The new generation of local kitchen maestros that dare to get creative, show their faces and finally take credit for their hard work.
Just when we thought 2013 was a wrap, a few intriguing restaurants popped up in town, all of which were headed by Thai chefs: Le Du, Rock and Sheepshank. Obviously Thai chefs aren’t exactly new: guys like Ian Kittichai have even managed to achieve some level of international fame. But for three exciting kitchens to open up back-to-back with the spotlight firmly on their local chefs does mark a seismic shift in Bangkok’s dining scene. No longer is it the obligatory to have Stefano or Jean-Michel coming out to greet your guests, while a faceless army of Thais chop the carrots. Nor is asking about the chef in a Thai restaurant, which were traditionally manned by “cooks,” met with bewilderment. So, how did Thai chefs get their big breakthrough? Well it seems it's down to better education and a lot of very hard work in prestigious kitchens abroad.
“In the past, almost every chef in five-star hotels was farang,” explains Chef Van Rohitratana of Escapade, who says the problem stems from the Thai perception that being a chef was a lowly profession. “I think the change started with cooking TV shows in the early 2000's like Dae Jang Geum and Top Chefs. They made it OK for parents to send their kids to culinary schools and some even sent them abroad.” Van also feels the 2008 financial crisis, which he believes led to a drop in the quality of food served by hotels played a part. Young chefs were quick to spot an opportunity. Van says, “You had these kids coming back from studying abroad and they wanted to open their own standalone restaurants. You had a whole new generation starting to cook.”
“You had a whole new generation starting to cook”
In 2007, the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school opened, attracting another group of wannabe chefs, the moneyed kids. But while this showed just how cool being a chef had become, it also produced a lot of chefs with limited experience, who went on to open restaurants with dad’s money. Needless to say, that crowd did little to enhance Thai chefs' reputations. But other chefs began coming back home from abroad, and they had experience in Michelin-star kitchens, such as Tee Kachonklin, who at 26 years old opened La Table de Tee in 2011, after working at Roussillion, in London.
What’s your worst cooking disaster?
Fai Thanannapassara, 27, news anchor
"I was trying to make khai toon (steamed egg in Chinese style) for the first time for breakfast and I thought I could pull it off very easily in a microwave oven. So, I cracked two eggs in a heat-safe bowl, placed it in the oven and waited. After a few seconds, the bell rang. As proud as one could be with my first attempt at a new recipe, I opened the machine, expecting a well-cooked dish, but then boom! Tiny bits of very hot steamed egg went all over my face. No breakfast, a swollen face and late for work. I still have no idea what could have gone wrong."
Chalermphan Phairoj, 25, cinematographer
When I was in the US, whenever I tried to cook something, I would always put butter in it. One day, I turned the heat up to maximum and put in the butter. Immediately, the smoke got really bad throughout the room, then the fire alarm went off. After a few minutes, the police came and everyone was shouting like it was an emergency. Who knew it was just a chunk of butter?
WORKING FROM THE BOTTOM
“I would never recommend that anyone who just finished culinary school open a restaurant immediately,” Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn, of Le Du says. He and chef Worathon “Tae” Udomchalotorn have the kind of resume we’re used to seeing from the foreign chefs that lead Bangkok’s five-star hotel kitchens: they completed degrees from the highly-esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, such as the renowned Red Medicine in California, where Worathon worked as a Chef de Partie.
“I didn’t care if I didn’t get paid when I was a trainee,” says Worathon. “I just knew I had to work with at Michelin restaurants to improve.”
While chef is a respected career path in Europe, it’s also one of the most grueling jobs out there. Those who want to be a chef usually start their career at the age of fifteen through vocational training and slowly work their way up. For example, Ian Kittichai, of Issaya, started as a lowly dishwasher at the Waldorf Hotel in London.
“Being a chef is hard, hard work,” says Chef Nan Bunyasaranand of Little Beast, who started her career at 19 in a hotel kitchen in Bangkok. “All I did was chop onions for three months. I cried during the first week. I came home and begged my parents to just send me to CIA right away as I didn’t want to just chop vegetables. But luckily, they realized that being a chef is a long-term commitment.”
She was a trainee in three more restaurants before getting sent off to CIA, then worked at the prestigious Jean-Georges Restaurant (New York) and Thomas Keller (New York). “Every aspect of the kitchen is vital, from peeling the grapes to differentiating white pepper from very white pepper. When a stainless steel table has a scratch, you have to polish it with Scotchbrite to make all the scratches go in the same direction.”
