(Photo by Chatree Duangnet)
I have not posted in a while because my laptop was being held hostage by my son, who used the tail end of his summer holiday to make numerous Google slide presentations for his own amusement. I have to admit I appreciated the excuse to stop writing. Unfortunately, he is back at school so I suppose I will have to start up again.
Also during the summer holiday, I was lucky enough to be tapped to do some research work for a documentary on street food. This led me to various restaurants, not all of them street food, where for some reason or other (such as, they were not street food) they did not make the final cut. One of those non-street food places was “Jok Tho Diew” (“One Table Jok”), also known as Jok Kitchen.
Jok Kitchen has been around for a while, a little over 10 years now. From the very beginning it was a success, winning write-ups from various publications and months-long waiting lists. The funny thing about this (Alanis Morrissette would call it “ironic”) is that Chef Jok came to the success of his one-table restaurant fairly late in life, after decades of kicking around Asia doing anything but cooking.
Born 65 years ago in Chinatown to a Chinese-Thai mother and a father who had immigrated to Thailand from Shantou, Jok spent his earliest years in the hospital, cared for by nurses because of a rare allergy to his mother’s milk. Fed on a mixture of chocolate and rice water, he was given the name “Jing Jok” (Thai for gecko lizard) by the nurses because although he didn’t eat much, he wouldn’t die.
This early ailment may explain why he remained the apple of his parents’ eyes well into adulthood. Gregarious and talkative, Jok was deemed unsuited to the traditional support roles in the family business, which was one of the most prominent suppliers of crab in the country. So instead of following his siblings into management, Jok became a delivery boy.
Watching what the cooks did with the crabs he delivered sparked his interest in food. His first taste of steamed fish in soy sauce, the signature dish of famed Thai-Chinese eatery Hai Tien Lo, sealed it. Determined to make the dish himself, 12-year-old Jok convinced his father to let him apprentice with the chef, Meng Jai, igniting a pattern of incorporating, adapting and improving others’ dishes that he continues to this day.
(Photo by Chatree Duangnet)
Never at a loss for friends, Jok honed his kitchen skills by cooking for his friends, starting a “cooking club” where he would attempt to replicate dishes that he and his friends admired at famous restaurants. Even as he took on a more peripatetic lifestyle, embarking on various ventures in Indonesia, Vietnam and mainland China, the cooking club remained a near-monthly occurrence, his interest in food unrelenting. “You should start a restaurant,” was a familiar refrain from friends that he kept touch with, childhood friends who had since grown into positions in the military, banks, police, media, and of course, in neighboring shops in Chinatown.
This would become key later on, when his parents passed away and he was left to fend for himself. After a brief and acrimonious stint maintaining a food outlet at Suvarnabhumi Airport (he quit after one month over rent issues), he decided to essentially monetize his supper club, opening up the table typically reserved for guests to his house to food-loving members of the general public willing to make the trip down the dank, dark alleyway to his door.
The concept was irresistible to Bangkokians: one table, reservation only, serving high-end Thai-Chinese food that was championed by big-name mucky-mucks in all corners of high society. Since then, Jok Kitchen has expanded to a back room next to the kitchen that easily fits two more tables; at maximum capacity, Jok Kitchen can accommodate six. The repertoire has also expanded, including special requests from guests if made far enough in advance (although his signature dish remains the beautifully steamed, fresh crab.) Other dishes are a map to his own experience: “Prosecution Fried Rice”, a delicious mix of perfectly wok-cooked Chinese sausage, egg, and Chinese kale was hatched during a late night session with lawyers working on the prosecution case against Thaksin Shinawatra; his “hangover soup”, a clear seafood soup with pomfret, ginger and pickled plum, was born after an evening spent overindulging on whisky.
The kitchen, however, remains tiny, a condominium-sized cubbyhole with four burners and a shelf full of homemade condiments, including his own version of a famous oyster sauce from a restaurant in Hong Kong. This is used to best effect in his steamed fish dish, inspired by that first bite of steamed fish in soy sauce at that restaurant in Chinatown years ago.