Thailand’s Culinary Ambassadors travel the world on behalf of Bangkok’s Dining Scene
They have introduced coconut milk to Finland, kosher fish mousse to Israel, and charred Thai chillies to a roomful of foodies who couldn’t help rubbing their eyes when the ventilation fans broke.
They are a fleet of unofficial ambassadors, informal diplomats, trade representatives, unpaid officers in promoting tourism, provoking word-of-mouth in the most literal sense, walking advertisements for the most appealing wonders of their home city and country. Bangkok’s name-brand chefs, embracing both the perks and responsibilities of what is increasingly a global vocation, have become the most recognizable, and peripatetic, of Thailand’s proxies.
“You might say we’re just like lawyers carrying their laptops, except that we carry mortars and pestles,” says Dylan Jones of Bo.Lan Restaurant fame. “Working with the government to promote Thai products, we’ve donned head scarves and supervised 800 male Saudi caterers,” says Nooror Somany Steppe, founder with her Belgian husband of the international Blue Elephant chain. Admitting he’s been enlisted to cook and lecture on Thai food “everywhere but Antarctica,” Chef David Thompson of nahm adds, “I don’t consider myself an ambassador, just someone who believes committedly in the deliciousness of Thai cuisine. And that makes my job easy.” Still, declares Ian Kittachai of the renowned Issaya Siamese Club, “Especially after something like this recent bombing [at the Erawan Shrine], you want to do the best to represent not just your own restaurants but your country.”
To hear them tell it, many have also become experienced in more ways than one at crossing borders.
“Yes, you really can become expert smugglers,” jokes Chef Dylan. “I won’t go into details. Maybe you declare a pound of sugar so they don’t notice the salted fish. [But] it’s tough work, and not really that glamorous, to lug 100 kilos of product with you.” Chef Nooror admits she always goes over the weight limit for AirAsia. “All chefs are born with the innate ability to secretly place items in suitcase,” adds Chef Thompson. But Chef Kittichai preaches caution. “You have to research what you can find in foreign markets, plan the menu carefully before leaving,” he says. “Each of my staff puts something in their suitcases. We spread things out. Try to avoid extra boxes or Styrofoam the customs are sure to check.”
According to Chef Kittichai, baggage areas are cold and some items can get damaged. But, he insists, “You have to bring baby apple eggplants for a green curry, even if no one eats them. And don’t ever believe they will have the right type of basil waiting. Or that Asian ingredients won’t be canned.”
Naturally, as world-class technicians with exacting standards, many of their tales of the road involve the challenges of cooking in new places with new crews.
“In New York, my staff speaks 17 different languages, so you have to be patient,” says Chef Kittichai. “Of course, you can always have disasters in other people’s kitchens. Once in the UK, my signature jasmine flower flan never set.” But those can be matched by unexpected triumphs. “I found I could use veal in Finland for my massaman curry,” he recounts. “When I told the Finns it was just meat and potatoes, they told me that was so boring—until they tasted it.”
Confesses Bo.Lan proprietress Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, “We used to try to do something amazing every time out, but now we’re more careful. We can write our own menus within Asia, but have had to get clever elsewhere. In America, we will use fewer chillies, but we never dumb anything down.” It’s hard to imagine the scrupulously authentic and devotedly local team pulling off a tropical feast amidst the snows of Aspen, Colorado, but when talking about being invited by the Thai owner of a ski resort, Chef Dylan recounts, “The only trouble was running out of plates for all our courses.”
In seeing how classy a host can be, the culinary couple admit, “Economy or business class air tickets can be a tell-tale sign.” More than that, however, they now insist that “everything we serve, wherever we go, has to be ethically-raised, sustainable, preferably organic.”
For Asia’s current Number One restaurateur Gaggan Anand, “There are unnamed food events I simply won’t go to anymore. In Australia, of all places. Ones where they asked for my recipes and then made them weeks ahead. Or expected me to work with frozen fish. Then I had to use my own credit card to replace it.” But with the lows come the highs. Chef Gaggan has especially enjoyed the cross-cultural inspiration provided by a so-called “Goh-Gan” event, where he has produced a dinner in tandem with a master Japanese chef.
While international acclaim has graced his life’s work, as a transplanted Indian who found space for his culinary experimentation in Bangkok, Calcutta-bred Gaggan observes, “We are just as appreciated by the Thai tourism authority. Many of them are our regular customers. They are well-aware we have become a destination restaurant, that travellers reserve ahead and plan trips because of us.” Still, it’s his newfound acceptance back in his native land that keeps Gaggan on the road for weeks at a time. “It’s tough to be away from your restaurant, but hard to turn down when young chefs line up to learn progressive molecular techniques and want my autograph. It’s very gratifying where I was once ignored as a renegade.” Besides, adds this ebullient, speedy performer with a wink, “I figure people are going to like my food a lot more after they’ve heard me talk.”
Being the non-Thai who is probably more identified with Thailand than any of the rest, Aussie David Thompson, famed for his authoritative cookbooks and equally world-standard restaurants in Sydney, London, and now Singapore, as well as Bangkok, confesses, “It’s not easy presenting Thai food as a foreigner. After all, while I can cook the goods, I can’t be the goods.” With his usual self-deprecating humour, he observes, “It’s just a shame that a food which speaks for itself has to engage so decrepit a spokesman as me.” And, in a warning to his colleagues, he reminds, “All this travelling doesn’t necessarily make you a better cook.”
For Tim Butler, American master of Asian-influenced European cuisine, in charge of the highly-rated Eat Me Restaurant, the international promotional responsibilities of being a chef today are all worth it when it means getting four days, as he did recently, on a blissful island of the Maldives. Packing his best uni (sea urchin) was a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle. But Butler says he’s aware of using “Thai touches” when he can—even when getting the chance to plan a tasting menu for the world’s only underwater restaurant. “At least,” he jokes, “I knew none of the diners could walk out.” While he says most trips involve tough schedules that barely allow him out of the kitchen, on this one Butler, a seafood specialist, actually got a short cruise where he hooked his own fish.
Raised as one of seven poor children whose mother sold food at the wet market in a canal town that “once took a whole day to get to from Bangkok, but now takes an hour-and-a-half on the highway,” Chef Nooror’s life at the helm of an international conglomerate and the most recognizable Thai brand is a true rags-to-riches saga. Even more so are the far-flung travels she’s undertaken under the auspices of the Thai government’s arm for farm products promotion. “I’ve pounded my spices in Ecuador and Venezuela and explained royal dishes to diners near the Dead Sea. My daughter and I needed special visas to travel alone in some Arab countries. Or South Africa, a country I love.”
Surprisingly, the cultural exchan ges on her trips are hardly one-way. “I’m an inveterate foodie myself, so if I’ve got the chance, I’m going to sneak off to try El Bulli or Robuchon or the best of San Sebastien.” And she counts among her highest honours an honorary degree from Italy’s oldest culinary school. Back home, she figures one of her biggest challenges was catering a dinner for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosting American officials from the space agency NASA. “One of my dishes was called a moon walk. I always try to keep the original Thai tastes with European plating—a beef tartare with tamarind, corn salad with kaffir lime, a tom yam ceviche.”
Newcomer Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn of Le Du fame just made his debut spreading the word about modern Thai cuisine alongside the more traditional Nooror at this January’s prestigious Madrid Fusion gourmet conclave. “I am honoured to be invited, and this furthers my goal, the reason I returned from working in New York—to help bring about a big change in the level of sophistication and make sure Bangkok is a world food city.”
Of more practical impact, Chef Kittichai has also worked with the French government, but says he was “shocked” to receive an honorary officer’s medal for helping establish geographic denominations for Thai products like Nonthaburi durian, Surat Thani oysters, and healthful rice bran oils. “Even Japan doesn’t have what we have,” he boasts.
Despite managing a worldwide empire of 15 restaurants for hotel demonstrations, C.I.A. events, and Napa Valley’s annual World of Flavors, Chef Kittichai still finds time to promote his home land. “The main mission is always to demonstrate that Thai cuisine goes way beyond spicy, or tom yam,” he says. “To bring out all the complexities, textures, smells.”
And he does it, he explains, “So that ultimately people want to come here—especially those Americans who have never even had a passport—and taste the real thing. If New York has 30,000 restaurants, I’d say Bangkok has 50,000. And between the food, the beaches, and the spas, the temples and culture, I think the number one motive is now food. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they won’t leave Bangkok until they’ve had at least one magnificent meal.”
BY John Krich