Suriya Chantarungsarit (Tee) never intended to open nine Thai restaurants – the latest one a night market-inspired Thai Town QV in the heart of Melbourne.
Tee came to Sydney from Bangkok as an overseas student to get his masters in IT. After graduating, he worked for six years but found he couldn't progress his career.
He says, "Back then I tried my best to further my career climbing the corporate ladder, but I realised that it was very difficult."
"My qualifications, my knowledge was very high, but it was just hard for me with an Asian background to become management level, so at 29, I quit my job and I start a restaurant."
Tee's first restaurant, Thai Splendid, opened in Campbelltown in 2006. He continued to work in IT for a year while setting up and joined his wife after hours to help wash dishes and mop floors.
It was like when they first met working at a restaurant in their mid-twenties: Tee washing dishes to supplement his IT job and his wife, Dujja Sereemanakij (Kae), a waitress.
Things picked up when Tee went full time. The couple opened three restaurants in three years, took a break to have children, and then opened another five under the banners of Thai Splendid and Thai Alley, all in foot traffic-heavy shopping centres.
"I'm very good at the numbers because of engineering," says Tee. "My wife keeps asking me, 'when are you going to stop?' and I said, 'let me have 10 shops and then I'll slow down'. Nearly there!"
Tee and Kae's Thai Town QV, which is situated opposite Ippudo on Artemis Lane in Melbourne, is their first 200-seat restaurant.
"I just try my best to bring back whatever Thai people miss or love."
Tee estimates his menu has around 100 dishes. The most popular sections are noodle soups and spicy, sour Issan food from Thailand's northeast.
Between 11am and 3pm, lunch specials are as little as $9.90 for fermented rice noodles with curry. In the evening you can snack on fermented pork salad and grilled skewers before moving onto whole deep-fried barramundi and sets with som tum papaya salad, little bags of sticky rice and marinated grilled chicken.
"If I was thinking about money, maybe [the menu] would be very small and effective, but with this shop, I'm thinking about what it felt like when I was a student," he says.
Knowing what it's like to crave home, Tee wanted Thai Town to be a place for the Thai community.
"So, I'm thinking to do that with this restaurant, but I was scared because most of my restaurants are outside the city."
"I never come to the city because you have to be very, very good to be here!"
Given that 90 per cent of Tee's customers are Thai natives, it would seem that Thai Town made the cut.
After 11pm students flood the restaurant, listen to live music and drink from three-litre beer towers. Friday nights are especially busy, with Thai Town staying open until 3am.
Tee and Kae visit home multiple times each year, scouting what's popular in Bangkok.
Desserts are trending, which is why there's a dessert bar at the front of the shop and a special Thai grocer section.
Some items have no more than five days shelf life and come to the shop straight from the plane.
"I used to be an overseas student as well," says Tee.
"Every year when you're looking forward to going back to your country, what you miss is your family and food. And the food part, I just try my best to bring back whatever Thai people miss or love."
Thai Town QV
Shop 25 Artemis Lane, QV Shopping Centre, Melbourne
Sat-Thu noon-midnight, Fri noon-3am
Tender pieces of blue swimmer crab add extra luxury and lightness to this fragrant Thai yellow curry.
These easy fish cakes, served with the fresh cucumber salad, make for a light, healthy dinner.