Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chef who spied his way to fame

Thai Takes

“NO, impossible to get a table. You need at least one month,” my Thai colleague Orawan Chanovit said two weeks ago when I suggested Jok’s Kitchen for a farewell dinner.

“Never mind, just try calling ... You never know. We might be lucky,” I insisted.

Orawan called. And we had a dinner appointment with one of Bangkok’s most sought-after chefs, Somchai Tangsinpoolchai, whose nickname is Jok.

Jok’s Kitchen is located in a one-unit shophouse in one of the meandering alleys in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There’s no menu (you eat what Jok serves) and you have to make a reservation in the unassuming restaurant which serves two or three tables.

On Thursday night, eight of us were sitting elbow-to-elbow at a round table, munching the appetiser (gingko fried with garlic) while listening to Jok’s explanation on how his home became a restaurant.

Initially, Jok’s home was a meeting place for close friends who brought their own cooking and whisky for potluck dinner.

His home was ideal as his family runs a seafood distribution business and his friends could raid the stock (which Jok would cook).

Through word of mouth, friends of his close friends’ friends started appearing uninvited for Jok’s arooy (Thai for delicious) dishes.

Three years ago, a Thai-language female magazine ran a story about Jok’s pot luck dinners.

“Strangers started coming and they wanted to pay me to cook for them,” related the 55-year-old Thai Chinese of Teochew descent.

Pressured, Jok left Thailand for Aceh in Indonesia to run a business exporting crabs to China.

“I was not ready to turn what started as a treat for friends into a business,” he explained.

Two dishes – fried shrimp wonton and seared snow fish with iceberg lettuce – arrived. Noel Velasco, my Filipino colleague, went for the snow fish. Jok stopped him and said in Thai, “you must eat this first”, pointing at the shrimp wonton.

On Jan 21, 2007, the chef finally opened Jok’s Kitchen for business. And Mathichon, a Thai-language newspaper, ran a glowing write-up, and the restaurant’s telephone has since not stopped ringing with requests for reservations.

Jok’s story on how he learnt to cook is a James Bond-like culinary espionage tale. At the age of 17, the budding chef would “spy” on famous restaurants in Bangkok when he delivered seafood.

“I would peek into the kitchen and observe how the master chef prepared the restaurant’s signature dish,” he related as Thais who were celebrating a birthday were beginning to fill the only other table in the room.

If that failed, Jok had other ways of extracting the secret recipe.

For instance, he tried to learn how to cook crab with vermicelli baked in a clay pot by watching the master chef of a restaurant known for that dish.

After a few months, and 50 damaged clay pots, he still had not mastered the dish. So he bribed the master chef with whisky for his secret.

“I’ve also given massage parlour coupons and branded watches to master chefs in exchange for their trade secrets,” he added.

Mai choop (don’t like),” he said when asked why didn’t he learn the trade by taking cooking class.

“I want to learn through experience (cooking it himself), and also the best chefs do not teach you the tricks,” he said.

Jok’s famous steamed crab (from his seafood farm along the Gulf of Thailand) arrived.

I grabbed a claw while my colleague Yasmin Lee Arpon asked Jok about the photograph of Princess Sirindhorn, the daughter of the Thai king, together with the chef and his family.

The photograph was taken when the princess patronised the restaurant, he said.

And Rupak D. Sharma, whose farewell we were celebrating, asked whether he had cooked for other famous people. Jok gave a long list of who’s who of Thailand – prime ministers, tycoons, politicians and coup makers.

He has even traded cooking secrets with former prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who is a celebrity chef.

The sauteed clam with mushroom was too peppery for my liking. Jok explained that his Chinese cooking was adapted to the Thai palate.

After the eight of us finished dessert (gingko with sticky rice), the waitress presented the bill. Jok took it and rounded up the figure to 8,000 baht (about RM800).

(Published in The Star on January 31, 2009)