BK speaks to Phanuphon ‘Black’ Bulsuwan of Blackitch Artisan Kitchen about the importance of Thai fish, sustainability, and his culinary philosophy.
Phanuphon ‘Black’ Bulsuwan is more than a chef. He’s a restaurateur, an author, and a face on TV and TEDx talks. His culinary journey started a decade ago with the Blackitch Artisan Kitchen in Chiang Mai. This 16-seated restaurant is known to serve holistic localized artisan cuisine with Black’s expert curing methods, and now he's turned his attention to putting a whole new light on Thai fish. BK speaks to Black about his new book the “Thai Fishes Book: Cooking Experience and Techniques.”
Blackitch has come a long way from its beginnings. How did you get here?
Blackitch Artisan Kitchen started 10 years ago, and it started as a chef’s table, offering a tasting menu that placed a strong emphasis on the wealth of local produce and ingredients available in Thailand. Our goal was to shine a spotlight on seasonal ingredients, including some that were exceptionally rare, and to tell a story behind each one to foster a deeper connection between our diners and the suppliers and producers.
Let's talk about your new book. The book contains around 120 different types of Thai fish. Why did you choose to write about Thai fish?
The first reason is that I want people to know the names of Thai fish. I believe it’s essential for people to know the names of the fish they’re eating. We’re quite familiar with the names of fish from other countries, like Japan and those that are commonly imported. However, when it comes to fish from our own country, we often fall short in identifying them or even knowing their names. When we know the names of these fish, it demystifies them, making us less hesitant to buy them, try different preparations, or even ask for guidance on how to cook and pair them … Many lesser-known fish species are underutilized and end up being used for fish balls and animal food, which is such a waste. The unfamiliar appearance of some of these fish might be why people are hesitant to buy them, decreasing their value. The second reason is to empower individuals with diverse cooking techniques. I’ve included different recipes for the various fish species listed. By offering a range of cooking methods, I hope to give people the confidence to experiment with these fish in their own kitchens. This book provides detailed information about each fish: their origin, characteristics. I also cover practical aspects like how to properly handle and prepare the fish, from how to kill and pack them to deboning.
You collaborated with two other chefs, Orb Vasinopas and New Saruthanajarern. Could you tell us more about this collaboration and your reasons for working together?
Orb and New are both highly skilled chefs from Kensaku Sushi, a renowned Japanese restaurant. We’ve had a longstanding friendship, and we all share a deep understanding of fish. Our collaboration was born from a shared goal: to showcase that Thai fish is not just good, but exceptional.
Writing a book is often a challenging but rewarding journey. Can you share some of the key lessons or insights you’ve gained during the process?
The first lesson is how enjoyable the experience has been. I embarked on this project with the intention of exploring Thai fish, and I discovered that I was learning alongside my readers. Some of the fish featured in the book were previously unfamiliar to me, and being able to experiment with them, try out different cooking techniques, and share these experiences with others has been a delight. It’s important to emphasize that this book isn’t just a cookbook; it’s a platform for sharing experiences and ideas with people who are equally curious. We’re all on this journey together, and I don’t claim to be a fish guru or the ultimate expert in cooking fish. I’m simply someone who is starting a conversation and encouraging others to join in. My hope is to provide readers with a foundational knowledge of fish, inspiring them to explore and experiment with these ingredients, which, in turn, can contribute to the recognition of the fish and seafood industry in Thailand.
You talk a lot about your interests in food security and sustainability. As a chef, how do you see your role in that?
Sustainability is a concept that extends far beyond what ends up on your plate. It’s a holistic approach that involves everyone in the food supply chain, from producers to consumers. As a chef, my role is to act as a bridge between these components. I see my role as that of a communicator and an advocate for sustainability. It’s about informing and educating diners about what they’re eating and the story behind their meals. It’s not just about taste; it’s about understanding the value and mission of the producers who supply the food. For instance, when it comes to seafood, I educate my customers on how to select quality seafood, what to look for, and what to avoid. It’s not just about the aesthetics, like the color or appearance of the meat. The most critical aspect is that it’s well-sourced and sustainable. This means ensuring that there are no added hormones or preservatives and that the animal or plant has been raised or farmed in an environmentally responsible way. The most important role of a chef for me is that we are given these fresh ingredients and how we can make the best dish we can with it.
It must be difficult to tick all the boxes when it comes to sourcing the “best” ingredients for sustainability and ensuring they also taste good. Can you share how you find this balance?
It is not as difficult as it might seem. I firmly believe that the most delicious food is what’s in season. It’s not only affordable and flavorful but also safe to eat because in-season produce tends to be naturally grown without heavy pesticide use. Take, for example, something that might seem a bit too sour, but in its own way, it’s perfect. My role as a chef is to help people understand the intrinsic value of these ingredients, to show them that it’s truly the best of what nature has to offer. I believe that everything on this planet has its unique worth and meaning, and it’s our responsibility to uncover and appreciate that value.
Can you share more about what’s on the horizon for you?
In November, we have an exciting new venture. We’re opening a restaurant in Phang-Nga, situated at the port leaving Koh Surin and Koh Similan. This restaurant will be an extension of the ideas explored in my fish book. The fish for our dishes will be coming fresh from the boat, right behind where we’ll be cooking. It’ll be called “Catch and Coal,” and it will feature a diverse menu from the recipes in the book. You can expect a variety of cuisines, from ceviche to fish and chips, fish burgers, and the catch of the day special. Next year, we have plans for a second fish book, as the first book has only recorded fish from 2022-2023. I’ll also be working on a fermentation book in collaboration with Chef Weerawat ‘Num’ Triyasenawat from Samuay and Sons. This book aims to demystify fermentation, showing that it’s not as complicated as it might seem.