Chef Ian Kittichai is a global trailblazer for Thai food who’s launched operations in cities like New York, Mumbai and Barcelona. Internationally, his dessert bar, Spot, will get more outlets in New York, and expand to Boston and San Francisco, and he still hopes to open a restaurant in London.
“But of all the restaurants, this is where I feel most at home,” he says.
We’re in Bangkok’s Issaya Siamese Club, which Ian describes as “reinterpreting Thai dishes that I first cooked with my mum” – a reference to his earliest culinary years helping the family sell street food after school. He dons his black chef’s jacket as we head to the kitchen to prepare one of his signature dishes, red chilli-glazed baby back ribs.
“This recipe goes back to New York,” he explains. “I wanted to do something from the barbecue but couldn’t buy a smoker because of safety regulations. Then a tom yum version came to mind.”
He adds garlic and black peppercorns to the traditional ingredients of a tom yum – coriander root, kaffir lime, galangal and lemongrass – and tosses them into a large roasting tray with the rack of ribs and covers with water. Over a gas burner, the chef brings it to a boil, then covers and simmers for a couple of hours.
“The meat is infused with the tom yum, so the flavours are there but not too strong,” he says. “The ingredients should be not too crowded, then the ribs cook evenly.”
After the simmer, the ribs cool in the fridge to get a good clean cut when slicing. Chef blends salted yellow beans, red curry paste and palm sugar and brushes on to the ribs with the back of a spoon. He puts them under a salamander, “on a high heat, but a low shelf, to get a nice glaze”.
At the dining table, the taste in the mouth is sweet, salty, then spicy, with the creep of tom yum, particularly kaffir lime and garlic. It’s fall-off-the-bone tender.
Kittichai is probably the busiest chef in Thailand. In quick succession before we meet, he was in Singapore, New York and London; the following week he leaves for Australia; then there’s the TV show, The Golden Hand Chef, showing in 70-plus countries; and ever more restaurants to launch.
“We’re starting in Phuket, Khao Yai and Hua Hin, and Hyde and Seek 2 will open towards the end of the year in the new dining complex at Central World,” he says.
“But I’m a chef, not an F&B guy. Each day I’m cooking something different, whether it’s an event like the Taste of London or developing new dishes. I’m not greedy; not hungry; but I don’t take it easy. The passion is what drives me.”