Chef Pongtawat “Ian Kittichai” Chalermkittichai’s path to culinary success started from very humble beginnings in Bangkok. Fast forward to the last couple of years and he is one of the most sought after and talented Chefs in the business. In January 2012 Chef debuted to a 15,000,000 fan following as one of the permanent Iron Chefs on the Iron Chef Thailand television show. Also in 2012 Chef opened Smith, Bangkok’s first international “nose to tail” concept eatery, Asian bun eatery, Jum Mum, on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, and a second branch of Spot Dessert Bar in New York City. In September 2013 Chef was honored as the first Asia Geographical Indication Ambassador by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Thailand’s Department of Intellectual Property, and the Agence Francaise de Developpement. Chef’s upcoming restaurants and projects in development include and Issaya Siamese Club Cooking Studio in Bangkok in partnership with Sub-Zero & Wolf Appliances, a second branch of Hyde & Seek Gastro Bar, more branches of Spot Dessert Bar in the greater New York City area, and a pastry and dessert cookbook. We sit down and talk with Chef kittichai about his recipe contributions to the new book: The World’s Best Asian Noodle Recipes: 125 Great Recipes from Top Chefs. Read below for the full Q&A…
You were surrounded by food in Bangkok but received formal education in London and an apprenticeship around French cuisine. Upon returning to Bangkok what advantages did you have as a chef being able to travel and experience other locales and cultures?
Chef Kittichai: I was lucky to have been able to travel and have different experiences early in my career. I came from a working-class family of 8 children and grew up helping my mother with her green grocery and food cart in Bangkok. When I was 16 she borrowed money to send me to study English in London and I worked as a pot washer at the Waldorf Hotel to help pay for my expenses. One day I helped out in the kitchen when one of the cooks didn’t show up and there was a big lunch function. Since I had basic skills from working with my mother, the chef there asked me if I wanted to go to culinary school and the hotel would sponsor me. After a few years in London, I moved to Sydney where some of my family had immigrated and did my apprenticeship at Claude’s in French fine dining. I think these experiences gave me a strong technical background and appreciation for classical Western cooking, but also made me appreciate my own Thai heritage and techniques and flavors. The combination of our experiences and roots is what moulds us all.
You opened a restaurant in Bangkok as the first ever nose-to-tail eatery which promotes less wasteful meat consumption. Why aren’t more places open to the idea of this type of restaurant? Why is the void so large?
Chef Kittichai: I think this way of eating and cooking is becoming more popular with diners and restaurateurs alike. It is the way all of our ancestors cooked and ate and something you see a lot in Asia and Europe. I see more places in US starting to incorporate this as well.
The Thais are and rightly so very proud of their food heritage. There seems to be this idea that the authenticity of an Asian restaurant is related to the ethnicity of the chef. But of course no one would ever say that about, say, an Italian restaurant. Does this issue ever come up – and if so, how do you deal with it?
Chef Kittichai: This issue does come up – especially in the United States – but other places as well. I hope as Asian cuisines become more popular with diners and chefs alike, we will start to see this issue fade.
Authenticity and tradition seem very important you, but Bangkok is a melting pot with influences from all over Thailand. How do you achieve balance when cooking fusion food?
Chef Kittichai: Well first, I think most chefs hate that word “fusion”…. Most of the time its “confusion”….
My approach to Thai cuisine is to use traditional ingredients and flavors, but with progressive and international as well as traditional cooking methods and perhaps different plating styles than traditional Thai plating. I also enjoy cooking other types of cuisines and have restaurants that do not feature Thai food. I think with the internet, social media, travel, etc. the world continually gets more accessible as well as interested in different flavors and cuisines. For chefs it is an exciting time to be cooking.
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
Chef Kittichai: I love Bruce Lee movies, Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee …. I was actually recently in a Thai movie called Menu for Father playing a version of myself, which was a fun experience.Please enter the url to a YouTube video.
You most recently contributed to The World’s Best Asian Noodle Recipes: 125 Great Recipes from Top Chefs. Why do you think this is an important book to bring to the masses?
Chef Kittichai: I got involved with the book because it was a fun project that would perhaps de-mystify some Asian dishes and cooking techniques for the home cook.
Do you believe many people underestimate the difficulty of cooking noodles? Given there are so many recipes for Asian noodles, are some chefs intimidated?
Chef Kittichai: Sure, something that is new can be intimidating.
What other plans do you have for Q4-Q1 2014? Anything you could leak to us about?
Chef Kittichai: I am opening a second Hyde & Seek Gastro Bar in Bangkok. I am also opening an Issaya Cooking Studio with Sub-Zero & Wolf in Bangkok, an Issaya Patisserie, and am releasing an Issaya pastry and dessert cookbook internationally as a follow up to my cookbook, Issaya Siamese Club: Innovative Thai Cuisine by Chef Ian Kittichai. I am also planning to open more Spot Dessert Bars in New York and Bangkok.
Lastly, do you have any advice for any restaurateurs out there looking to open a place? Is there a good time or a bad time to open a restaurant?
Chef Kittichai: One thing that I have found to be true of opening restaurants anywhere in the world is the importance of location and real estate. The restaurant and its concept has to be in the right location for its target audience. There are destination restaurants out there that are successful, but on the whole you want to be in an accessible location for your intended market. Opening a restaurant is a huge undertaking, expensive, and the risk of failure is high – so the more elements in your favor the better!
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