A University of Tennessee English Learning Institute (ELI) Alumna’s Journey from Bangkok to Gay Street
UT Center for Global Engagement
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (March 2022) – Nestled between the bright lights of the Tennessee Theatre and the Regal Riviera downtown is a cozy restaurant that some call home: Fai Thai Kitchen or ร้านฝ้ายไทย.
At Fai Thai, food preparation is a labor of love. The idea for the family restaurant grew from the determination of Kultida “Fai” Blais, which has met much success in its first few months.
Fai grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where she says many residents don’t have kitchens and instead dine on the delicious street food prepared by Bangkok chefs. Fai attended journalism school and graduated with honors from Bangkok University before working as a public relations executive at the luxury Athenee Hotel.
After a few years in her position, Fai decided to take a leap and head to the United States and join her parents who were living in New York. ,
“I decided to come to America, and it was such a dream,” Fai said.
After moving to New York, her parents’ brief stints at jobs in Knoxville led Fai to East Tennessee. Here, she discovered the English Language Institute at the University of Tennessee and enrolled in an English program to improve her English skills.
“You feel very comfortable (at ELI) because all the teachers try to accommodate you, like try to teach you, and all the friends, they’re all international,” Fai said. “So it’s opened my mind to understand we don’t have to be the same. We don’t have to do the same exact thing and in general, people seek out different things.”
When her parents headed back to New York, Fai stayed to finish her studies at ELI, where she had made lasting friends. She put down roots in Knoxville and met her soon-to-be husband, Nathan Blais, and settled into life in East Tennessee.
Fast forward seven years – her world is radically different
“It’s like, so thriving for these seven years, to be here in America,” Fai said. Ambitious to start her next endeavor, Fai began investigating opportunities to launch her own business after finishing at ELI. In Bangkok homes had no kitchens, so she did not have a lot of experience cooking, but both of her parents are experienced chefs and had instilled in her a deep appreciation of food — especially food prepared with family recipes passed down through generations.
With support from a loan designated for minority-owned businesses from the Knoxville Area Urban League, she decided to try her hand at running a food truck. It is not an easy process but worth the rewards, according to Fai. Both in their twenties at the time, they proceeded and were cheated out of investment money while initially launching the business, she says.
“We were young and stupid, so we lost a lot of money through that, but we finally got the food truck. … Luckily, I have my parents. … They taught me, and I have the basic skills already, so I can just pick it up and do it,” Fai said. With a lot of hard work, business for the food truck eventually picked up. Fai was grateful for advice from mentor Kumi Alderman, director of the Knoxville Asian Festival, who she says is really “like her second mom.”
Fai worked in the food truck herself, cooking from recipes passed down from her parents and grandparents, even while she was pregnant. Her husband Nathan Blais continued working with the food truck as well.
When COVID-19 hit, the couple took a break from running the truck. Nathan got another job, and Fai spent time at home with their newborn son while also brainstorming ways she could improve her business. “I had a lot of time to think through the business because I just jumped into the business before … ,” Fai said.
Moving up from food truck to downtown restaurant
After returning from her hiatus, Fai soon found a brick-and-mortar home for Fai Thai in the heart of downtown Knoxville on Gay Street and sold the food truck. At the time, it seemed like everything was falling into place; Fai’s parents, after being separated for decades, were married for the first time by none other than their daughter. They moved into an apartment on Gay Street, just a walk away from Fai Thai, to bring their years of cooking expertise to the restaurant and spend time with their new grandson.
In the restaurant’s kitchen, Fai’s dad Chatchai “Fa” Puchakanit expertly whips up the “Grandma Recipe,” formerly known on the food truck as “Street Food of Bangkok.” With decades of cooking experience behind him, Fai says that when her dad makes the recipe, it’s just different than when she made it on the food truck.
“The same recipe, but the cook is different, he has 30 years of experience,” Fai said. “It’s such a comfort to me to have food from my parents.” She enjoys her dad’s cooking just as much as any customer and regularly stops by the restaurant to eat even on her days off, she says, reflecting on how fortunate it is to have authentic Thai food prepared by him in Knoxville.
At Fai Thai Kitchen, the carefully-crafted cuisine is just one part of the dining experience. There is soft lighting and jazz music playing in the background that sets the stage for guests at the eight tables family-run restaurant, which Fai says is more like a café where she encourages people to relax, if just for a moment, and enjoy the food.
“It’s not fast food, my parents craft each meal when ordered,” said Fai. At Fai Thai Kitchen customers are received as more coming into her home to eat food made by her family. Though she’s always open to improvement, customers on a tight schedule or lunch hour can save time by calling ahead or placing an order for pick-up.
As a successful business owner, Fai says her blooming restaurant is really just the beginning. Fai plans to lean into a more homey atmosphere for future iterations of the restaurant — in an actual house evoking a comforting “grandma” style, featuring a Biergarten and outside seating.
Visit Fai Thai Kitchen at 522 S. Gay Street for a delicious dine-in or take-out experience, fueled by recipes passed down through generations.