Owner of Thai Sai-on, Sam Chanhao, tells us about his love of wine and helping customers pick the perfect accompaniment to their meal
In 1980, Sanit (Sam) Chanhao’s family lived in Thailand, by the border with Laos. They were poor and had lost their most precious asset: their freedom.
Desperate to escape, Sam’s mother persuaded their local priest to help. He had a colleague at the International School in Bangkok, and reluctantly agreed. Two years later, the Chanhaos arrived in Arkansas – and were turned away. Sam’s parents were Vietnamese, crossing to Laos before Thailand, and America didn’t trust them. But it was meant to be.
Carrying Red Cross papers, they travelled to Seattle then to Grand Prairie. “It was very small, only 24,000 people,” says Sam, “but they gave us a very warm welcome. It was great for us to settle there. We had a great time, particularly in the summertime when you can see the light till midnight, and the beautiful yellow canola fields”.
Sam was an alter boy in a Catholic boarding school, and he and his brother would finish all the wine after the mass. But he studied very hard. “When you are poor you have to work harder to be accepted.” he says. He intended to become a priest, quoting from Lincoln’s biography, “when I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad,” and it’s still Sam’s philosophy today.
Sam’s sisters came to Calgary and ate at the newly opened King and I, then an eatery owned by a Laos couple who weren’t doing too well. They called their mother, ‘Mum, you have to come and have a look!” And the family bought it – but in 1982 no-one knew what Thai food was. They changed name to Thai Sai-on (meaning craving delicate and beautiful food.) “It was the best year for Bordeaux and I missed it.” says Sam, laughing.
Sam was a teacher’s assistant in an integration school for handicapped kids at the time, and he loved working there. He adopted a handicapped Metis child with cerebral palsy over 20 years ago, who still lives with Sam.
Following his family to Calgary, Sam took over the restaurant’s wine program. First he bought a cooler and proper glasses to show he was serious, and then went to Chapters and bought everything they had on wine. “Robert Parker’s book was like turning on a tap, it really gave me a passion for wine,” he explains. He was amazed at the eloquence and precision. But knowledge alone is no use, so Sam went to every wine tasting, never taking notes, and relying solely on memory. “Out of 10 wines you only like 3 or 4, but that makes it easy to remember them.”
To this day, he only tastes for his customers, picking over 60% of wines for his clients. “It gives me so much joy to introduce people to wine. I love the sharing aspect.”
So what wine is Sam saving for a special occasion?
His joy is the Duclot Bordeaux Collection of 2009; the nine most prestigious wines from Bordeaux, in a handmade wooden case. “It cost $14,000-$15,000 in 2009 and I want to crack it, but I’m saving it for when my ship comes in”, smiles Sam. “Please come in soon! You never know what tomorrow will bring.”
Photo by Ingrid Keunzel