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Dogtown couple’s popup ‘secret suppers’ serve up authentic Thai cuisine, culinary conversations

(from left) Heather Hughes, Ekkachai Danwanichakul, and Chelsie Hellige joined Thursday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss Spirit House.
(from left) Heather Hughes, Ekkachai Danwanichakul, and Chelsie Hellige joined Thursday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss Spirit House.

Having grown up in Thailand, Ekkachai Danwanichakul does not want to settle for anything less than truly traditional Thai food in his current home of St. Louis. But the goal of authenticity has turned out to be a lofty one.

“Every time I go out to eat Thai food around here, more often than not I’m disappointed,” said Danwanichakul.

He and his wife, St. Louis native Chelsie Hellige decided to take matters into their own hands. What began as an effort to introduce their friends to home-cooked, authentic Thai meals evolved into a popup restaurant held at the couple’s own Dogtown bungalow.

The project is called Spirit House, and it has become an exclusive and sought-after “secret supper” for St. Louis foodies. Dinners are weekly or biweekly, and they are announced via email and Instagram.

When asked by host Don Marsh on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air how Spirit House fits in with the growing number of Thai restaurants in St. Louis, managing editor of Sauce Magazine Heather Hughes said that “in a lot of ways, it doesn’t.”

“[Danwanichakul and Hellige] are doing things that Thai restaurants would have a really hard time doing,” explained Hughes – due to both the couple’s desire to serve uniquely Thai flavors unfamiliar to the typical American palate, and the amount of time they are able to spend preparing the dishes.

The endeavor is also distinctive in that it is not financially motivated. The hosts ask diners for a fee that generally covers the cost of making the food, including all the additional kitchenware they need to create Thai meals for a crowd at home.

“It’s not about money,” Danwanichakul emphasized. “We want to make food that we think tastes like Thailand.”

According to both Hughes and Hellige, the guests are “self-selecting,” meaning that – because they have gone out of their way to learn about the restaurant and reserve coveted seats at the table – they will be open to the new flavors Spirit House has to offer.

The “self-selecting” diners also tend to be open to creating spaces for culinary and cultural dialogues.

“When everyone’s eating dessert, we tend to kind of sneak in and just start chatting with people,” Hellige said. “Honestly that’s been our primary goal … just to start a discussion.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Xandra Ellin is so psyched to join the St. Louis on the Air team as this fall’s production intern! Xandra graduated from Wesleyan University this spring with a degree in Psychology and American Studies. She found ways to incorporate a passion for radio into her academic pursuits, with an honors thesis that dealt with the psychological and sociocultural phenomena that have historically made localized radio a viable mechanism for social change in American communities. Xandra’s career in public radio began at her college radio station, WESU, where she was the Public Affairs Director by day and a music DJ by night. She has also had two production internships prior to this one: one at WYPR in her home city of Baltimore, MD in 2017 and another at WNPR in Hartford, CT in 2018. When she's not at KWMU, Xandra spends her time going for runs, watching bad reality television, and serving up some quality local artisan brews through her side hustle at the Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton.