Bangkok to San Francisco and back again, there’s a changing of the guard at Thailand’s most iconic fine dining restaurant
They’re big shoes to fill. After all, this is still Nahm. Still the same illustrious restaurant synonymous with Thai cuisine, celebrated for its exploration and celebration of heritage Thai recipes; a regular fixture of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants as well as the recipient of a Michelin star. But really, what does any of this matter to you or me? It’s not us at the stove. That’s Pim Techamuanvivit.
Chef Pim was born in Bangkok but left to attend graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where she studied cognitive science. And yet, it was food that captured her attention over the study of the mind, and she went on to create the food blog Chez Pim in 2001 documenting her experiences of living in America, writing posts for her friends back in Bangkok. With food an ever-growing presence in her life, she studied the work of Christine Ferber and June Taylor and started to make and sell jam. “I learned from everybody,” she says. “… and stole from everybody.” She then published The Foodie Handbook in 2009, a series of tips, secrets, anecdotes and recipes.
Here is a blogger-turned-chef who preaches what she teaches, who threw down the pen and picked up the pan, presenting authentic Thai cuisine to a mostly West Coast American crowd when she opened her restaurant Kin Khao in San Francisco. The restaurant was soon awarded a Michelin-star and Chef Pim’s reputation increased. Now, she has returned home to Bangkok to helm probably the most famous Thai restaurant in the world, Nahm at COMO Metropolitan Hotel. How do you absorb all of that? “Just fine,” according to Chef Pim
Having lived outside of Thailand for some 17 years, Chef Pim will continue to run Kin Khao in conjunction with Nahm, seemingly taking it all in her stride. Excited for the opportunity ahead, yes, but ready to graft too. “I see this as a wonderful move. I’ll still be taking trips to the US and running Kin Khao, but I’ll be here in Bangkok too. It’s a special opportunity, and I’m used to hard work. I’m not afraid to work myself out from someone’s else’s shadow.”
Chef Pim was taught to cook from her mother’s two elder sisters, who had learned from her grandmother. With the help of friends, she added to her repertoire, learning new skills and techniques, and gaining a more in-depth interest in Thai culinary heritage. Stints as an author, food blogger and restaurateur allowed her to explore Thai food further. “I have more to say about Thai food than I do jam,” she joked.
The food of Chef Pim is very much an extension of her personality. Sure she can do big and solid, but she also has technique by the gallon, which allows her to do serious stuff to ingredients while retaining their essence—particularity important when approaching Thai ingredients and that unique flavour wheel that Thai cuisine is so widely recognised for.
Upholding Nahm’s roots while tweaking here-and-there to reflect her own skills and take on “deep-rooted, traditional Thai cuisine,” she clarifies, “I want diners at Nahm to feel as though they’ve been to the home of their Thai friends and to experience an authentic cuisine that’s rich in flavours and cooked from the heart.” New dishes on the menu have been introduced to reflect and reinterpret 17th-century recipes, something she sees as a celebration and an essential step in preserving and showcasing the best in Thai cooking.
Moreover, what about the challenges of a new kitchen, new staff, and new beginnings? “I found that I had to re-educate the staff. Not drastically, but each chef’s palate is different, and it’s important that the entire team understand this and everyone is working from the same page. Some of the recipes were heavily salted, to me, and one of the first things we did at Nahm as a team was to go through the menu and cook together, tasting and testing along the way. We have also restructured the flow of service to include more courses so that guests experience what it’s like to eat Thai food in a Thai way, and in a Thai-style home.”
On visits to Thai farms and markets, Chef Pim has connected with small growers and distributors, tracking down new ingredients to refit Nahm’s pantry: heirloom rice, rare citrus, bitter leaves, handmade palm sugars, small-batch fish sauce. A quick browse of her Instagram page and you’ll see numerous photos of her with suppliers; pounding curry paste, durian hunting around Nonthaburi, praising the fermented fish-coconut milk relish at Or Tor Kor Market. “Sourcing the best ingredients and making meals from scratch is vital to me, it raises the whole flavour profile of a dish. Grinding aromatics and making pastes from scratch will benefit the recipes. This is how I grew up making food with my family, it was labour-intensive home cooking, but the results were always worth it.”
interview by David J. Constable