“If you read the profile of most of the chefs in the world, no one just graduated from a culinary school and made it big”
Chef Nhoi Ouypornchaisakul, consultant of Rock restaurant, graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Colorado, USA, and worked in mostly French restaurants in the US for five years before coming back to Thailand to work in closed-down Parata Daimond and David Thompson’s Thai restaurant, Nahm. She says, “Once I knew I wanted to cook, I realized that everyone has to pay their dues. I’ve had chefs throw dishes at me. I’ve been getting screamed at since I was a trainee.”
“If you read the profile of most of the chefs in the world, no one just graduated from a culinary school and made it big. Everyone started from picking off the vegetable leafs or cleaning the kitchen at one point,” says Little Beast’s Nan. Van of Escapade explains that this is key to being able to lead everyone in the kitchen: “Experience gives me the feeling of being a khon krua (kitchen staff). When you have your own restaurant, you’ll know everyone’s duty as you already passed through what they’re passing through. You’ll know how to communicate with them.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, working for others is also named by the chefs we spoke to as the source of their creativity. Coming out of school, everyone is doing the same recipes the same way. It’s by working in a real kitchen that chefs develop a personal style. “It takes time to develop your own vision and sensibility,” says Rock’s chef, Nhoi.
What’s your worst cooking disaster?
Pavida Chitprasertsuk, 23, marketing executive
"For a Christmas party, I was trying to make a fabulous croquembouche (pastry puff tower) for my guests. It already took eight hours to make, but the real disaster came when everyone was about to arrive and all the balls just fell over. I tried to stay calm and made the caramel, but I was in hurry so I pretty badly burnt my hand."
Varittha Akarithakij, 27, business owner
"I was trying to impress my dad by making him some Chinese herbal soup because he was sick. I left the soup for a while, so I needed to reheat it in the microwave oven. After the alarm rang, I took it off the machine and then it exploded into my face. It was a big bowl and so I was taken to the hospital right away. It was bad and I stayed in the hospital for days. It took months for my face to recover."
Of course, there’s still room for Thai chefs to grow—and maybe it comes down to us to help them along. Too often, diners still get hung up on the nationality of their chef. There was an outcry when David Thompson started cooking Thai food in Bangkok, and similarly, foreign chefs are expected to be the best at foreign food. “When they see me, diners will go, ‘This is the chef?’” says Nan, of Little Beast.
“Twenty percent of the customers in Bangkok don't even call if they don't show up for their reservation”
“Thais also love celebrities too much,” she adds. “If an actor or actress opens a restaurant then he or she is called a chef. Or if someone graduates from a cooking school, puts on a sexy tank top and bakes a cake on YouTube, I think that’s very disrespectful of our profession. And it doesn’t push our food industry forward.”
With Thai restaurants, the chef is seldom mentioned at all. Supanniga was described as the food cooked by owner Eh Laowaridge’s grandmother. Similarly, recent opening The Never Ending Summer, backed by starchitect Duangrit Bunnag and Naree Boonyakiat, is meant to evoke the dishes of the partners’ childhood. In both cases, the restaurants were presented with a focus on the bourgeois households whose food they were meant to evoke, with no mention of the chefs actually cooking it.
According to Ian Kittichai, diners too need to show more respect in general. “Twenty percent of the customers in Bangkok don’t even call if they don’t show up for their reservation. For the food and restaurant scene here to grow and flourish, diners need to be more aware of and respect the effort and hard work all of the restaurant staff.”
The Thai chefs who have risen to the fore are blazing a path for those dreaming of a career in the kitchen. But they also come with a warning: becoming a chef is a long, painful process.
4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Rd., 02-672-9040-1. www.issaya.com. Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm, 6-10:30pm
112 Phra Arthit Rd., 081-406-3773. Open Tue-Sun 4pm-midnight
7/1 Paholyothin Soi 9, 082-688-8200. Open Tue-Sun 5pm-midnight.
44/9-10 Thonglor Soi 13, 02-185-2670. Open Tue-Sat 5:30pm-1am; Sun 11am-4pm
339/3 Silom Soi 7, 081-562-6464. www.ledubkk.com Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm, 6-11pm; Sat 6-11pm