How Bangkok's 'oyster king' shucked his way to restaurant domination

How Bangkok's 'oyster king' shucked his way to restaurant domination

Gone are the days of carrying oysters in a briefcase to Bangkok. Today Billy Marinelli just might be the world’s only seafood restaurateur with a degree in marine science
Oyster king
Wearing his trademark bandanna, Billy Marinelli holds up a plate of his famous imported oysters.

According to The Seafood Bar head chef Matt Dowdell, owner Billy Marinelli is “utterly clumsy” and should be kept away from the kitchen at all costs. Nevertheless, the chef admits there are few who are more knowledgeable about the restaurant business in the region than the legendary "oyster king."

Gregarious and outspoken, Marinelli is not your typical Bangkok restaurant owner. A Long Island native who grew up in New York, Marinelli says he was always fascinated with the ocean programs of Jacques Cousteau, swearing that one day it would be him who would be swimming with the fishes. 

"I'm probably the only seafood restaurateur with a degree in marine science,” he says, acknowledging that before he made a living cooking the sea's fare, he was focused on its sustainability. 

And while transitioning from conserving fish to serving it for consumption might raise a few brows, he still maintains that conservation spirit with regards to the seafood he serves in his two popular Bangkok restaurants, The Oyster Bar and the Seafood Bar (the latter named CNNGo Best Eats Bangkok’s “best new restaurant”). 

Marinelli says most of the oysters he provides are raised on farms rather than harvested from the wild, and he makes sure that the breeds of fish he sells are renewable.

He's also an innovator. One of the products he is trying to push in his two restaurants is ono ogo, a relatively unheard of seaweed that has a strong taste and a similar texture to mushrooms that Marinelli’s chefs cook into a variety of pastas and dishes. So far, the results have been delicious.  

Part-time hobby leads to two hot restaurants 

Despite Marinelli's current success, becoming a restaurateur was never in his sights. 

“If you had told me I would own restaurants 10 years ago I would probably have laughed at you,” he says.

Billy MarinelliBilly holds up a massive mahi-mahi, an incredibly tasty fish found in tropical waters worldwide.

Marinelli's first journey to Asia was as a guest of the Chinese government nearly 20 years ago to help develop their aquaculture industry. During the trip he had a chance to visit Thailand and met up with the head chefs of several prominent hotels, who would eventually dub him the "oyster king."  

At the time, fresh quality oysters were hard to come by in Thailand so these chefs, knowing of Marinelli's seafood expertise, asked him to source some for their restaurants. 

It started out as a hobby. He would fly over with a briefcase full of oysters and in turn would get a free stay at Bangkok's luxury hotels, including five-star treatment.

It all changed one holiday season when he got an order for a huge batch of oysters. Marinelli says he was going through customs in the United States and had to pay an excessive amount for the carry-on luggage. It was then that he thought to himself that he might have a viable business in his hands. 

He moved his operations to Bali and began to import oysters full time. It was during this period that the 1997 Asian economic crisis hit. With currency rates at an all time low, he saw a great opportunity and started exporting fish to the Asia Pacific region as well as the United States. 

Eventually he moved back to Thailand, where it all started for him. A group of his friends had opened up a successful oyster bar back on the U.S. west coast, much to his surprise, and the one time "hater of the restaurant business" thought that he could adapt the model to Bangkok. Shortly after, "The Oyster Bar" was born.

While the business started out tiny, the fact that Marinelli opened his second Bangkok restaurant, The Seafood Bar, to critical acclaim last year and is now eyeing potential locations in Vietnam is a testament to the oyster king's commitment to serving Bangkok only the best and most sustainable seafood he can get his hands on. And he says he isn't going anywhere. 

“Despite all the troubles, Bangkok's a great place to live," he says. "It's cheap and it's accessible to every other city in the region, being hours away from Hong Kong, Bali, Singapore, Taiwan and Manila." 

 

Satrusayang is a part-time dragon slayer, part-time writer. When he's not defending fair maidens and tangling with mystical beasts he visits reality (never a permanent stay) where he writes for a living. Based in Bangkok, his work has appeared in myriad magazines and publications, and he edits his own literary and art ezine http://codsbeenhere.com.

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