Spirited chef keeps growing Thai food business
IF YOU ever feel you may be too old to continue working, listen to Helen Brierty talk for five minutes and you'll quickly change your mind.
Owner/operator of the much-lauded Spirit House Restaurant in Yandina, Helen has just released a follow-up cookbook to her previous best-sellers.
This beautiful new book published by New Holland and written by Helen Brierty and chef Annette Fear includes new recipes as well as revamped classics.
Helen and her staff of 53 at The Spirit House are understandably proud of this book with its 200 recipes and stunning photography.
"It's a labour of love," Helen said.
"We had to cook and photograph all of the 200 recipes.
"My son Acland did all the photography and it is very good."
Helen, who happily admits her age (74) is inspiration to all women, especially seniors who plan to stay in the workforce or even enter it at a mature age.
"I will never stop working," she said.
"I will keep on doing what I do until I can't do it any more.
"If I stopped I would age very quickly. If you don't have work you'd sit at home and talk about what's on TV."
Although Helen has backed away from full-time hands-on work at The Spirit House, she and her husband Peter (80 and 'still telling his terrible jokes') control the business during their three days of work.
"We have a wonderful team of staff," Helen said.
"They work so well together...Peter and I just look after the money side."
Helen and Peter Brierty have grown The Spirit House to international status through two decades of hard work and commitment, stepping out of their comfort zone on many occasions, constantly facing new challenges and taking risks senior people usually shy away from.
What is now a lush oasis of tropical Thai serenity complete with a tranquil lake on which the restaurant appears to float, began life as a bare horse paddock in 1997.
"Back then we imported pots and garden ornaments from Thailand and sold them in the paddock," Helen said.
"We were constantly asked by customers to put in a coffee shop.
"So we did and served light lunches, Thai salads and coffee at lunch.
"It grew from there."
It took two years of heavy planting and the digging out of a large section to create the lake, then building the restaurant in Thai architecture before The Spirit House opened.
And when it did, success was instant.
People came from all across the country and then across the world, enjoying stepping into a true slice of Thailand in the middle of country Yandina.
They loved wandering the extensive gardens, dining in small alcoves by the lake, sitting in the 'floating' restaurant, eating rich Thai curries and braised pork belly and, what quickly became a signature dish, whole crispy fish.
Delighted customers began demanding recipes which led to the first best-selling cookbook and the opening of The Spirit House Cooking School.
The school became an instant hit, with hands-on cooking classes run by chef Annette Fear who now oversees three permanent chefs in the school offering dozens of different classes each week.
Then came the tag-along-tours led by Acland, Helen and Peter's son who had by then become an important part of the business.
He began taking tours to Thailand, giving Spirit House customers a glimpse into Thai culture and cuisine.
He has now expanded these tours to visit India and Cambodia.
In September, the most ambitious tour of them all will see eight fortunate guests board a ketch in Bali to visit the islands where Portuguese and Dutch traders once sold spices.
Just two of these tours sold out in five hours of announcement.
Yet still there is more growth at The Spirit House.
A new private dining room and bar is due to open in April/May.
"The demand is there," Helen said.
"So many people want to celebrate birthdays or family reunions but don't want to be surrounded by others."
The private dining room will seat up to 28 people, have its own chef and modern bar.
It is a separate stand-alone building linked to the main dining room with its own outdoor courtyard."
You have to wonder when it will all stop... but Helen Brierty sees no sign of that.
"It is all client-driven," she said.
"We just have to do these things, you have to respond to the demand."
The new Spirit House cookbook is set to overtake sales of the original green cookbook now in so many households across Australia.
Its arrival on bookshelves this month has been highly anticipated.
"It has many new recipes, lots of chef's tips and hints," Helen said.
"It's a big book, double the size of the original one."
Spirit House - The Cookbook, By Helen Brierty and Annette Fear, New Holland: $49.99.