A Thai native who was trained in French cuisine has taken a journey back to his own roots and discovered local wisdom that had in this modern age, almost been forgotten. Monthep Kamolsilp or 'Chef Thep' is the Executive Chef at TAAN Restaurant which is located at the chic Siam@Siam hotel in Bangkok which is part of Siam@Siam Design Hotels and Resorts. Monthep has gone through a personal epiphany as to what Thai cuisine really is and is now reintroducing Thai cuisine to Taan's diners.
How do you Define Your Food?
Monthep Kamolsilp: What we offer here is Thai cuisine, each dish with its own back story. It is Thai food, but before we get into the details, let me first ask you - "What is an authentic Thai food?"
Thai food is really just a collection of variations on many different themes that have been introduced from many different places. Many of the dishes that we take for granted as Thais as being 'Thai Food', aren't actually 'Thai' at all. Dishes like our famous 'Massaman Curry' have been influenced from south of the border of Thailand and go back over 300 years. Even 'Som Tam' or Thai Papaya Salad actually originated from Yunnan province in China. The thing that made it Thai however is that as it came into this part of the world, local variations started to come about where papaya was used as a base. Where in Yunnan ingredients were mixed by hand, in Laos and subsequently Thailand they eventually started to mash and grind it with a mortar and pestle. There were no fixed recipes for 'Thai food' per se. People just made dishes using the ingredients that were convenient and common locally, and adding things or taking things away to suit what the locals liked and were used to. Every town might have been different. Even every household would have their own different way of doing things.
Sour, Umami and Spicy
For example, where in the west, to make things sour you might think of adding lemon or lemon juice, in Thailand can use tamarind, lime or even unripe mango.
In order to get that 'umami' fermented taste, in Laos and the North-east of Thailand, people would place an ant nest full of red-ants above a mass of fish or fresh-water shrimp, as the ants consumed and excreted the fish, the acid from this process within the ants would help ferment and preserve the fish which became what we Thais know as 'Koi Fish', or 'Koi Prawns'.
While on the topic of 'umami', different places have different ways of realizing this 'need' for umami. We have Nam Bodoo from Southern Thailand, Prala for Issan (North-eastern Thailand), Kapi from Central Thailand, and Nam Poo from the North.
You find that as countries get closer to the equator, there tends to be a stronger penchant for spiciness. Perhaps this is because spices were added in larger quantities to help cure and preserve foods that would have otherwise gone off. When it comes to adding spice, you generally have choices of chilli, pepper, or ginger.
As a city dweller, all of this was fascinating new knowledge to me and after spending a lot of time traveling all around the region and learning, I have now brought this local knowledge back with me and it is now part of my cuisine. It's a sad thing that such knowledge has basically been abandoned. It's amazing to how each location has the same 'base knowledge' or 'wisdom', but each place realizes and renders it a little different.
What can Guests Expect at Your Restaurant?
If you ask me, I'd say that there is no such thing is authentic Thai food. What we call Thai food is just a mixture of dishes and influences from everywhere. China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia and even Europe. Like any other food, Thai food has evolved as a result of people's preferences and past experiences. Given that, we offer 3 different menus for our guests. There's one for people who don't know so much about Thai food, one for people who are a little more adventurous and one for people who want to be taken on a real ride and experience things that they may have never tasted before - nor might they have an opportunity to taste again. Within that same philosophy of keeping it local, food is all locally sourced from local farmers.
Anybody can make 'delicious' food - you just have to add perhaps chicken stock or MSG and 'bam', you've made something 'tasty' - but just because something is 'tasty' or even 'delicious', does it necessarily mean that it's 'good food'?.
People often say in any one Thai dish you should be able to find all base Thai tastes - sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. While this sounds nice, it's not always actually true.
Chefs have visited the restaurant and some have said that 'this is not correct!' followed with 'The ingredients are not right', or 'the taste isn't how it's supposed to be'. Guess what? We didn't actually make the wrong taste - we didn't do it 'wrong' so to speak. That's because there's actually no right or wrong to make these dishes. When did 'right' become 'right' and 'for whom'? It might be 'wrong' for you, but nevertheless, it's still right according to the fundamental principles that I have learnt from all over Thailand and moreover it's fun and enjoyable.
What is your CSR initiative
Farmers support us. This might shock some people, but the reality is that now, our farmers are a new type of farmer. They are the 'new gen' farmer. They are actually the producers and we as chefs and restaurateurs are the 'middle men' to sell their goods. The reality is that if we didn't buy their produce, they could find others to buy it. We treat them more like our consultants and learn from them and work out how we can best sell their produce. Given that we are the one's putting pressure on them for price, we also respect them and we actually become a stage for them. We go and listen to them and let the farmers talk and tell their stories and share their knowledge. You know what? There's probably no better storyteller than a farmer and producer. These stories in turn help us develop our product to pass on to you, the guest.
Here's an example. There was one farmer called Amnat. He saw that the chicken-feed and chicken medicine was actually based on traditional plants and rice-germ, which is high in vitamin B. We decided to get that same chicken feed that was purely organic and incorporate it into our menu.
Another medicine used for chickens in Thailand is the herb 'Fah Thalay Jon' or Green Chiretta. This is a natural probiotic, so we used this as an extract, and blended it with a gelatine that was actually made from chicken feet and then served it with coffee.
All this was made possible because of the farmers sharing their knowledge with us. We help the farmers and the bonus is that it's healthy, so it's actually helping guests, not to mention completing a sustainable food chain.
What do you Think the Next Big Thing is for Thai Dining ?
Chefs will start to look at sustainable supply chains a lot more and work much more intimately with producers and farmers. I believe Thailand has huge potential in becoming a hub for sustainable ingredients.
What is your Advice to Aspiring Chefs?
Learn 'patience'. Everyone wants to be a chef nowadays, but being a chef is not just 'cooking food'. A kitchen is its own little organization with many people and many moving parts - and you as the chef need to know how to work with and manage all of it. You can't do it successfully without patience.
Other than patience, you also need a good dose of creativity and be true to yourself, in what you believe and where you stand. Being able to do all of that will definitely set you apart.