Weeks before the 2023 James Beard Awards finalists were announced, chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter — best known as “Chef G” — was trying to temper her excitement. Seeing her name on the shortlist for the best chef: Texas category brought on a lot of emotions.
It was crazy, shocking, exciting, she said. Reservations were skyrocketing at Street to Kitchen — the 10-table Thai restaurant that she co-owns with her husband Graham Painter — and interest was also picking up at Th Prsrv — the Thai and Native American tasting menu restaurant that the Painters opened in Kemah with Eculent chef David Skinner. But she didn’t want to get her hopes up.
“I do not expect it’s going to be this year,” she said. If she did win the award, she knew Graham, her family, and her team, would all be proud. A nomination at 29 years old for a restaurant that had only been open for nearly three years would be an accomplishment in itself, but “I’m still new,” she convinced herself. “The restaurant just opened. People are just starting to know us, but I always dream. I tell myself in a couple more years.”
For many friends and fans of the restaurant, though, Chef G’s win was already a given. They tried to tell her — in the words of Skinner: “You know you’re going to win, right?” And sure enough, on the night of Monday, June 5 in Chicago, Chef G’s name was announced, bringing again that flurry of shock and emotion that she initially felt.
“It means a lot for me,” said Chef G on the night of her win. Adorned in a black gown with a colorful shawl made by Thai designer Nata Fashion, she said: “I’m just the girl who grow up with a family business.”
For Chef G, her goals with Street to Kitchen have always been earnest — to make the world “a little more Thai.” She began cooking at the age of 6, helping her grandmother craft Central Thai classics at their neighborhood restaurant before moving on to other restaurants and pastry shops in Bangkok. Five years after meeting her husband Graham in Thailand, she moved to Houston, beginning her career at lauded restaurants like Theodore Rex under chef Justin Yu (who she credits for teaching her the business), and the now-shuttered Saltair Seafood Kitchen.
The idea for Street to Kitchen started soon after Chef G began to feel homesick. Much of the Thai cuisine she experienced in the city felt unrecognizable. “I thought, I’m going to bring my grandma’s recipe here and show the flavor and how good she cooks. I want it to be like [she’s] here with me,” she said. Then, in 2020, Chef G and Graham created their East End dream restaurant, ensuring “unapologetically Thai” cuisine with staples like pad see ew, massaman curry, drunken noodles, and pad Thai, always with shrimp, never with chicken — just like she’d get at home. But the road wasn’t easy, especially launching during the pandemic.
“I tried to do what my dream is. I could barely speak English when I came here. I try, and I’m really shy and everything, but I do better. I break the wall, and if I speak wrong, it’s wrong,” she said. “I just do my best.”
Next to a gas station, and roughly a block from bustling railroad tracks, the restaurant has built a reputation for its unabashed, “sorry, not sorry” approach to dining. The stapled paper menu, formatted in a three-act musical, comically sets the tone. The script, which lists menu items in each act, describes a testy guest conveniently named Karen who wants to modify her food to be less spicy and challenges the restaurant’s rules, which are no modification or substitutions. After trying to order her meal separately rather than all at once, she calls the police about the 22 percent gratuity, which Graham says helps pay a fair wage to Street to Kitchen’s team. In the end, Karen is hauled away by the police, and the menu finishes with its last two pages riddled with some of the restaurant’s worst reviews, proving that they are well aware that their form of Thai — what they feel is the truest form — is not for everyone.
The overall ambiance of the restaurant is refreshingly raw and intimate, too. If you can snag a spot, the front bar — with just a few chairs and a hysterical decorative photo of a “Karen” — is undoubtedly the best seat in the house, a place where you can chat up its knowledgable bartender-server and likely converse (and nerd out) with Graham about wine. (He’s bound to suggest an unlikely but delicious pairing or a “funky” natural pick.) Details from the decor to the music played inside are intentional, featuring tunes exclusively by Thai artists, further transporting diners into what Chef G has always hoped would feel like a friend’s house — or better yet, her grandmother’s.
“I always make sure … I feel like I’m back home again. This is the food that you get when you go to a friend’s house, not like a restaurant or business,” she said. “I want to show you how good my grandma cooks and how happy I feel when I try her food.” Now, she’s expanding her repertoire, building upon her made-to-order cooking experience of Thai street and comfort foods, and into the world of luxe-tasting menus, a deliberate and timed experience that requires each guest to be served multiple dishes at various times.
“I used to dream one day that I’d get on that list,” she said of the Beards. “You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but my mom always tells me to do my best so when you look back, you don’t feel sorry,” she said.
This time, she said, “We made it, Houston.”