Monday, July 11, 2011

Refreshing new change

One Man's Meat


A French chef at Bangkok’s Le Normandie restaurant, says the Thai Prime Minister-designate’s victory in the recent elections was making Thais come out to celebrate.

“IF Yingluck Shinawatra (the Thai Prime Minister-designate) was a French dish, what kind of dish would she be?” I asked Norbert A. Kostner, the executive chef of Bangkok’s Le Normandie, arguably the best French restaurant in Asia.

“Oui...I only know her from photographs. She looks like she does not wear too much makeup. She dresses well. She is always smiling,” noted Kostner, as he sat on a white rattan lounge – at the colonial-styled Author’s Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental, a luxury hotel along the Chao Phraya River.

It was four days after the Thai polls that saw Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party winning a decisive majority and I thought it was an appropriate question to ask the chef of Bangkok’s award-winning French restaurant.

It took chef Kostner a second to whip up a dish.

“I think she is a sort of a nice spring salad with some river lobster – something refreshing,” he said. “You take nice tender miniature lettuce, some red clawed river lobster, some good olive oil that has been aged since winter, then lemon and a bit of salt.”

The 66-year-old chef, who is Italian, continued: “The olive must not be too strong if not it would suck out the flavour. As to me she looks sort of innocent. She’s got beautiful eyes and yet she is strong. But she is ladylike and not like men who are always fighting. Women have a different way of speaking than men.”

Will the dish be arooy mak mak (Thai for very, very delicious)?

“Of course. Full of nutrition. It will be a beautiful dish. It will not be the sort where you go ‘urgh’,” he said, and making a gesture of person who had too much to eat.

“It will be very refreshing. The sort that will make you want to do things – go dancing, do work or want to be a lumberjack and cut wood.”

Like the refreshing spring salad, Kostner noted that Yingluck’s victory in the Thai poll was making Thais come out to celebrate.

The Mandarin Oriental’s Le Normandie has seen a 10 to 15% increase in clientele immediately after the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra Pheu Thai swept into power.

“I can see that people want to come out to celebrate. At least there is no uncertainty (in Thailand). People have accepted the election result and they are saying let’s get back to business,” he noted.

“Now we have a new government – whether good or bad – and the people want to see the end of the time of the last six years were we had Reds, Yellows, Blues and whatever colours.”

After the 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin as prime minister, business at the French restaurant was slow.

During the coup Le Normandie was forced to close down several times as there was no guests because of the curfew.

In 2008, when the Yellow Shirts seized Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports, the restaurant’s pantry was wiped out of imported produce.

“We just had to improvise with local chicken, beef and seafood. Everybody understood that we could not get foie gras and veal because the airports were closed,” Kostner related.

The chef added that the restaurant’s worst years were also during the SARs epidemic (no imported poultry allowed) and the Mad Cow Disease scare (“we still can’t get Black Angus out of Scotland or Irish beef”).

In 1958, the Oriental established Le Normandie to replace a restaurant that offered a menu comprising “80 dishes from around the world”.

The French restaurant, according to the chef who worked in the establishment since 1974, made a name in 1981 after the Oriental was voted number one hotel in the world by Institutional Investor magazine (an essential reading for the world’s movers and shakers).

It was an honour which the Oriental retained for 10 consecutive years, in 1994-1995 and 2000.

The secret recipe to Le Normadie’s success is its “software”.

“What has made the Oriental is its staff like Ankana (Kalantananda, a semi-retired 89-year-old guest relations consultant). I am very junior here compared to her,” said Kostner who has been with the hotel for 37 years.

“We have a pastry chef who is called Apollo because he joined us at age 14 or 15 on the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon (on July 20, 1969).”

The rest, hoped chef Kostner, – like the Thai violent six-year conflict – is history.