Washington Lawyer - September 2016 - 23

Ralph Brabham, Co-owner of Beau Thai HE MADE PARTNER - IN THE FOOD BIZ Ralph Brabham hadn't planned on trading his law books, and his associate position at Arent Fox LLP, for a commercial kitchen and a wine list, but then it's hard to predict when providence, good luck, and career wanderlust will collide. The path to owning a restaurant for Brabham, who practiced in the firm's commercial litigation department in Washington, D.C., for seven years, began with a friendship that transitioned into a partnership. The friend, chef Aschara Vigsittaboot, asked him to handle some zoning issues for her new restaurant Beau Thai, and what looked like short-term client work turned into a new life. "Arent Fox handled the zoning case for her successfully, and then once that was behind us, I found myself personally vested in her success," Brabham says. "I worked on weekends painting the walls at the restaurant and helped her get it up and running. It led to her asking me to become her partner." Vigsittaboot, who is both co-owner and executive chef at Beau Thai, brought the fragrant and exotic recipes of her childhood in Thailand to the restaurant, while Brabham worked nights and weekends on frontof-house duties, such as building up the restaurant's retinue of craft cocktails and deepening its wine list. Soon enough, the complications of life brought things to a head for Brabham in 2012. He was juggling two jobs when his father and mother-in-law were diagnosed with life-ending illnesses within months of each other. Both have since passed away. "It was one of those life moments," recalls Brabham. "What is really important? Through some soul searching, it became apparent that the restaurant business was where I was happiest Photo: Patrice Gilbert Photography professionally." He quit the law firm that year and has since worked full-time at the restaurant. Transitioning from law to restaurant business is no small feat. While both professions have front- and back-facing elements, the workplace temperaments of each generally couldn't be more different. The hectic immediacy of a dinner rush at a restaurant is a far cry from the heads-down work at a law firm, where a high priority is placed on thorough thought and research. And after spending six figures on a law degree, most attorneys find it hard to give up the relative security of a law firm and a path to partnership. Besides, attorneys say the differential between paychecks - one of the few short-term hurdles in switching - is enough to spur second thoughts. Yet, many take the leap, citing a desire to follow a passion, to transform and stretch their careers in new directions, or to take a detour before retirement. Some say the 2008 recession and its aftershocks in the legal industry were inciting incidents, encouraging them to find new options before the next crisis. Most often, however, the transition reflects a secret longing, such as owning a restaurant or craft brewery or food truck. Like many entrepreneurs, lawyers in the food industry say their forays into their new careers started as a hobby that turned into an obsession. That passion frequently leaves them juggling their legal careers and what was supposed to be a pleasant pastime, all the while avoiding exhaustion and a nervous breakdown. Often, they're forced to choose and have to hope that financial security will follow. The choice has paid off for Brabham. Today, he and his husband Drew Porterfield are co-partners with Vigsittaboot in three restaurants: the original Beau Thai that has since moved to a larger space in Shaw; a second Beau Thai in Adams Morgan (opened in 2013); and a third restaurant, BKK Cookshop, which opened in 2015 in Beau Thai's original Shaw location. "I haven't looked back since," Brabham says. "Leaving the law firm was the right thing for me to do, personally and professionally." That's a common refrain among many part-time lawyers and former lawyers who have decided to start a new career and extend their professional life in the food industry. "I haven't looked back since. Leaving the law firm was the right thing for me to do, personally and professionally." D.C. Bar member Ralph Brabham, Co-owner, Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop * WASHINGTON LAWYER * SEPTEMBER 2016 23 http://www.dcbar.org/

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