You know how your mind conjures up inflated images of people when you’re really excited about meeting them? I used to get that way about chefs. I remember going to Bouley for the first time, walking down that intrepid alley and into the bustling kitchen with great hopes of working alongside a true genius. It was an amazing place, 25 headstrong cooks, extremely serious and insanely dedicated. Every day I'd ask if I was hired and for the opportunity to speak with Bouley. "Just come back tomorrow" I was told. I did so for three weeks and one day I just started getting a check. ‘Til this day, my only interaction with Bouley was "Kim, two crab to the pass". Charlie the sous corrected him, "chef, it's Tim"; "yeah right, Kim let's go".
About 10 months ago I read a chapter about Bangkok in a Jeffrey Stiengarten book. He was shown around Thailand by Bob Halliday, the food critic for the Bangkok Post. I started to get those images of Bob taking me to little hidden food stalls and underground markets. So, I e-mailed him. Everyday I checked, for five months, but no answer. I'd long since given up hope, when in Vietnam I was on a phone interview with some restaurateurs back in NYC and Bob's name came up. I got a new address and this one worked. I came back to Bangkok, in part, to hook up with Bob.
I woke up on the early side and ran down the street of Phra Athit to the pay phone. It was already getting hot and the booth was sweltering. "Hi Bob, it's Tim." "Oh yes, so you’re from NYC. I was there a year ago." Trying to name drop, I ask "did you eat at Vong or 66?" "No I didn't. I've found Thai food outside of Thailand lacks its true flavors". “Well, I think we'd all agree on that, but you can't think of it as Thai food, it's an interpretation and sometimes it's better." "Better? How could it be better than an authentic dish that has been passed down through many generations?" "Better technique, better fish and meat and in the right hands a deeper understanding of evoking flavors". Now, this conversation happened awhile ago, so it's been through the wash a few times -- Bob, I'm trying to get your part right. Bob sighs, better technique, deeper understanding, these are words of war. He explains to me that Thai food is about balance: the harmony of harsh and pungent ingredients with a myriad of spices. The "Rot Chart", meaning the proper or appropriate taste, comes from a great understanding of these ingredients and the methods used to bring them to life. It's a high wire act; the bitter, sour, hot, salty and sweet are all interwoven into an exquisitely complex cuisine. I can't lose that quickly, so I change up my approach: "every cuisine is fusion it's all evolved from the melding of new ingredients and influences from other countries". Bob counters with "that's cultural evolution not some chef's arbitrary decision. I've lived here for 35 years and have developed a palate for the way dishes and ingredients should taste, I don't enjoy them any other way". We pick a time and place to meet and agree to disagree.
Bob is an amazing man, as gentle and sweet as the evening breeze and as knowledgeable and astute as anyone I've ever met. It's such a pleasure to be in his company. He was born and raised in NY and reminds me of a guy you'd find on a park bench on the Upper West Side -- well read, a bit upper class, hyper-intelligent, but with the spirit of someone down in the Village. He's retired from being the food critic and now writes reviews of classical music and movies; his CD and DVD collection is immense: from classical to esoteric, experimental stuff like John Cage, a guy who once recorded a piano piece of him sitting at the piano but not playing it. This is a good example of why food can't be art. If it was, you could have a chef's table where nobody got to eat. Surfing through his DVD collection, I find a rare copy of 19 plays by Samuel Becket performed by cinema directors and famous actors. We watch a few plays and it sails over my head like Concord jet. I grew up in this sort of environment, my mother a classical violinist and my Dad scientist/psychologist, culture and brains were all around the house, I just preferred to play outside.
Our first meal was at Chote Chitr, a little restaurant on the edge of Ko Ratanakosin. Its little streets, canals and food shops are so charming, you forget you’re in noisy Bangkok. Like all the places you go with Bob, he's greeted like an old friend. Fluent in Thai, he orders about seven dishes; a few highlights were Shrimp Mee Krob, sweet, sour and spicy goodness, a grilled eggplant salad with lemongrass, lime and mint, its smoky tones harmonizing with the lively flavors of red shallots and dried shrimp. And, a salad of banana flower and shrimp, where the dense texture of the banana leaves made the shrimp even more voluptuous, both delicately tossed with rich chili paste, fermented shrimp, lime and palm sugar. Bob runs next door to the Mango Sticky Rice and Sweet Shop that is supposedly the best in the city and brings back dessert. It's just the beginning of Mango season and the luscious sweet flesh is wonderful on its own, but when you take a bite with the chewy sticky rice scented with pandanus and the sweetened fresh coconut cream, you just about wet yourself. I dry off while Bob tells me that a great source for recipes is funeral books. This is a way the cuisine gets passed down through generations and, though rarely are their measurements, there are often times explicit directions. We are joined by Mrs. Krachoichuli Kimangsawat, the chef and owner, who brings her own family’s books -- such a warm and gracious lady. I'm so overwhelmed by the moment that I blurt out "hey, can I work here?" She looks over to her two employees, as if to say she's got it covered, and Bob explains in Thai what I meant. She smiles and says okay. I start the next day.
