Thailand's first celebrity chef doesn't let fame go to his head

Thailand's first celebrity chef doesn't let fame go to his head
INTO DESIGNING FOOD : ‘My cooking style is very simple, and about using fresh ingredients. After all, with great ingredients, you don’t have to do too much,’ says Chef Kittichai.

He is Thailand's first celebrity chef, but Ian Kittichai says: "I'm less a celebrity and more a chef." Chef Kittichai has been a regular fixture on TV since 2001, when he began hosting the weekly cooking show Chef Mue Tong (The Golden Hand Chef), which is broadcast in over 70 countries; and since 2012, he has been one of the permanent chefs on the TV series Iron Chef Thailand.

Despite his fame, he feels uncomfortable about how chefs on TV are being seen as superstars, but says that being on TV has its benefits - for one thing, people get to know about him and go to his restaurants. "But then you have to be concerned about who you are and how you cook," he says. "Diners will want to know if you can really cook, or are you just a celebrity."

Rather than let the superstar label go to his head, Chef Kittichai says: "I always think about where I came from. I started as a chef, and not a celebrity. I worked my way up from the bottom, and climbed up the ranks."

Two TV shows aside, the 47-year-old chef currently has nine restaurants, six in Thailand, including Issaya Siamese Club ranked 31st in the Asia's 50 Best Restaurant list last year. Outside of Thailand, Chef Kittichai has two restaurants - one in New York, and one in Mumbai.

He now adds Singapore to the list, where he is the consultant chef for spa restaurant Tangerine at Resorts World Sentosa. The restaurant, located in ESPA spa, was previously run by Thai chef Forest Leong, wife of home-grown celebrity chef Sam Leong, who runs a contemporary Asian restaurant called Forest at the integrated resort's Equarius Hotel.

"I've known Chef Sam for many years, and it was he who referred me for the job," says Chef Kittichai, who said yes, since he has had experience creating spa cuisine.

He says that unlike regular cooking, where "you can throw all things in", spa cuisine is a little more tricky. "Not only are the portion sizes smaller, but I want to throw in more protein, less fat, salt and sugar into the dishes," says Chef Kittichai who is also into healthy eating himself. "It is not just all raw foods either."

He adds that the cooking techniques have to be different too. The food is done sous vide style, steamed or lightly seared to retain the vitamins and minerals.

At Tangerine, where simplicity, flavour, and nutrition lead the menu, some of the signature dishes that Chef Kittachai has created are Thai-Inspired Sous Vide Pork and Asian Style Sea Bass and Salsa. The former features Australian pork loin sous vide at 65 degrees Celsius to retain the maximum amount of nutrients and flavours, complemented with fresh garden greens, young broccoli leaves and micro cress which are high in antioxidants and beta carotene. Meanwhile the sea bass is lightly pan fried and sits on a bed of sauteed Napa cabbage, and is served with an Asian style salsa and lime chilli sauce.

"My cooking style is very simple, and about using fresh ingredients," he says. "After all, with great ingredients, you don't have to do too much."

Chef Kittachai's food journey began from 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 he was in school, she would cook a dozen different types of curries. When he got home, he would push a cart through the neighbourhood, selling the curries, calling out "Khao Geang Ron Ron Ma Leaw Jaar", or hot curry coming.

He later went to London to study, with no intention of becoming a chef. While working part-time at the Waldorf Hotel, the hotel chef saw potential in the Thai national. Before long, the hotel sponsored him to attend culinary school in London, and he subsequently completed his culinary studies in Sydney.

He later honed his skills at the Four Seasons Bangkok, and also at top names such as Georges V in Paris, French Laundry in Napa Valley, and El Bulli in Spain.

Had he not become a chef, he says he would have been a potter. "I saw some students moulding plates when I was in Sydney, and I think I would have become a plate maker." He didn't go down that path for a simple reason. "I realise that I couldn't design plates. I can design food, but not plates. So it is better that I focus on cooking," he quips.

The celebrity chef is mostly based in Bangkok, although he does make two trips to visit his New York restaurants annually.

He hopes one day to open restaurants in the major European cities - London, Paris and Milan - but at the same time, is realistic about certain issues. "Paris would be difficult since they have strict labour laws. Milan would require lots of education on Thai cuisine," he points out. "London would be great. It is a sophisticated city and people like to try new things."

This article was first published on Jan 31, 2015.
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