooking methods, and preservation techniques from over there tend to be quite successful here. Of course, we don’t have to start from scratch because the greater Houston area does boast a rather substantial Southeast Asian immigrant community and an impressive number of market gardens and farms supplying local Asian markets. These gardeners and farmers grow everything there is to grow in our climate. We intend to utilize this network. We have already started working with some of these farmers, and prospects are breathtaking. Many dozens of types of greens, vegetables, herbs, and fruits are grown in large numbers–and all of them have uses in Thai cuisine. While some items (like pla daek and soy sauce) will be imported, our goal is source 100% of fresh ingredients locally.  We are still looking for the right rices.

What made you interested in doing Thai food?

Benjy Mason: As a group we were really excited about Thai food for a number of reasons. The first is that we are really strong believers in the idea that we should always do things that we find interesting and we are passionate about. We believe that if we love it, our guests will love it too. We all love Thai food and were really excited about learning more and exploring it as a cuisine. Bringing PJ and Apple on board opened up a whole new world for us, and we are very excited to see where it all goes.

The second reason is that we have great faith in our guests. So many restaurant groups and chains seem to aim squarely at the lowest common denominator, but we have found that at both Down House and D&T, our guests are smart, interested in new things, and willing to support us. We truly believe that Foreign Correspondents has the potential to be interesting and important on a national scale and at the same time a solid neighborhood restaurants for the the Heights.

PJ: The fact that I wound up cooking Thai was more coincidence than anything else. I went not knowing anything and without many expectations. From the very first meal out of the airport (guay tiao leud a.k.a. guay tiao nam tok a.k.a. noodles with blood) I couldn’t get enough. I met my wife, Apple, early on. For a world of reasons, the best bit of luck I ever had was meeting Apple. One of those reasons is her love of good food. While this is a pretty typical Thai mindset, Apple is a bit of a zealot. Her friends and family even more so. I wanted to learn, and so she showed me. After working at the hotel, I was able to focus more clearly on flavors and textures, having at least taught myself the mechanical basics. I’ve been cooking and eating Thai food (and mumbling a few words of Thai) almost every day for a decade. These days, I don’t really cook any other way, regardless of what I am cooking. Even the damned Bouillabaisse tastes Thai. I can cook fish too—Thai style.

What makes Northern Thai food different from Southern?

Benjy: PJ is definitely the expert here, but I think a good analogy can be found in the introduction of Italian Food to this country. Thirty years ago Italian food meant Italian-American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs. There was little knowledge or understanding the intense variety of regional cuisines in Italy. Since that introduction we have seen chefs, restaurants and cookbooks, really focus in on specific regions.  People have started to realize that there is a difference between Northern and Southern Italian food or even between Calabrian food and Sicilian food. I think Thai food in the states now is where Italian food was 30 years ago. There is a standard repertoire of Thai-American dishes that you will find in pretty much every Thai restaurant in the country. We are really excited to have the opportunity to broaden people’s experience of Thai food by focusing a little bit more on one region.

PJ: I would prefer instead to think in terms of defining characteristics of Northern (Lanna) and Northeastern (Isaan) cuisines. While certainly all regions of Thailand do use common ingredients—galangal, lemongrass, chilis, garlic, shallot, makrut, fish sauce, etc.—regional variation is still striking in spite of rapid loss of traditional cookery. In Lanna and Isaan cookery, both jasmine and sticky rice are eaten, depending on the dish. Sticky rice has always been a defining characteristic of Isaan and Lanna food. Today vendors of green papaya salad and grilled chicken (both Isaan specialties and both eaten with sticky rice) may be found throughout Thailand.

Pork is eaten in every form possible in the North and Northeast, as is chicken (of either sex and any age). Freshwater fish and crustaceans are common. Aside the ubiquitous fish sauce, various types of fermented, salted, and soured fish are prepared. The Isaan fermented fish called Pla Daek requires up to several years before it is ready to eat and is certainly one of the more foul smelling (but delightfully tasting) foodstuffs ever. Pla Ra is essentially the same thing, though not fermented nearly as long. This type is usually also boiled. Shrimp pastes and dried fish and shrimp are also common.

The Northern and Northeastern regions of Thailand are considered Tropical Temperate areas. There are no rain forests in these areas, and rainfall and weather are strongly driven by monsoon cycles. Traditionally great emphasis was placed on gathering wild foodstuffs and animals. This was done foremost for subsistence but also for means of exchange. The wild products of northern and northeastern Thailand as well as Burma, Laos, Cambodia have always commanded great prices, whether animal parts or plants. Inscriptions several hundred years old describing tribute from Northern rulers always included wild products from these areas. In the 21st century, this is dying out in most areas of Thailand, but wild plants, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms are still to be had at small roadside markets in rural areas. Being Tropical Temperate regions, the North and Northeast produce an overwhelming array of Temperate agricultural products.

Some of the food is spicy—Isaan is known for the dry heat of its food—and in all one may detect the influences of history and other peoples. Close to Burma, spices common in a South Asian kitchen are used, brought by Muslim traders several centuries ago. In Isaan cooking, with its heavy reliance on rice fermentation, one may see reflections of methods of preservation developed in the Mekong Delta before written history. Isaan cooking is famous for its frugality and pungency. Lanna food is softened a bit by the natural abundance there.

PJ, tell us about your experience in the kitchen so far.

