Category Archives: celebrity chefs

Glutton Abroad: My kind of people

How far would I go to eat a good meal? Far. How far? Three words: River boat cruise.

No, I don’t really like cruises. People with an unlimited range of experiences and perspectives come together into a very limited space, a surefire recipe for driving themselves crazy. This one, on a river in France, for a week, was no exception. People shushed us when our wild ‘n crazy Thai-speaking got too rowdy. Boat boys imitated our “ching chong” language, leading to unwelcome memories of the 8th grade. And the food … oh, the food. It was what you would get if your elementary school lunch lady took on fine dining pretensions. In short: not my kind of people.

France, on the other hand, seems to be full of my kind of people. Marketing campaigns try to tell you that France is about romance, or culture, or blahbladiblahblah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Seriously, whatever. Whatever forever. We all know it’s actually about food. No French person is without an opinion on food, especially French food. The land is blanketed with a gazillion vineyards. There is a cheese for every day of the year. Come on. France is a food place.

And France in the fall is an especially lovely food place. There’s little wonder why chefs here like to say autumn is their favorite time of year: game is in season, mushrooms start sprouting, fruit and veggies are still in abundance. What could be better than exploring it then, right before a week of BLT sandwiches and “medium-rare” pork slices in a floating cafeteria?

Chestnuts in season at an outdoor market in Paris

So it was a happy, upbeat Glutton buzzing into Burgundy, wedged between a stack of guidebooks and my hand luggage and an empty plastic bag in my purse JUST IN CASE. Like millions of people before us, we were to take part in the great French tradition of grand “hotel-restaurants” — fantastic chefs, many with long cooking pedigrees, in family-run restaurants who just happen to also have well-appointed rooms. These are the guys (and ladies) who, for years, have ruled the local culinary roost from places like Vienne and Saulieu, innovating French food and picking up Michelin stars in the process.

One chef well-regarded by Big Red (he does have 3 stars, after all) is Jean-Michel Lorain, whose La Cote Saint Jacques in Joigny is perched right next to the Yonne, boasting gigantic views over the water and two beautiful, if somewhat subdued, dining rooms. The cooking is equally beautiful, suggesting a sort of jeweler’s temperament (and a fondness for tapioca pearls): meticulous, artistic, a little bit fiddly. Some of the dishes on the menu were inspired by Chef Lorain’s father, Michel, like a terrine featuring oysters suspended in an “ocean” amber, tasting just like the sea. A deceptively simple-sounding “rose” of lobster and hearts of palm comes festooned in tapioca pearls like a Little Mermaid; a hefty blue-collar fish like cod gets gold star treatment when it is perfectly pan-fried and dressed up with more tapioca pearls and a sea urchin sauce.

La Cote Saint Jacques's cod

If Jean-Michel Lorain is an artist, Bernard Loiseau was more of a showman. Gregarious and charming, Chef Loiseau was also very smart; like a writer who understands he lacks the agility of an Updike, Loiseau seemed to understand he wasn’t the greatest technical cook and focused instead on purity and simplicity. It worked — Michelin awarded his “Cote d’Or” in Saulieu three stars, but the stress seemed to take its toll, and Bernard Loiseau took his own life in 2003.

I never got to eat at the Cote d’Or, but entering the rechristened “Bernard Loiseau” is a bit like entering a shrine. His face is everywhere, grinning in countless photos on various sitting room walls, a tireless reminder that, if the name didn’t tip you off first, this is BERNARD LOISEAU’s place, okay?

Not to say the place isn’t stunning. There is a beautiful garden, and THREE lovely dining rooms, and a gigantic staircase with an elevator in the middle — all renovations that Chef Loiseau oversaw. The only place Bernard Loiseau doesn’t seem to be omnipresent is on the menu; aside from three or four of his famous dishes, it’s more about the present chef Patrick Bertron (who has maintained the restaurant at a 3-star level), who is like a closed-mouth smile as opposed to Loiseau’s wide grin. There was a delicate, subtly flavored little duck, perfectly rosy and skin slightly crisped, and a perfectly poached egg (no whiff of vinegar! No chewy, thick egg white!) atop a raft of tiny baby leeks, the yolk just crying to be broken. And yes, we had a Loiseau classic too: juicy squares of skin-on sandre (pike perch) with a shallot marmalade and red wine sauce.