The walk from Phra Athit is not too far, just through Sanam Luang park, past the Grand Palace and down a couple side streets and I'm there. Mrs. Kimangsawat (Tiem) has two helpers, Ele the sous chef and a steward/busser. Together, they are a formidable crew that moves like the wind when it gets busy. Mario may have done all the cooking at Po, but he didn’t wait tables, mix drinks and serve as the cashier too. It's a railroad layout: an open air dining room in the front, a small narrow hallway in the middle that houses the garde manger, dishwashing and waiter stations, all the refrigeration and a restroom. In the back is a small room with a few fans hung from the partially open ceiling where the fans point up. There are two burners set against the wall and mise en place wrapped around its perimeter, set on crates, old tables and a cupboard. This is Tiem’s sanctuary -- all 15 square feet of it. I try to get busy by washing a few things in the sink and I'm politely asked to stop. I try to infiltrate the peeling of the lemongrass, but that task only lasts a few seconds. As I'm learning, most of these restaurants do a minimal amount of prep prior to service. The curry pastes, nam priks, chili pastes and basically all the cool stuff is made by Tiem at her house. Here's a lady who begins her day at 6:00 AM by going to several markets, then she drives with her two fox terriers to the restaurant, which is open from 11:00 AM to10:00 PM, and she finishes around 11:00 PM and then drives home. That's a long day for anybody and she does it six days a week. On the seventh day, she prepares food for the monks at her temple.
At noon, the tables begin to fill up and the balancing act kicks in. Tiem is out greeting the guests, as Ele makes some iced artichoke leaf tea. She hands me a glass, it's got a musty smell to it. The first order looks to be a banana flower salad; Ele quickly peels back the outer leaves and finely shaves the center with a sharp wood-handled cleaver. Tiem hands her some steamed shrimp and she mixes it together with chili paste, lime juice, simple syrup, freshly made coarse chili powder and coconut milk. I'm so psyched, because yesterday, I couldn't quite decipher what the cooling element to the dressing was and, now I know -- coconut. A few more dishes are called out and Ele grabs an array of bags from the fridge and washes, preps and arranges plates of mise en place to hand to Tiem. It's awesome -- I get to stand between them and watch every dish. I hold up my notepad showing Tiem and she nods her acceptance to my note taking. As she finishes each dish, she has me sample it. They're all amazing: soups with spiced ground pork and a bitter deep foresty flavor, Nam Priks with sour mango, a salt lick shrimp paste (gapi) and gooseberry sized eggplant served with a platter of market vegetables and a fried salted fish. Over and over, Tiem nails the dish spot-on with a minimal amount of tasting. Her motions are fluid like a great dancer -- never pressing, but always engaged. The wok affords you exceptional speed, but you have to be up to the task because things cook in a matter of seconds. Her Thai Noodles (pad thai) are made in under a minute. She browns the garlic and then adds preserved turnips and dried shrimp. With the flick of a spoon, the sugar and vinegar are deposited, then the noodles, as they soak up the liquid immediately. She cracks an egg to the side and whisks it with a fork. It balloons up in the hot fat and she quickly incorporates it into the noodles. In go the peanuts, tofu, sprouts and green onions. She rolls them a few times and it's done. Great cooking is a simple equation: perfect technique and a superb palate, Tiem says it's easy. Her humble Thai facade doesn't fool me -- a palate like that isn't just natural, it comes with time. A flood of people walk in and the place gets a little crazy. Orders are being shouted out by Ele and Tiem simultaneously. I'm not sure how they hear each other. Vegetable peelings are flying, some dried fish is pounded in the mortar and pestle, a whole fish sizzles in the wok as Tiem’s hands are now moving at blinding karate-like speed. She yells at the steward for a wok, there are only three and two are in the sink. I start to help and Ele pushes me gently away. I press my ass up against the bathroom door and just watch in amazement. A big "I fuckin’ love the kitchen" grin comes over my face as I realize that kitchen mayhem is not cultural, it's professional. A few customers peek their heads back in the kitchen; at first I thought they were looking for their food, but actually one needed to use the restroom. I try to move and fall in a gutter -- I knew flip-flops were a bad choice. The other guy starts taking pictures; he's doing an article for a Thai magazine. Like a media savvy chef, Tiem is uninterested and keeps her game face on. She barks out a few orders and her displeasure with one of the trays of mise en place. It's quickly replaced.
Each day after lunch, I sat and ate a sampling of dishes. Tiem would join me to talk, but never eat. Like a true cook ,she took her meal later in the day, squatting on the kitchen floor with the others. She spoke English well, so we were able to talk about food, life, and the absurdities of our business. Like most of my trip, after awhile, I became more interested in her story than the food. Her food, however divine, is only a small part of this amazing lady, who has inherited this 100 year old restaurant from her grandparents whose pictures grace the walls. Her grandfather became well known for his medicinal herb mixtures and potions, while grandmother and mother taught her how to cook. We talked about how modern Bangkok has become and that her daughter is growing up in a world of opportunities that are quite different from the past. "Who's going to run the restaurant after you?" I ask. She shakes her head and laughs. Her daughter doesn't like to cook and Tiem's fine with that. I ask her if she likes other cuisines and she explains that her father was a diplomat and traveled quite a bit. She loves Italian food and cooks it occasionally. I feel like bringing her to NYC to eat at Lupa (my favorite) with me, but if anyone is indispensable, it's her. I asked her what happens when she's sick. "We close" she says with a smile, then tells me that it happened back in October. The customers were so distraught that they called her at home, wishing her a speedy recovery, but mostly wanting to know when she was going to re-open.
On my final day after I've sucked down all the artichoke tea from the pot, I ask her about Bob. “Bob’s like family” she says “and he's been coming here for many, many years.” "What do you think of mixing two styles of food together, say Thai and Italian?", "Oh, I Iike Italian, and experimentation is a good thing." Sorry Bob, the seed has been planted.Posted by runawaychef at April 17, 2004 11:09 AM