Close Up Interview with Cook & Restaurant Owner Irina Shaw from Bai Tong Thai Tempe

Tell us about yourself and what you do?

Born in China of Chinese Russian background, I have lived in Australia for nearly 30 years. Most times I feel that I was born and raised in this great country that I proudly call home.  I have been working in the IT/Telecommunications industry since I left university. Currently I have 2 full time jobs, my “day” job is as a life cycle account executive for a large Telco looking after Asia Pacific region, my “night” job is running a new and exciting Thai restaurant in Tempe, Sydney – Bai Tong Thai.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 3.00.37 pm

What inspire you to open Bai Tong Thai Restaurant?

Cooking has always been my passion.  I love that there is no limit to your capability and imagination when it comes to cooking.  We are so lucky in Australia that we are surrounded by wonderful fresh ingredients and diversity of cuisines, yet we are often subjected to substandard restaurant food.  I wanted to create a place where we can serve dishes created with best quality of ingredients in an informal environment. We chose Thai cuisine as it is a shining example of how best to balance fresh ingredients with five of our fundamental tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and spicy.

Winter Melon with Prawns
Winter melon stuffed with prawns and served in choo chee sauce

What are the five words that people who know you would use to describe you?

Now that’s a leading question….

Loyal, Detailed, Decisive, Talented, Stubborn and my partner would add “Bossy”.

Who (or what) inspires you to do what you love as a cook and a restaurant owner?

My partner Ash is my inspiration. He has always been brutally honest with everything in our life. If he had it his way, we’d be having dinner parties every weekend and I would be cooking up a storm.

We’d seen a lack of creative and quality food surrounding where we live, and often talk about how good it would be if we could bridge this gap. In 2011, we took the plunge and opened Bai Tong Thai at Tempe.

Panang Curry

Where do you get your inspiration from when you design the menu?

Our menus are designed based on what’s fresh in season as well as our Chef’s signature dishes. We carry all the standard Thai dishes that you find in all Thai restaurants around Australia such as Pad Thai, Fried Rice, Green/Red Curry; however, we also have an award winning chef who has some amazing dishes as her signature cuisine. A shining example of our philosophy can be found in our current seasonal specials menu – Our chef’s own ChiangMai style pork sausages for entree and Wintermelon stuffed with Prawns served with a Choo Chee sauce for main.

What are the signature dishes in your restaurant?

On our menu, we have many dishes that you would be hard to find in another restaurant in Sydney, some of our customer’s favourites are:

Choor Muang – a violet dumpling stuffed with minced smoke duck and caramelised peanut, this dish was originated from ancient royal Thai cuisine.
Choor Muang

Lemongrass whole fish – Whole Barramundi filleted boneless, then crispy fried  and served with lemonsgrass floss and chilli dressing.

Banana Blossom Salad with Prawns – Tender banana flower with grilled king prawns

Miang Pla Grob – crispy fish with cashewnut and coconut served on a fresh betal leaf

What motivates you to do your best as the Restaurant owner?

To see and hear happy and satisfied customers  after their meal as well as the wonderful creations coming out of the kitchen. We are so lucky that we have a very talented award winning chef that creates new and exciting dishes regularly.

What are key tasks for Restaurant owner?

As a small establishment, I have to be very hands on. Like most small businesses, it’s a 24×7 job keeping the business afloat. Examples of key tasks are below:

Sourcing – constantly looking for ingredients, suppliers, negotiating on price, organising orders and pickup. To ensure the best quality of ingredients, I would be out shopping daily on perishable items and once or twice weekly to various markets to source ingredients.

Menu Design and delivery – Menu is key to success for a restaurant, I need to ensure that it’s up to date, printed and delivered to client’s mail boxes. Our seasonal menu changes every 6 weeks, and can take upto 2 weeks to source and decide on what’s best in season.

Staffing – As a small business, every staff is important to the success of the place. Everyone also have to learn multi tasking and multi skills. I need to do staff roaster, staff training, payroll, hiring and all HR related activities.

Farmers’ Market – carriage works

Paperwork – mountains of! There is no end to paperwork, daily banking, accounts payables, book keeping.

Customer Service – I am the face of the restaurant, I need to ensure that our customers are all well taken care of. Recognise regular clients and ensuring that any of their special needs are catered for.

Marketing /Advertising – This is an ongoing task, in today’s online world, I need to try and ensure that we have a good marketing/advertising plan with limited resources.

Shopping – doesn’t matter how well planned we are, there is always something that’s needed at the 11th hour.

Helping hand  -Whichever station that needs help I would be there, cooking, serving, washing dishes, cleaning.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’d love to combine my passion for travel and cooking. I’d love to have a place where there will be no menus and we would source whatever is fresh in the market for the day and create an amazing meal for people to share.

What do you most love about your job?

Happy and satisfied customers, a discovery of a new dish that can be add to our menu.

If you had just one wish, what would it be?

Hmm.. more hours in the day!

Seriously, I wish Australia government really have a good look at how best to support small businesses.  We are drowning under the weights of paperwork, taxes and fees. If we had money to hire all the extra hands, we wouldn’t be a small business!

How do you connect with other artisans, and your customers (i.e. how do you network)?

In today’s internet world, I connect with a lot of people via Linkedin, facebook etc, however I still believe in a good old fashioned face to face catch up to share ideas. Although right now there’s not a lot of time for that.

Best cooking tip for a novice just getting into the business?

Get the best ingredient you can possibly afford and keep it simple.
Prawn Cakes
What advice can you offer other artisans who are just starting out and following their passions?
The road is long and winding, and sometimes you have to go through dark tunnels and you might get lost along the way, but the most important thing is that you start the journey and follow it through to the end, the reward will be invaluable.
What is your proudest moment so far?
We opened the door on October 6, 2011 after more than 12months of planning and 3 months of renovation. Some days it felt like we would never get here.  We were so worried that no one would turn up but was so pleasantly surprised with the support we received from our locals. The first thing on most people’s mouth on our opening day was “what took you so long?!”
Who do you most want to meet and why?
Maeve O’Meara – through her work she would have been to some fascinating places in the world and met some amazing people. I’ve love to hear the stories and gain more inspiration.
Dessert Sampler

What is the most important lesson in life that you have learned?

Be independent, you can only rely on yourself to make your own dreams come true.

Do you have a favourite cookbook to recommend?

Maggies Harvest – Another inspirational lady in my life. Maggie’s recipes in this book fit right into my philosophy on food – great seasonal produce with simply recipes that can be easily adapted to suit everyone’s taste and the end result is shared with family and friends over a long table and a good glass of wine.

Where do we find you and your restaurant?

Bai Tong Thai Tempe
703 – 705 Princes Highway
NSW 2044


Vinh Van Lam
the authorVinh Van Lam
Vinh Van Lam, co-founder of ArtSHINE, is a visionary art coach and entrepreneur with a passion for fostering creativity. With a diverse background in art and business, he brings a unique perspective to empower emerging artists, enabling them to thrive in the dynamic art industry through the innovative platform of ArtSHINE.


  • As a Tempe resident I cannot state enough how happy we are to have Irina’s dream come true in our little neighbourhood. The menu and food are truely something else, and every single time I order from BaiTong Thai I love the new taste sensations. Thanks Irina for all your work and for bringing Pom to cook at BaiTong and for giving her the room to show off with her special dishes.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Bettina’s comments. As another Tempe local I love that we have a great local restaurant run by a local. BUT what I love most is that many of the dishes are not your standard Thai restaurant fare, they are innovative and very delicious. Good luck Irina.

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