Poached egg on baby leeks vinaigrette

The best thing about French places, particularly the ones adored by Michelin? The great service. These “temples of gastronomy” are actually not supposed to be temples. They are, like everywhere else, meant to be places to relax and enjoy yourself. That means waitstaff are unfailingly, politely affable, like your older brother’s college roommate sophomore year. That means not batting an eye while you are pulling off your moth-eaten black turtleneck sweater while ordering, or making faces at your crusty old jeans when you come in for an unexpected lunch, or expressing dismay when you ask about rose on their wine menus (OK, maybe the last one, a little bit). These guys are my kind of people.

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Filed under celebrity chefs, food, France, French food, restaurant

The Far Side of Angst

Let me tell you a secret. Is it presumptuous of me to burden you with this so soon? It’s just that I feel such a bond, this far into our 30-second relationship — I feel like we’re two of a dust girdle kind, you and I.

It is a big surprise to all and sundry well-acquainted with my sunny personality, the privileged few who have been bombarded with my hemming and hawing, bitching and moaning, peanut butter and jelly-ing for the past 50-odd years, but: I am terrified of public speaking. Get me in front of a crowd of two or three and my knees start a-shakin’ and palms start a-sweatin’, the words in my mouth congealing into a mealy jumble that will make sense to no one, including myself.

Yet I continue to inflict myself upon unsuspecting bystanders because there is some sort of masochistic streak in me that says I MUST — somehow — persevere and someday — someway — emerge victorious. And I continue to fail, melting into a puddle of angst-ridden Robert Pattinson every time skeptical eyes lock onto me, daring me to say something of substance.

So it is with some trepidation that I said okay to the incredibly kind people at “Poh’s Kitchen”, a cooking show on ABC in Australia featuring Poh Ling Yeow, a chef/artist of Malaysian-Chinese heritage who got her start on “MasterChef Australia”. Aside from being beautiful and kind, Poh is a very knowledgeable cook, so it was a big surprise to get a call from her people suggesting that I might be able to show Poh around some of my favorite food spots and tell her something about Thai food.

I told myself I didn’t know anything about Thai food Poh didn’t already know herself. Envisioning a crowd of disappointed eyes compounded by the glare of the camera (and Lordy, am I familiar with that experience), I suggested a sheath of other names that they could use. I suggested I would be tied up with a possible trip abroad, a hair appointment, a heart attack. They were strangely insistent. I showed up, smudged from nausea and sleeplessness, having driven my husband crazy the night before with useless questions (“You’ll still be my friend, right?” was one of them).

For once, it wasn’t that bad. I did a lot of “uhs” and “absolutelys” (go ahead, down a shot every time I say one of those. I dare you.) I looked like Quasimodo next to Poh’s Esmerelda. But then I remembered that I would probably never, ever see this, and that realization was enormously freeing. As long as I could remain in my little bubble of denial, safe in the cocoon of the delusion that I was svelte and resembled the Asian Anouk Aimee, I would be OK.

Oh, are you still here? Did you think that I would be talking about food? Hahahahaha. Why would I do that, when I can blather endlessly about myself? But yes, it’s true: the day held yet another blessing. Hours spent roasting in a boat under the midday sun yielded — besides renewed exclamations of “Why are you so DARK?! You’re so DARK, isn’t she so DARK?!” — a sheltered Thai-Muslim community along Klong Saen Saep specializing in gorgeous fish-based nam prik, or so-called “chili paste”.

Readying ingredients for the camera

While the chili dips and nam prik gaeng that are used as the base for countless soups and curries form the bulk of what people think about when they think about nam prik, these are dried and used as a condiment, sprinkled over rice. Here, the most famous nam prik is the nam prik ruammit (mixed “nam prik”), incorporating little dried fish, dried shrimp, and grilled flaked fish with the requisite chilies (hand-roasted and pounded into a powder), palm sugar, tamarind paste, deep-fried shallots and garlic, fish sauce and lime juice.

Ingredients ready for a fresh nam prik

Not to get all earnest on you, but: it was eye-opening to see this beautiful community, self-sufficient (mosque, bank and houses are all canal-side and easily accessible via boat) and with an eye on sustainability (the waters are brimming with fish, and healthy gardens and pet cows are in abundance). Lunching on khao mok gai (Thai-Muslim chicken rice) and an especially fiery oxtail soup, I thought myself lucky, and my shriveled, withered old heart grew two sizes that day.