PJ: While pursuing English and History degrees at UT Austin, I worked at a few catering places. In very late 1998 while still in school I got a job as a prep cook at a new French restaurant called Sardine Rouge. I stayed there for a year, working up to the line to the position of sous chef. I then worked as chef de cuisine at Jean-Luc’s (back when Jean-Luc still owned it), then Asti, then Aquarelle, as sous chef at both places.  The job at Aquarelle led, in late 2002, to a stage at a small restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, France. I was in France for a bit over a year, most of that time working at the restaurant: endless salads and cheeses, making bread, cooking family meals, canning fruits and mushrooms, plucking and cleaning birds, and cleaning lots and lots of fish.The rest of the time (and all my money) was spent reading, learning, eating and cooking beautiful things. I occasionally drank large amounts of wine and eau de vie.

From there I moved to Thailand, where I lived for three years. After a year of teaching in Chiang Mai, I took the position of executive chef at a boutique hotel with the ostentatious name of The Legend. The 88-room hotel was in Chiang Rai, right at the edge of the Kok River. While I had been eating everything in sight since my arrival a year previously, this was my first opportunity to work in a Thai kitchen. I was there for a year and was happily exposed to a rather different variant of Northern food. I then moved back to Chiang Mai when our first child was born. A few months after that I moved back to Texas, where I had the bright idea to start selling fish. In the intervening six years, I have learned more about fish than I ever cared to know.

What can we expect from the menu?

PJ: Dining will be organized as Thai meals are, meaning an emphasis on simple, shareable food. Thai food is not coursed, and ours won’t be either. Thai menus are broken down instead according to the general type of dish. Dishes will be brought to table as they are ready, meaning faster pickups and a smoother flow to the meal.

Obviously there will be quite a bit of fish. I will be concentrating on those species which I’ve been hounding chefs about (with little success) for years. More or less walking the walk, if the cliché may be excused. Some of these fish (like the little ones, bony ones, oily ones, ugly ones) are difficult to use in a Western setting but are right at home in a Thai kitchen. Indeed, a great many dishes are simply not possible with bland, boneless white fish. Also look for some dried and pickled fish and probably some salted stuff, too. But not too much.

More generally, we will be sticking closely to what can be produced around here.  Expect copious use of herbs and just-cooked vegetables. Grilling is one of the main cooking methods employed in Thailand but rarely used in Thai restaurants in Houston.  So yes, we will have a nice big charcoal grill. Lots of pork, lots of birds.

Lunch service will feature some noodle dishes but not most of the usual suspects.  Always sticky rice and steamed rice.

Thai food is very approachable. We hope to emphasize that.

What’s the deal with the name?

Benjy: We kicked around a lot of names in both Thai and English. One thing that was really important to all of us was to acknowledge up front that while this is a cuisine that we really care about and are very interested in, we are not Thai people. Foreign Correspondents sort of captured that feeling for us. It’s about being respectful and passionate chroniclers and translators of a cuisine.

Any other notable features of this restaurant?

Chris: One thing that I’m really excited about is that we have the opportunity to introduce people in Houston to a style of food that hasn’t really been available. And not only the style, but the actual food itself. A lot of the herbs, spices, and vegetables that we served at Midnight Sticky Rice aren’t readily available to the public.

Benjy: I’m really excited about the build out. We are designing the restaurant to create a fun and energetic atmosphere— the kind of place where you can go with a friend or date or with a big group and have a great time. The interior is shaping up really nicely, and we are very excited about the outdoor patio space.  You can expect dense vegetation (including edible vines and herbs we will be using in the restaurant), shaded seating, and a feeling of being transported to somewhere magical. At the end of the day, we are passionate about creating neighborhood spaces for the Heights, and I think that Foreign Correspondents will be something really special and unique.

What will the price point?

PJ: We are aiming for accessibility in the food, and we will also be aiming for accessible pricing.

Benjy: The menu will be set up to encourage Thai-style dining with groups of people sharing a series of dishes over the course of their meal. We really want to create a lively and fun atmosphere where people are trying a wide variety of new dishes and old favorites. The pricing will be set up to reflect that and to make it possible for tables to share a number of dishes without spending a ton of money. At the same time, we are committed to using high quality local ingredients, and we don’t buy into the notion that “ethnic food” SHOULD be cheaper than other foods.

What will the beverage program be like?

Chris: I think we have an opportunity to do something really fun there. Expect us to take advantage of the amazing produce and herbs we have access to for cocktails. Travis Hinkle, our beverage director, has been working with a lot of Austrian and German wine producers, which we feel pairs perfectly with this type of food. Oh–large-format Chang beers are a huge deal in Thailand. We love beer, so we expect to have some fun with it at FC.

Benjy: You can also expect to see Johnnie Walker. Lots of Johnnie Walker.

What will happen with PJ’s work with Gulf Coast fish? No more fish for Houston restaurants and shoppers?

PJ: This is a sort of necessary transition for me and my family. I have been looking for such an opportunity for a long time, and Apple and I had agreed that that was the best way forward.

Chris: When we all agreed to work together, we really wanted to make sure that Houston (and in particular our restaurants) has a regular supply of fresh Gulf Coast fish. So we partnered with PJ to start a new seafood distribution company that we named Choam Distribution.Choam has been operating for a little over a year now with Nate Nichols at the helm with assistance by PJ. We’re really excited to keep serving great seafood at Foreign Correspondents, Hunky Dory, and Bernadine’s.

Anything else?


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