Asian Food Channel (AFC) recently brought Thai celebrity chef, cookbook author and TV host Ian Kittichai to Manila as part of a regional culinary tour called A Taste of Thailand. Kittichai, as he is popularly called, has his TV show in AFC entitled 3 Chefs 1 City and is also part of Thailand’s Iron Chef.
But more than that, he has a string of restaurants and bars all over the world (Bangkok, Barcelona, Mumbai, New York) under his belt. I first got to try his cooking way back in 2004 in his first stand-alone restaurant, also named Kittichai, in New York City. Last year, I found myself in Bangkok for a quick holiday and visited his flagship restaurant Issaya Siamese Club, which was ranked as No.39 in the recently concluded Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
In both instances, I enjoyed my meal as I have always loved the exotic spices and intense flavor of Thai food. So imagine my delight when I was called to be one of the three privileged to conduct a one-on-one interview with my favorite Thai chef, Ian Kittichai himself! We met at the Dusit Thani Hotel’s Thai Restaurant, Benjarong, right before his Press lunch. As I made my way to our little “conference room”, I was already smitten by his humility and unique charm.
We were given only 5 minutes for the interview, but we enjoyed ourselves a little bit too much (either that or we both talked too much) that it lasted more than 15 minutes! So here are just snippets of our one-on-one interview :
Grace : Chef Kittichai, welcome to Manila! I’ve been to two of your restaurants in a span of 10 years : Kittichai in New York and Issaya Siamese in Bangkok. And there’s this one particular dish from both restaurants that I really love, it’s your Fried Fish with Tamarind Sauce… I distinctly remember it until now!
Kittichai : Oh yes, that’s one of my favorite dishes as well! I use a lot of different flavors which make it really good : garlic, chili, mashed onion, sunflower oil, tamarind, sriracha sauce, palm sugar, shallots and basil. It’s really a good mix of sweet, sour and spicy!
Grace : So at what age did you first learn that you love to cook?
Kittichai : I never really loved to cook. I just learned to cook from my mother who was the best cook in our side of town. I never really cooked then, but I would watch her and assist her as she made her homemade curries to sell the next day to the neighborhood market. I went with her every single day.
And you know, she would allow me to stir fry garlic every once in a while, because she knows I love garlic too much… but I would always burn it! And this, she didn’t like!
Grace : Then what made you pursue cooking eventually? How did you get to where you are now if you didn’t know how to cook?
Kittichai : I went to UK and worked 2 years in a hotel. I didn’t finish my apprenticeship there… and then I changed my mind, decided to move to Sydney, where I have family. And my family there loves to cook.
Grace : So this move of yours to Sydney… Is that what finally influenced you to try cooking?
Kittichai : Yes, everyone in my family there knew how to cook — but me. At least at that time. Then when I was 18 or 19, I said I want to become a chef. By then, I’ve been reading a lot of books and biographies about famous chefs. I wanted to know how they became famous, wrote cookbooks, and owned restaurants eventually.
Years later, I was lucky to have gone into training under some of the best chefs in some of the most famous hotels and restaurants in the world.
Grace : From peddling homemade curries in the streets of Thailand to now living the dream : TV host, cookbook author, restaurateur, celebrity chef! What an inspiring story!
Kittichai : I had to work my way up. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of hard work involved, of course. I saw how my mom worked hard, she had no day off. Every day she was cooking, every day we were selling. I hated it. I didn’t want to be the same.
Grace : And then you finally made it… You put up your first restaurant, Kittichai, right at the place where it’s hardest to survive : New York City. That was really brave of you. What made you do this?
Kittichai : I was young then. 34 years old. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be in New York City. If you can make it there, you can surely make it anywhere. It was a very competitive dining scene. I was competing with the best of the best, the Michelin starred restaurants! But I was happy. I was happy because my restaurant there was well loved. It lasted a good 12 years. And yes, that was in New York City!
Grace : You are a success story indeed, Chef!
Kittichai : Yes thank you, this is something I am also very proud of.
Grace : Well if there’s something I can also be proud to share with you… I was able to visit Issaya when I was in Bangkok just last year. And these were some of the dishes I enjoyed (proudly showing some of the photos in my phone) : Slow Cooked Smoked Salmon, Lamb Shank Massaman Curry, Issaya-Spiced Chicken and the wonderful and totally unexpected Cold Coconut Crepe Souffle for dessert!!
Kittichai : Oh wow, you ate all that?!
Me : Yes, I enjoyed your food so much! And I’ve always loved Thai food… that I even try to cook them at home now. But I must say, nothing comes close to your kind of cooking!
Thank you Chef for your time and thank you for cooking a feast for us today… I am really excited to try real authentic Thai food and of course, your cooking once again!
Kittichai : I am also excited for you to try this menu I created just for today and I am sure you will eat even more now!
So what did Chef Ian Kittichai prepare for us that day?
Two Appetizers : Caramelized shrimp ball, peanuts and pineapple. Diced tuna tartare, ginger, betel leaves, palm sugar, fish sauce dressing.
Grilled Beef Tenderloin Salad with fresh herbs, bird’s eye chili vinaigrette.
Tom Kha Goong : Seared tiger prawn, light coconut soup, kaffir lime.
Chilean seabass glazed with house blended chili paste.
Slow cooked Beef Shortribs in fresh homemade green curry sauce.
This was my favorite dish among them all — beef was tender and the curry was thick, rich, nutty and spicy!
Jasmine flower panna cotta with Jasmine rice ice cream and Jasmine rice tuile.
Special thanks to Angelo Comsti for the introduction to Chef Kittichai.