Glum Mae Baan Than Diew
Saen Saep, Minburi
Bangkok 10510
02-919-4777, 081-905-6974, 085-974-6791

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, fish, food, food stalls, rice, seafood, Thai-Muslim, Thailand, TV chefs

Caught in the culture wars

 

Thai food: a focal point of the culture wars

 

I vowed never to talk about this again, but Sunday’s “Bangkok Post” opinion piece about the state of Thai cuisine drove me, once again, to the keyboard (I don’t have many interests, and nothing else to talk about). Like a Katherine Heigl movie, it starts out reasonably enough, and then somehow turns crazypants somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise is, modern Thai food has atrophied as a result of the culinary shortcuts commercial cooks take today, resulting in processed dreck that bears little resemblance to the dishes they are supposed to be (while this is very true, it sounds a little to me like running into a McDonald’s and complaining, “Why do they only use cheap ingredients? Why is everything so poorly made? Where is the care and thought put into my hamburger?”)

The media also deserve blame for the commodification of Thai food, concerning themselves only with “tasting this or that dish” and on “atmosphere and decor rather than offering any real knowledge concerning the food” (Because NO ONE cares about that stuff! Silly journos. Tell me once again about how the Indians and/or Portuguese inspired coconut milk-based curries).

Because of these shortcuts, Thais DESERVE to lose their mastery of their own cuisine. Because we’re so stupid! Now David Thompson has blown into town and his place is packed and that sucks, because our lives suck and so his should too! But we’ve done this to ourselves, because we bear witness to culinary crimes like this:

“…pizza with a dry version of gaeng kiew waan luk chin pla or with dry tom yum goong. These combinations are a slap in the face to both the Thai and Italian cooking traditions.”

First of all, what’s with all the slaps in the face? Is there no other way for writers here to convey getting insulted? No tug on the ear, perhaps, or maybe a kick in the pants? Get a new rhetorical device!

Secondly, well, I am no fan of crap-topped pizza either. That said, I’m sure someone probably thought tossing spaghetti with pla kem (salted fish) and dried chilies was once a daft idea, too. Now you wouldn’t bat an eye seeing this dish on a menu. And how did Thais take to the first bowl of khao soy, a “fusion” creation of egg noodles and coconut milk said to be invented by cooks in Chiang Mai from a dish originated by the Chin Haw Chinese-Muslim minority group?

 

Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam

 

(photo by @SpecialKRB)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to help work on the first English-language cookbook by Thai TV chef McDang (“The Principles of Thai Cookery”, in case you’re interested — it’s very good! Not that I’m biased or anything …) In it, Chef McDang discusses quite clearly how all the different parts of a Thai meal fit together (a minimum of five elements: a clear soup, a curry, a fried dish, a stir-fried dish, and a kreuang jim, or chili dip with vegetables), why Thais use forks and spoons (in order to kluk, or mix the different elements of the meal together to your liking), and how all the ingredients in a Thai dish are supposed to interact. That’s why traditional Thais get all crazy about substitutions like onions for shallots, or adding spring onions instead of coriander leaves.

That said, Thai cuisine is also the beneficiary of a number of foreign influences that have seeped in from interaction with the rest of the world over the course of Thailand’s history. In the Sukhothai period (1238-1438), we were scarfing down fish, fruit and wild boar on rice flavored with peppercorns, cilantro roots and palm sugar. And then, in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) the Portuguese came along, and gave us this:

 

"Golden threads" and "golden drops": traditional Thai sweets that are also Portuguese

 

They also introduced us to eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and sugarcane; co-introduced us to savory uses for coconut milk; and showed us a crazy new way to flavor our food with these things called “chilies”. They also found a way to form a curry custard by mixing fish and egg and steaming it; the result was called hor mok:

 

Steamed seafood curry at Aor Thor Kor

 

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

And then there were the Chinese. What to say about the Chinese? Without them, Thai food would not be “Thai food”. From them we got: shrimp paste, fish sauce, the use of duck meat in cooking, pans, stir-frying, and frying. Another innovation: an interesting alternative to rice in the form of long, thin strands of rice flour (and sometimes egg-based flour), which can be served in soup, blanched, fried, or even in desserts. They are popular in Thai street food, so keep your eyes peeled for this rare, strange delicacy:

 

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

 

So sometimes fusion isn’t so bad after…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzOh, sorry, you’re still here?

Thailand is at a point in its history where its future — like that of the rest of the world — is uncertain. Maybe people are unsure of where they stand and so long to return to a time when things seemed more secure. Food serves as a convenient stage on which to act out this current identity crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should shut out foreign influences, or, for that matter, a foreigner who is doing the exactly same thing as us.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, Japanese, noodles, Portuguese, restaurant, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, TV chefs