Spain, France and most recently Denmark are the hot spots for cooks looking to stage abroad. Up until it recently shuttered its doors, El Bulli was one of the greatest resume builders you could have. Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Mugaritz, Noma, along with the well established Michelin’ed restaurants of France are destinations for aspirational cooks looking to learn in these noted restaurants and most importantly, enjoy in a bit of bragging rights.
Somehow Asia has been disregarded as a destination. Perhaps because the Michelin guide hasn’t ventured into this region of the world? Japan was the first Asian country to be awarded stars and only four years ago (Michelin published their first guide in 1900). The food in Asia has not been deemed worthy of stars, or the manpower to research and review is too little, or some other excuse has led the guide, and most of the Occidental world, to overlook some of the tastiest and most interesting food out there.
Young cooks want to learn how to use tapioca maltodextrin, lecithin, kappa carrageenan, and transglutaminase before they know how to properly season, sear, or cook a piece of fish to medium rare. Passionate cooks, not the new class of young cooks who aspire to be Food Network’s next star (that’s fine too…), want to go through the ranks and earn their stars in a European kitchen.
Why not Asia?
I don’t think Asia is being credited with the praise it is due. The kitchen brigade may not be as well established, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In Hong Kong, there is a Pierre Herme at the Mandarin Oriental. In China, you can seek out a Jean-Georges Vongerichten or a Daniel Boulud restaurant where you can add some burn notches to your fore arms. But I’m even encouraging getting away from known Western chefs and wandering down the unbeaten tracks, learning from the unsung cooks and lesser known chefs.
In Thailand I had perhaps the best stage of my life. I had eaten at Nahm several times before I decided I couldn’t leave Bangkok without working in this exceptional kitchen. The chef happens to be Australian, but David Thompson has been living in Thailand on and off for thirty years, his partner is Thai, he speaks and writes Thai fluently, and his food is impeccable. Never mind the fact that he’s white–he’s Thai. And this kitchen is worth a trip around the world to work in.
I only spent about a week in the kitchen with Chef David, Chef Tanongsak and their talented kitchen crew, but while there, I learned techniques that kept my hand busier scribbling notes on my mini pad more than wielding my knife over vegetables. I had eaten the lemongrass salad multiple times in the dining room, so when I finally watched the preparation, I eagerly wrote down the 26 ingredients it was composed of.
One of the amuse bouches that gets sent out to the table is a bites worth of pineapple topped with a gooey, crunchy, spicy blob, a leaf of cilantro, and a sliver of red chili. I needed to know how the blob was made. One of the cooks heard my inquiry, took me by the hand and showed me the entire process from start to finish. First off, he taught me that the blob is called ma hor. Then, he had me pound coriander root in a mortar and pestle (everything in the kitchen is pounded–there are no blenders or Robot Coupes.) We began by sauteing minced prawns, chicken and pork (separately). We sauteed the coriander root and some garlic, also pounded, until fragrant. Then we took the most gorgeous organic palm sugar (processed and cooked until it looks like natures caramel) and added it to the wok, cooking it until it was boiling and looked much like a witches brew in an Asian cauldron. After caramelizing and bubbling for minutes, we added maltose to thicken it, fish sauce to season it, a dash of pineapple vinegar to add bite, and stirred in a plethora of other ingredients. Finally, off the heat, we added in shallots and garlic that we had deep fried earlier and a bunch of toasted peanuts. The gooey mass has so many incredible notes, ranging from galangal to orange to chili, that I carry on because it’s better than anything your mouth can imagine. It’s perhaps the perfect condiment. A dollop of this cooled accompaniment on a fresh, zingy piece of pineapple is addictive. And I learned how to make it!
I also learned about desserts, and how they cook their custards over open coals that have scattered coconut shavings and shells, jasmine tea leaves and pandan leaves that burn and offer aroma to the cooking desserts up above. I learned how to make steamed palm buns from the palm fruit (bright orange and hair-like on the inside!). I learned how to peel rambuttana and longans properly, which until before I had just mangled in my hands. I learned that you can make incredible squid chips from the wings of the squid that most people in the West toss in the trash. I tasted the most earthy, nuanced nam prik num (grilled shallots, garlic, thai chilis, tomatoes and long green chilis) and was shown that the secret ingredient was nam pla mang da, or rice roach fish sauce. I watched them remove the head of the roach (which had been marinating in fish sauce) and squeeze the insides into the mashed mix of roasted veg. I asked to taste one separately to know what flavor the roach was adding to the dish. I was flabbergasted when I tasted a floral perfume, light and sweet. It’s not an ingredient that’s noted on the menu, for knowledge that the Western diner may not approve, but it’s definitely noted in my memory. Who knew roaches could taste so good???
The things you can learn from a non-Western kitchen are incredible. I learned that I want to learn more. Ingredients alone, ranging from snake fruits to som sang (expensive orange-y lime fruits) to durian (Chef David has access to some of the most expensive, most creamy durians I’ve ever had in my life) are worth the experience of working in an exotic, perhaps intimidating environment. I think more cooks should make the leap into developing countries and reap the reward that not only Thailand has to offer, but Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, Korea etc. The flavors are wild and new, and you’ll see cooking techniques you never knew were possible. Leave the purees and foams and fluffs of Europe and experience the heat of the wok, the open grills and the spices of Asia.