“I would wake up at 2.30 every morning”, explains the Thai chef Ian Kittichai as he recounts the early years he spent helping his mum stock up on ingredients for the family food cart. Being the only son and with seven sisters, he picked up a lot of responsibility from a young age, waking every morning to drive his mum to the market. “I would be sleeping in the market 365 days a year. I’d sleep in the car while my mum went round and bought all the food for the day then she’d wake me at 5.30 and I’d drive back to the house to help unload the groceries.”
His mum would spend the rest of the day cooking while he headed to school for 7.30am. “I would finish school at 3.30pm, I was so lucky because my friend who lived around me was quite wealthy and he had this driver and I would tag along with him. My mum would make maybe 10 different types of curries, she would change it every day, she had her own menu. Then she would deliver these and I would go with her to push cart. Then with my two sisters we would sell soy milk at night.”
He tells this story from the dining room of Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok, a colourfully decorated Thai restaurant that sits at 19 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2016 and one of just 15 restaurants he now owns and operates.
“We would do specialised order by request for the neighbourhood, everyone would order from my mum.”
As a child, he says he never stopped, he would always work the public holidays because “they were the busiest periods” and even though this solid work ethic remains the same today, the type of work he now does is a world removed from those early cart pushing evenings. With 15 restaurants; four in New York and 10 in Bangkok, a cooking studio and a number of high profile television deals, he’s built himself an empire that spans everything from casual hangouts to high scale, fine dining restaurants.
At Issaya Siamese Club, perhaps his most famous and definitely most successful venture, the chef cooks up a range of classic Thai dishes that have been given a modern kick thanks to deep understanding of cooking processes and techniques. He also likes to bring his early year street food memories into the kitchen to be broken down and reconstructed.
Left: Grilled Tender Beef with Fresh Herbs. Right: Pork Loin Salad.
“It’s really comforting when you bring street food to fine dining… Like a dish we have called ‘broken bucket’ - a dessert that was named because you don’t need to break your bank to eat it. It’s something that we used to have everywhere here but you can’t find it anymore because it’s just too cheap. It's a pancake crepe style dish that’s filled with sweet coconut. We take the dish and we elevate it by serving it on the table on a banana leaf. I looked at the idea and thought more about the name.. we ask the guests if they remember the name of the dessert. As they’re thinking we throw this chocolate bucket and it smashes on the table - Broken Bucket.”
“The other one is green curry, green curry is everywhere and we cook it on the table with no heat. We heat the bowl up to 300 Celsius and then we bring it into dining room and cook the prawns on top of this, add the fresh paste, the condiments and pour hot coconut milk from a tea pot into the bowl - we can make it in front of people and show them the dish as it is made. In less than 3 minutes you have a prawn green curry.”
“I have tried to bring a lot back from my childhood, how my mum would make curry perfectly creamy, fresh coconut milk, we try to do the same and make all our own fresh pastes every day.”
And what would she think of the food? He imitates her voice, “Oh my god, I never told you to do it like this, where did you learn it from?”, then drops back into his own, “From you mum, you put everything into the cart, everything fresh, made just an hour before, I want to show that type of thing to the guests who come into my restaurants.”
Left: Tuna Tartare in limestone tartlettes. Centre: Mojito. Right: Issaya-Spiced Sankaburee Chicken.
It’s this dedication to Thai tradition that’s seen the chef be awarded a prize by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for being the first Asia Geographical Indication Ambassador - a role that sees him work to have certain Thai ingredients and dishes certificated and recognised as being Thai in origin - “It’s like Champage in France”, he explains. He also sits on the founding council of The World Street Food Congress where his job is to choose different street food dishes to present each year to international audiences, “last year one of them was oyster omelette”.
He shows a real passion and dedication to respecting Thai food while bringing it firmly into the future. It’s a job he says he loves but also one he worries young Thai cooks will not continue in the future. “A lot of the new generation just want to cook Western food, because it’s more exciting for them - it’s something they have never seen before. I try to encourage all of my cooks to have a good foundation of their own Thai food, otherwise we’re going to loose that in the future. Instead of opening a restaurant, they’re bringing Franchises in. That really scares me.
“I’m actually pushing a few of my chefs to do the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition - I have around five that are going to complete the applications. This is their chance to show off some Thai food and let people see this new generation that are cooking Thai.”
The boy who once stood on and watched mum as she sold curries from a humble cart is now one of Thailand’s biggest restaurateurs, an educator and a leader. A story that not even he would have dreamt about while sleeping in the car outside the market so many years ago.