A nomad chef finds his calling in the kitchens of Bangkok’s CHAR.
It’s not been what you’d call a conventional journey to the kitchen for Nikolas Ramirez. Like every chef’s training, there have been highs and lows, challenges along the way and career shifts and diversions. But none of these might be what you’d expect, with Chef Nikolas having adopted numerous roles across numerous international sojourns, a talented Mr. Ripley of the culinary sphere.
There was the childhood growing up in Hawaii and schooling in California. Oh, and the stint as a professional footballer in Romania, living beneath the stadium and cooking meals from a single stove. Then, California came calling again, and it was back to the US for a job offer in the carpeted-hillsides and sun-dappled vineyards of Napa’s Wine Country. Not a bad working environment, post-penurious living in Romania.
Then Asia. First Bangkok, then farm-sitting in Japan with his girlfriend, before returning to Bangkok to work for Gaggan Anand within the Creative Development team at the much-lauded restaurant, and then to 22 Kitchen & Bar at Dusit Thani Bangkok.
“I was just grafting away, at football, at cooking, taking anything and everything in,” says Chef Nikolas. “Moving to Romania with my buddy from America was epic, I wouldn’t change that, but the opportunity to work, cook and experience the kitchens of California and Asia was something I couldn’t refuse.”
There’s still the beach-bum vernacular present in Chef Nikolas’ speech, still the glint in the eyes of that little boy who grew up on the beaches of Hawaii. When he speaks about life’s journey and the road that has led him to Bangkok, he speaks with an epicurean’s devotion, keen to explore and gain knowledge along the way, eating and cooking his way around the globe. “I created “the laws of stress and nervousness”, so basically if you feel these emotions when cooking, you’ve failed. It’s important to be happy and not be taken out of that moment.”
At 21 years-old, having graduated from Santa Barbara City Collage CA in Culinary Arts, Chef Nikolas moved into the demanding kitchens of fine dining restaurants and vineyard estates across California’s Wine Country, cutting his teeth under the fiery guidance of classically-trained, seasoned chefs. He worked at notable restaurants, including Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, as Chef de Cuisine. Expectations were high and during his first service he was shunted to the pass, learning on the job at pace with little room for error. “The entire experience was fast-paced and relentless. I was learning as I went, taking it all in,” he recalls. “I remember other young chefs complaining and leaving, and before long, I was the last man standing.”
Keen to further his experience and approach a new challenge, Chef Nikolas and his girlfriend agreed to move to Thailand. He worked firstly at Gaggan and then moved to 22 Kitchen & Bar at Dusit Thani Bangkok, producing mostly “Pacific Coastal” food which celebrated his American up-bringing and the very best in produce from Thailand. After an offer to farm-sit and manage a yuzu farm in Japan came up, it seemed like another opportunity to travel and experience others lands and cultures. “Japan really opened my eyes to the seasons. The ingredients are of such high quality there and there’s a real knowledge and respect for the land.”
Recently appointed as Chef de Cuisine of CHAR Restaurant and Rooftop Bar in Bangkok, Chef Nikolas has given the menu a full overhaul, making primary use of the kitchen’s Josper Grill and implementing an elemental cooking style, without restrained use of garnishes so that the ingredient itself is highlighted for its freshness and quality. “I wanted to reflect the products of Thailand,” he explains. “There are small plates like spicy tuna tartare with fermented chilli paste, and crispy crab cake with marinated fennel, and then sharing plates and options from the Josper. It’s simple food, but researched and prepared in a caring and contemporary way.”
You’ll not find much else like this in Bangkok, with a menu rooted in West Coast US, Hawaii and Mexican influences, blended skilfully with the best in local Thai produce. In all, it’s a clever and cunning pairing; cooked with a nomad’s touch and enthusiasm evident throughout. “It’s about being happy in the moment,” says Chef Nikolas. “For me, true happiness and cooking are the same.”
interview by David J. Constable