Deirdre Pain admits she's a storyteller. The owner of Malee's Thai Bistro in Old Town Scottsdale thinks it might be because she's Irish, but we think it has something to do with the sheer amount of stories she has to tell.
Take, for example, how she recounts the first month after getting a glowing review in the Arizona Republic not long after Malee's opened in 1987. She remembers the exact date of the review — October 21, 1987 — and getting called away from her day job working with child abuse cases at St. Joseph's Hospital. She even remembers the yellow silk blouse she was wearing almost 30 years ago, which she spilled Thai ice tea all over in the middle of a frenzy of customers.
"I couldn't stop," she recalled. "That night, the chef at the end said he quit."
She did get the chef to return — he had stomped away declaring no Thai restaurant could possibly be that busy — until she could find a replacement. Pain remembers the entire first month as "a nightmare" until she connected with someone who helped her and her business partner (the restaurant's namesake, Malee) organize the dining room.
"And all of a sudden things went from chaos to calm," she says.
Pain opened Malee's almost 30 years ago because of her massive love for Thai food. She says she was so obsessed with the cuisine, her friends would often pre-empt her dining suggestions with, "Not Thai." Pain also saw problems in Thai restaurants at the time, and was craving a Thai spot with upscale ambience and a cocktail list.
In fact, she says that was her pitch to a friend who put up the money for Malee's. When he couldn't get a Stoli at another local Thai place, she asked him to back her in a Thai restaurant where he could get a Stoli anytime. Not long after, Malee's was open on Main Street in Old Town, in a space where a French restaurant had been.
(And, by the way, it's pronounced Mah-Lee's, but Pain doesn't mind any pronunciation. "I don't care what you call me, just show up," she says.)
Pain's background in social work influences how she runs Malee's.
"When someone comes in here we enter into a contract," she says. "My part of the contract is to give you the best food, the best service, the best ambience that I’m capable of providing. And your part of the contract is to pay for that. But if I break my side of the contract, I can’t look you in the eye and say, ‘Well I broke my part of the contract but you have to hold yours up.’"
Pain also owes a lot of her restaurant's longevity to employee loyalty. General manager Krisada Fisher has been with Malee's for almost its entire 28 year run — his brother works at the restaurant, too. Another employee worked in the kitchen for almost 20 years. The head chef, Gavin Ashworth, is Pain's son-in-law and her daughter Amy Short-Ashworth works in the front of the house (among many of the hats she wears at the restaurant).
"There’s nothing better than loyalty," she says. "I can’t make every dish, I can’t be at every table. But if I have the right people around me, it gets done."