When Mango Tree founder Pitaya Phanphensophon partnered with chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval on his CityCenterDC Thai restaurant—the first in the U.S.—he described their relationship as "culinary soulmates." But apparently even soulmates break up. Sandoval, who also operates El Centro D.F., Toro Toro, and Masa 14, among others, parted ways with the restaurant at the end of April.
"After we opened Mango Tree, we really looked at the amount of projects we had coming in the pipeline," says Josh Suess, director of strategy for Richard Sandoval Restaurants. At the time, they had four restaurants opening in Mexico, one in Qatar, plus a Latin food hall called Latinicity in the works for Chicago. "We said, 'Let's really focus our resources on what we do best'... It was kind of a mutual decision, very amicable. We said, 'We want to step back because this is not our bread and butter.'"
Sandoval has partnered with other chefs and restaurateurs before, but Mango Tree was the first restaurant that he did not help conceptualize from the beginning. The Bangkok-based restaurant already had locations in Hong Kong, London, Dubai, Tokyo, Jakarta, and beyond.
Still, Sandoval's team was very hands on with the opening, managing the day-to-day construction and helping the company understand the D.C. market. All along, Suess says the intention was that Sandoval would reevaluate the partnership agreement after the opening. If they wanted, they had the option to buy a bigger share of Mango Tree in D.C. or be a part of its future U.S. expansion. "It was very fluid," Suess says.
Mango Tree managing director Trevor MacKenzie says they're "very thankful and appreciative for all the assistance" and that "there was no bad blood." MacKenzie says the departure of chef Paul Kennedy four months after the opening was unrelated.
Despite the split, Suess says Sandoval may do more projects with Phanphensophon in the future. "It may not be here in the states, it may be overseas," he says. "It wouldn't surprise me if over some tequila they close a deal and we're opening a restaurant."
Photo by Jessica Sidman