Chef Ian Kittichai has launched renowned restaurants around the world, recently launched his own Thai eatery, Issaya, in Bangkok, and is currently starring on the Thai version of Iron Chef. He takes time out from running his global empire to explain why culinary schools are a waste of time and how he used to hate cooking.
I came from a big family, and we all had certain roles we had to perform. My dad sold insurance, my sisters sold soy milk outside our grocery stall and I had to go with mom to the market.
After school I used to push a cart selling curry around the streets. Then I had to make belts for my uncle until midnight. We had to work 365 days a year.
I used to hate cooking as a child. I never had a chance to think about what I really wanted to do.
Helping our parents was the main thing. Wanting to do anything else wasn’t a consideration.
I went to study in England at 16. My mom borrowed the money to pay for me.
I got a job as a pot washer at the Waldorf Hotel. But I used to talk to the chef to practice my English. One day he asked me to help out in the kitchen.
I never wanted to be a chef; it was a financial decision. My first thought when I was offered the apprenticeship was how I didn’t need to take money from my mom anymore.
I wanted to be a success. Even though I didn’t know what that meant for a chef. I went to the bookstore and started reading cookbooks. I couldn’t understand the recipes but I read the chef’s biographies to see how they became successful.
My mom said I was stupid when I moved to New York. She couldn’t understand why I was leaving a good job, a TV show, a good life in Thailand.
I wanted to cook. When I was executive chef [at the Four Seasons], I wasn’t cooking, I was managing people. I knew that before I took the job but I wanted to cook my own food. Give me a stove and I’m happy.
New York was very difficult. Everything else has been easy.
I wanted to hang myself after the first six months in New York. Just pack my bag and come home. I thought I had failed.
In Europe, people are professional. They want to work, they want to learn. In New York, they come for money. If they can earn more money somewhere else, then they leave.
Frank Sinatra’s right. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
There are two types of chefs. There are good chefs, and then there are
TV-personality chefs. They don’t want to have a restaurant; they want to be on TV.
I did TV shows because of money. I was not good; I never looked at the camera. People didn’t like some things I did, the ingredients I used, but I wanted to try and educate people, show them what they could do.
TV gives you free PR that you can’t buy. But if I had to give up my restaurants, then I wouldn’t do it. I love cooking. It’s my life, my job.
I like to challenge myself. That’s why I always try different things with my restaurants, that’s why I did Iron Chef. I like to be outside my comfort zone.
My wife protects me, in a good way. My wife really helps on the business side. I don’t want to deal with the money. I don’t care.
I push my children quite hard. I want them to understand, if you don’t work, you don’t get money. I would love them to cook, but I cannot force them.
I used to bottle things up in the kitchen. Then I would explode. But I’ve changed that. Now I’ve got a bad cop, my sous chef, who does the shouting for me. He’s madder than Gordon Ramsay.
I’m not a one-man show. I want to have ten restaurants, but you need a good team behind you.
It’s not easy, though. I’m dealing with people in Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, New York, Mumbai—the time differences make it complicated.
I always wanted to come back to Thailand, even though my family moved to Australia. I love it more than anywhere else. My wife says all Thai guys have to come back.
It’s hard to be successful, but you have to keep going, work hard.
No one wants to work hard anymore. Everyone wants to take shortcuts. People spend one million baht to go to cooking schools like Cordon Bleu. They finish and they open a restaurant.
There are a lot of cookie-cutter places in Bangkok. They all learned the same basic recipes.
I’m Thai; I always wanted to do a Thai restaurant here. I plan on having five restaurants in Bangkok.
Thai people are really picky. If you can cook Thai food in Thailand and people love it, then I think you’re the best chef in the world.
People say I’m new generation, but I think I’ve always kept my cooking traditional. I don’t want to change a green curry. I don’t want to make it an ice cream. I just want to make my own version.
You can’t think you will always be the best. So I visit new restaurants, in my time off. It’s like a working vacation.