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From humble beginnings hawking food in the alleys of Bangkok, Chef Pongtawat ‘Ian Kittichai’ Chalermkittichai is now the world’s foremost Thai chef with a culinary reach from Bangkok to New York City. The Culture Trip speaks to Chef Kittichai about his views on culinary travel, culinary influences and the place of Thai cuisine around the world.
Chef Kittichai’s path to culinary success started from very humble beginnings in Bangkok. Every morning he would rise at 3am to accompany his mother to the wet market to select the best meats, seafood, and vegetables for her neighbourhood grocery. While Ian was at school, she would cook a dozen different types of curries. Upon his return home, Ian would push a cart through the neighbourhood to sell his wares, shouting: ‘Khao Geang Ron Ron Ma Leaw Jaar!’ (Hot curry coming!).
Today, Chef Kittichai heads up restaurants in Bangkok, New York City and Mumbai. He is also one of the Iron Chefs on the Thai TV show Iron Chef Thailand.
What is one city that you would consider a must-visit?
It is hard to name just one city. My top three cities in no particular order are Bangkok, Tokyo, and Barcelona.
If you could take a culinary tour across one country in the world, where would you go?
I consider a country’s cuisine when planning travel destinations, but it is not the only consideration, of course. If I could take a culinary tour across one country, though, it would be Japan.
You’ve lived and worked in several different countries, including El Bulli in Spain, French Laundry in Napa Valley and Georges V in Paris; how have these experiences shaped your approach to Thai cooking?
All of my experiences, from childhood to now, affect my cooking. I am always striving to learn and try different things. I think if one stops learning, then one’s life is empty. My philosophy towards food is to take the best of everything I have learned and experienced and create the best dining experience for my guests. I am particularly passionate about sustainable and organic ingredients. I have worked with an organic farm in Chiang Mai Thailand for over 10 years to supply my restaurants in Thailand. Right now, I am also especially fortunate to be able to have my own chef gardens at two of my restaurants, Issaya Siamese Club, my flagship Thai restaurant in Bangkok, and Smith, my take on international nose-to-tail dining.
Is there a country whose cuisine is relatively overlooked, but that you think could or should become more in the mainstream in the near future?
Thai cuisine has become more mainstream in the past years, but I would like the depth of the cuisine to be more popular, not just the fast, cheap, quick perception that exists out there. Thai cuisine is a varied, regional, and complex cuisine, not just Green Curry and Pad Thai.
Have you found any cultural barriers in the world of food, or does food cross over these national and cultural barriers?
There are always going to be people in the business of food that throw up cultural barriers for their own purposes and prejudices, but I think food is truly one of the best ways to overcome cultural barriers; everyone has to eat and enjoys eating. Food is one of the best icebreakers and provides an excellent way to bond and learn about different cultures, history, people etc. For people to take that boundary crossing element and try to create negative images and experiences is wrong; those people do not truly love or understand the universal appeal of food.
If you could sit down and have a meal with one chef in the world, who would that be? Who would prepare the meal?
The chef I would most like to have a meal with is my mother who passed away in 2008. She had such a profound influence on my life and career. I miss her and her cooking.
What plans do you have for yourself, your restaurants in the next few years?
My plans are to keep creating enjoyable dining experiences at my restaurants around the world – Issaya Siamese Club, Smith, and Hyde & Seek Gastro Bar in Bangkok; Koh in Mumbai; Ember Room, Spot Dessert Bar, and Jum Mum in New York. I also plan to continue to film Iron Chef Thailand and my cooking show, Chef Mue Thong. I have just released my first English language cookbook, Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook, and would love to do a follow up as well. I am also open to creating more restaurants if the right place, time, and inspiration happen.
For more information on Chef Ian Kittichai, please visit www.ianchalermkittichai.com; or go and dine at his fabulous restaurants around the world, including his flagship restaurant Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok, Spot Dessert Bar in New York and Koh by Kittichai in Mumbai.