Starting your own restaurant is both challenging and daunting, but Chef Paul Wanson knew that the time was right to follow his dream.
Taking over the already established Southport restaurant Sen Lek Thai with his wife Ai, Paul is intent on putting his own mark on the menu with the goal of serving authentic Thai street food.
Growing up in Chiang Mai, Paul loved working with food from a young age. His mother didn’t agree with his career choice, telling him that it was too hard a life, and Paul was sent away to study communications engineering.
But the kitchen remained his inspiration and, since coming to Australia when he was 26 years old, Paul has studied Commercial Cookery and Hospitality, extending his experience in the kitchens of Chiang Mai Thai, Versace and the Watermark (now Voco) before becoming Sous Chef at QT’s Bazaar, (where we first met him), and Head Chef at Club Helensvale.
“We have been thinking of opening a Thai café and noodle bar for several years,” Paul tells us. “I love to make people happy with food,” he says, the grin spreading across his face.
‘Sen Lek’ is the name of thin rice noodles, so it’s not surprising that Pad Thai is one of Sen Lek’s most popular dishes, along with Tom Yum soup and Beef noodle soup. Paul says that Thai street noodles, curries and stir fries are some of his main dishes.
Though he only took over Sen Lek in July 2019, when we dine there at lunchtime, the 24-seat restaurant is filled with Thai students and local workers enjoying freshly-made well-priced food (all dishes under $20).
Paul is intent on making the flavours and presentation of his dishes a more authentic reflection of his Northern Thai homeland, introducing specials such as Khao Soi, the creamy coconut curry noodle soup considered Chiang Mai’s signature dish and Ka Noon Jeen Nam Ngean (Thai noodle soup with tomato), joining the ubiquitous Pad Kaa-na with rich, crispy pork belly, chilli and Chinese vegetables, and Pad basil with pork mince (Phat kaphrao) – the first meal of choice for some of the Tham Luang cave survivors.
Making his broths from scratch without MSG, Paul goes to the markets every morning to buy his fresh vegetables and herbs, importing sugar, white pepper and specialist spices (such as a fermented soy bean paste) from Thailand, as they are not available in Australia.
Thai milk tea, lemon iced tea, Thai iced coffee and milk green tea are also available at Sen Lek, including to take away. Rosella, camomile and lemongrass teas are on the way.
It’s worth trying out Sen Lek, supporting a couple who are trying to give their own small business a go. They may be on a journey but, with the support of locals, they’ll have the confidence to bring us more Northern Thai street food that is hard to find on the Gold Coast.
1/77 Scarborough St, Southport Ph: 07 5511 0345
Open: Mon – Fri 11am – 8pm; Sat 11am – 3.30pm