Thailand is experiencing a revolution.
No, not the usual kind, but one that may turn out to be considerably tastier. Both Thais and expats are establishing gourmet enterprises of the highest standards, aimed at creating the resources needed for a true farm-to-table supply chain, adding health, freshness, and flavour to the lives of all food lovers.
Fortunately (for them), not all of these producers have to slog through rain-soaked paddies, spend their days in acrid distilleries, or get their hands dirty with organic chicken feed. Some are making quite a sweet life for themselves in the city.
One is 28-year-old Sasivimol Phetnamsim, whose appropriate nickname is “Yim,” or smile. On her business card, she playfully calls herself by a handle made up by an American friend, “Gelatologist.” You might also call her Bangkok’s aspiring Baskin or Robbins. Or should that be Ms Willy Wonka?
After a year as an exchange student in Missouri, Yim picked up an American-sized yen for ice cream. Graduated from a business school in Boston, she knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her successful father. But importing car radios just wasn’t her thing. When friends suggested she find her calling through taking some professional courses related to her love of food, she ended up not only learning the basics of dairy products at Bangkok’s Kasetsart, but also went for a rigorous ice cream sciences course at Singapore’s National University.
She soon opted for some “research” in Italy, indulging in “over 100 cups” before heading home. It took her a year of perfecting the basics of gelato productions—and testing close to a thousand sample flavours on lucky friends—before she opened her first ice cream boutique amidst the upscale meanderings of Sukhumvit Soi 39. She took the name Ampersand—the highfalutin symbol for “and”—to stress the never-ending additions possible from following her motto of “Internationally Inspired.”
A world map on the wall beside her ice cream display case, now festooned with souvenir magnets of various countries and cities donated by her community of loyal clientele, further makes the point. Flags in the freezer also indicate the national origin of her all-natural ingredients. Yim’s personal banner is starting from scratch with the best-sourced items, where much that passes for gelato in Asia is whipped up from instant flavour mixes and chemical powders as the only components “imported from Italy.”
There are no tricks up Yim’s sleeve. Customers can clearly see into the surprisingly small, clean, and orderly “Churning Chamber,” where she boils ingredients together before mixing them into ice cream using two small Italian machines that more closely resemble food processors than the typical industrial-sized vats. She also has a small blast chiller to finish peskier productions. Her gelato mostly comes in bins of 1.7 kilograms for sorbet, and 2.0 for the heavier ice cream, and her scoops, in general, come with less sugar and, more importantly, less air, which can puff up at least half of mass-produced ice creams.
For now, Ampersand’s best-sellers are a rich dark chocolate made from Swiss and Belgian stocks, the salted caramel shortbread that sold out the first day, and the intense pistachio that truly tastes of sublime Sicilian-grown nuts. Yim gets most excited, however, when pushing her unusual citrus sorbets of Japanese yuzu or lime mixed with butterfly pea flowers. Or an all-black milk shake made with an ice cream of sweetened squid ink. In fact, Ampersand can produce any odd flavour on request for restaurants or individuals. She has also been commissioned to create ice creams out of miso paste and margaritas—even a pizza sorbet. And Yim says she has lists of hundreds she wants to try in the future.
Having added a stand at Central World, she now employs a staff of “six plus me and Mom.” Eventually she hopes not just to expand around Thailand, but also to bring Ampersand to the rest of Asia as a showcase for ice creams made with Thai influence. So far that includes a cake of mango sorbet with sticky rice ice cream inside and a play on Yakult drinking yogurt. Can bael or lemongrass be far behind?
It’s good news for the rest of us that a woman named “Smile” is finding new ways to make the Land of Smiles both tangible and edible.