Interview with Celebrity Chef Kittichai in Manila

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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!

Going back to your flagship restaurant, Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok… a big congratulations because you have just been ranked no.39 from the recently concluded Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants.

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?

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Two Appetizers : Caramelized shrimp ball, peanuts and pineapple. Diced tuna tartare, ginger, betel leaves, palm sugar, fish sauce dressing.

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Grilled Beef Tenderloin Salad with fresh herbs, bird’s eye chili vinaigrette.

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Tom Kha Goong : Seared tiger prawn, light coconut soup, kaffir lime.

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Chilean seabass glazed with house blended chili paste.

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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!

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Jasmine flower panna cotta with Jasmine rice ice cream and Jasmine rice tuile.

Special thanks to Angelo Comsti for the introduction to Chef Kittichai.

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