South African Food Changed My Life

I know what you are thinking.  Thomas that sounds ridiculous.  South African food doesn’t even sound appealing.  How could it possibly have changed your life?

In order for me to explain, let me share a bit about my background and how I got to this point.  I was born in Chicago but my family and I have lived in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, since 1979.  I was an only child, and in the eighties and early nineties, there weren’t many Asian families out there yet.  My high school class had about 8 asians in it or at least it felt that way.  Through no one else’s fault but mine, I didn’t have many friends.  I was socially awkward and very shy.  If I had to pick a best friend during high school it would probably be my mom.  Shes really cool by the way 😊.  It was hard for me to fit in, so I developed this yearning to be around people that looked like me.  That had to be the solution right?

After graduation, I attended the University of Texas at Austin and ended up co-founding an Asian fraternity there.  All of my friends were Asian, and I finally found a place where I felt like I fit in.  My mom only cooks Vietnamese food, so growing up I ate mostly Vietnamese, Chinese or Korean foods.  When I was adventurous, I ate sushi.  If you had asked me if I would be ok eating just Asian food for the rest of my life at that time, I would have actually said yes and believed it.

I would eventually graduate undergrad and law school from UT and worked as an attorney for three years.  And at the age of 27, to my surprise, I was unhappy. Even though I finally had a lot of friends, got a great education and a promising career, I felt really unfulfilled and unmotivated with my life. 

I did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time – quit my job without a gameplan. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew for certain that I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I moved in with my parents and began to search for what I was going to do with my life.  Eventually I would meet my business partners and together we would create one of the first South African restaurant concepts in Houston called Peli Peli.  Our first location opened April 13, 2009.

If I thought introducing a new cuisine, in the suburbs, in a city with over 10,000 restaurants was going to be easy, I was delusional.  I had never worked in a restaurant before or owned my own business.  Even though I was in charge of marketing, branding and public relations, I had never taken a course in any of those subjects.

That first year we couldn’t pay people to eat at our restaurant.  I would literally stand outside our restaurant and beg people to give us a try.  One of my favorite stories involved this group of sweet, older ladies.  I had done this masterful spiel (so I thought) and convinced them to come in.  They came in, got seated and 5 minutes later, they walked out.  I was like WTF?  I asked my server AnnMarie what happened and she said, “Thomas one of the ladies tried to order dumplings.  When I told her we didn’t have any dumplings, she said WHAT KIND OF CHINESE RESTAURANT DOESN’T SELL DUMPLINGS?”  I remember just wanting to quit that day.  No one was ever going to care about South African food and especially not coming from an Asian guy!

I was frustrated and angry but realized that the problem wasn’t with the food.  The food was actually really amazing.  It wasn’t with people, it was with me!  I wasn’t connecting with people because I didn’t understand what South African food really was!

So what makes South African food so unique are the variety of cuisines and cultures that make up South Africa including Indian, Dutch, British, Portuguese and the surrounding African countries.  It is the diversity, this melting pot of people and cultures, that makes South Africa so special - just like here in Houston, just like here in America. 

So I started trying all different kinds of curries, kidney pies, mieliepap, biltong, all types of traditional South African, Indian, and British dishes.  I didn’t stop there.  I started trying other types of ethnic foods like Filipino, Pakistani, & Venezuelan.  One of the best things I ever ate were goat chops from Aga’s here in Houston.  My favorite show became Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern!

I’m not gonna lie.  Some of it I didn’t really care for and will probably never eat again.  But a lot of it was soooo good.  The flavors, spices, seasonings and aromas, I couldn’t believe I had waited almost 30 years to be able to experience these things.  I had been missing out!  This totally changed my perception of food. 

Then something unexpected resulted from simply forcing myself to eat out of my comfort zone.  Eating things that were unfamiliar to me, maybe even scared me, helped to burst the bubble that I had been living in all of my life.  I realized that when you live in your own little bubble, there are only so many things that you can experience.  The possibilities are not endless.  The things you can achieve, the flavors you can enjoy, are actually really limited.

These past few years, my world has completely changed.  My favorite things to do all involve eating and trying new restaurants or foods.  I have a much more open mind to trying new things, learning about other cultures and pushing myself to explore things outside of my comfort zone.  I have bungy jumped, skydived, run 50 miles for fun (not) and completed two Ironman triathlons.  I have been in a Chuck Norris commercial, and I even started a non-profit called Happiness Heroes.

And all of this happened because I learned that there was more to this world than what was around me, simply as a result of being exposed to other cultures by eating their food. 

So I’m going to leave you with this.  This will either determine whether you just wasted 10 minutes of your life or if this will lead to something potentially impactful in your life.   At the conclusion of reading this blog, I want you to do yourself a favor.  Go eat something you have never had before.  Go to a restaurant you have never wanted to eat at or were too afraid to try.  It doesn’t matter what it it is, just pick one and go for it.

You may absolutely hate it and that’s ok.  At least you tried it once.  But what I am hoping for is that it will be your first of many steps outside of your comfort zone and into an entirely new world. Have fun with it!