The Tham Dynasty restaurant in Paynesville is celebrating 30 years of delicious food this week.
How did this famous restaurant came to be? It’s quite the story.
Owners of Tham Dynasty, Teresa and Jeffery Tham, were born in Dili, East Timor.
They went to high school together and fled East Timor following the Indonesian invasion in the 1970s.
Teresa migrated to Australia when she was 18 with her family. Jeffery stayed in East Timor until he saved enough money to follow Teresa in 1981. Jeffery was 20 years old.
His first job in Australia was in a Holden car manufacturing factory.
Jeffery learned to cook at the Welshpool hotel in South Gippsland. Teresa’s mother, Moi Jung Leong, worked as a chef there and taught him how to make Chinese dishes.
Jeffery was her apprentice for two years and learned how to prepare and cook all your Tham Dynasty favourites.
Teresa and Jeffery moved to Paynesville in 1984. They lived and worked at the Paynesville Motor Hotel, later renamed the Country Club.
“Paynesville was very quiet, we felt very lucky to have a kitchen to work in,” Teresa said.
Teresa and Jeffery, although originally from a very different place and culture, began to see Paynesville as their home.
After the motor hotel was sold, Teresa and Jeffery decided it was time to start their own business. Originally, Teresa wanted to name the business “Teresa’s Kitchen”, but they eventually settled on “Tham Dynasty”.
The Tham Dynasty restaurant opened on the evening of December 6, 1990. The first menu was designed and printed by Donald Yeates.
“It was very exciting and there were a lot of wonderful people helping us,” Teresa said.
Teresa and Jeffery had two young children at the time, Melissa, who was two years old, and Lucinda, only three weeks old. Their third child, Tristan, was born in 1997.
Gill Dennison booked a table for her daughter’s 18th birthday on the opening night.
She remembers a very different dining setting and experience to what it is today.
“There were fake green vines along the ceiling and the staff were very formal... and everyone smoked in the restaurant,” Gill said.
Teresa remembers the staff uniform as a suit jacket and pants.
“We wanted it to be full table service and for the customers to have a fine dining experience,” she said.
Paynesville was a small, sleepy town in the late 1980s and early 90s. Despite this, the social connections in the town were strong.
“Everyone knew everyone at the time,” Michael Sadler, a long-time customer of Tham Dynasty, said.
“People were interwoven through school and service groups like the APEX Club and the Lions Club. We celebrated all of our big events at Tham Dynasty, so much so that we needed a bigger restaurant at times.
“The restaurant was the local place where everyone got together.”
Michael’s daughter, Clare Sadler, worked as waitress for many years at Tham Dynasty. It was her first job. For Clare, the food, service and dining experience that Tham Dynasty offered was unique at the time.
“The food really challenged people – the idea of a san choi bao served in a lettuce cup was something completely new and different,” Clare said.
Now working as a business developer for a university, Clare distinctly remembers, elevated gold dish stands, the staff in waistcoats, sophistication and silver service.
“At that time it was completely unseen,” she said.
“I was chuffed that I worked there.”
Working with Teresa and Jeffery was also a good experience and Clare says she always felt taken care of.
“There was a sense of hospitality, humility. Teresa and Jeffery were unassuming, but very generous and impactful,” Clare said.
Mim Cook, now an ABC Gippsland radio presenter, also had her first job at Tham Dynasty. “It was a happy family. It was the perfect first job and a great introduction into what it’s like to work - having responsibility but being supported at the same time,” Mim said. “It was also a really good way to meet people
in the local community, there were always interesting conversations to be had.”
Teresa, Jeffery and their small team of employees worked hard for the first decade to establish the business. It was open to customers seven days a week.
“It was always busy, but we loved our work” Teresa said.
There was never much time outside of work but Jeffery would always make the most of Paynesville living and make time for a spot of fishing.
While there was always a focus on food, Tham Dynasty would become a place where people met, friendships formed, and relationships would develop.
In the 30 years since Tham Dynasty has been operating, the business has employed more than 200 people from the local community. The longest employee has been Adam Rickuss, who started washing dishes when he was 14 years old, before eventually becoming a chef.
Adam remembers Jeffery was a mentor in more than just culinary skills.
“He didn’t just teach me how to cook, but Jeff taught me life lessons like how to save money,” Adam said.
After Adam’s chef training, he began taking more responsibilities at the restaurant and now runs his own kitchen.
Ginny, now Adam’s wife (they fell in love at Tham Dynasty), started working at Tham Dynasty restaurant at the age of 15.
To Ginny, Teresa and Jeffery are now family and were some of the very few people who went to their wedding. Adam and Ginny now run the Nicholson Hotel.
Teresa and Jeffery thank everyone who has supported their family and Tham Dynasty over the past 30 years.
It has been 30 years of fun and friendship. For Teresa and Jeffery, from falling in love during unstable years in East Timor, to raising a family, running the successful Tham Dynasty, and calling Paynesville home, it has been a journey they couldn’t have done without such a wonderful community around them.
Jeffery and Teresa Tham celebrating 30 years of business on Monday night (left) and prior to opening on in December 1990 (right). (PS)