Custom Search

Jan 30, 2012

Chote Chitr






You know how your mind conjures up - CHOTE CHITR
inflated images of people when you’re really
excited about meeting them? I used to get that way about chefs. I remember going to Bouley for the first time, walking down that intrepid alley and into the bustling kitchen with great hopes of working alongside a true genius. It was an amazing place, 25 headstrong cooks, extremely serious and insanely dedicated. Every day I'd ask if I was hired and for the opportunity to speak with Bouley. "Just come back tomorrow" I was told. I did so for three weeks and one day I just started getting a check. ‘Til this day, my only interaction with Bouley was "Kim, two crab to the pass".




Charlie the sous corrected him, "chef, it's Tim"; "yeah right, Kim let's go".
About 10 months ago I read a chapter about Bangkok in a Jeffrey Stiengarten book. He was shown around Thailand by Bob Halliday, the food critic for the Bangkok Post. I started to get those images of Bob taking me to little hidden food stalls and underground markets.
So, I e-mailed him. Everyday I checked, for five months, but no answer. I'd long since given up hope, when in Vietnam I was on a phone interview with some restaurateurs back in NYC and Bob's name came up.


I got a new address and this one worked. I came back to Bangkok, in part, to hook up with Bob.

I woke up on the early side and ran down the street of Phra Athit to the pay phone. It was already getting hot and the booth was sweltering. "Hi Bob, it's Tim." "Oh yes, so you’re from NYC. I was there a year ago." Trying to name drop, I ask "did you eat at Vong or 66?" "No I didn't. I've found Thai food outside of Thailand lacks its true flavors". “Well, I think we'd all agree on that, but you can't think of it as Thai food, it's an interpretation and sometimes it's better." "Better? How could it be better than an authentic dish that has been passed down through many generations?"

"Better technique, better fish and meat and in the right hands a deeper understanding of evoking flavors". Now, this conversation happened awhile ago, so it's been through the wash a few times

-- Bob, I'm trying to get your part right. Bob sighs, better technique, deeper understanding, these are words of war. He explains to me that Thai food is about balance: the harmony of harsh and pungent ingredients with a myriad of spices. The "Rot Chart", meaning the proper or appropriate taste, comes from a great understanding of these ingredients and the methods used to bring them to life. It's a high wire act; the bitter, sour, hot, salty and sweet are all interwoven into an exquisitely complex cuisine. I can't lose that quickly, so I change up my approach: "every cuisine is fusion it's all evolved from the melding of new ingredients and influences from other countries".

Bob counters with "that's cultural evolution not some chef's arbitrary decision. I've lived here for 35 years and have developed a palate for the way dishes and ingredients should taste, I don't enjoy them any other way". We pick a time and place to meet and agree to disagree.

Bob is an amazing man, as gentle and sweet as the evening breeze and as knowledgeable and astute as anyone I've ever met. It's such a pleasure to be in his company. He was born and raised in NY and reminds me of a guy you'd find on a park bench on the Upper West Side -- well read, a bit upper class, hyper-intelligent, but with the spirit of someone down in the Village.

BOB AND HIS COOKBOOKS
He's retired from being the food critic and now writes reviews of classical music and movies; his CD and DVD collection is immense: from classical to esoteric, experimental stuff like John Cage, a guy who once recorded a piano piece of him sitting at the piano but not playing it. This is a good example of why food can't be art. If it was, you could have a chef's table where nobody got to eat. Surfing through his DVD collection, I find a rare copy of 19 plays by Samuel Becket performed by cinema directors and famous actors. We watch a few plays and it sails over my head like Concord jet. I grew up in this sort of environment, my mother a classical violinist
and my Dad scientist/psychologist, culture and brains were all around the house, I just preferred to play outside.

Our first meal was at Chote Chitr, a little restaurant on the edge of Ko Ratanakosin. Its little streets, canals and food shops are so charming, you forget you’re in noisy Bangkok. Like all the places you go with Bob, he's greeted like an old friend. Fluent in Thai, he orders about seven dishes; a few highlights were Shrimp Mee Krob, sweet, sour and spicy goodness, a grilled eggplant salad with lemongrass, lime and mint, its smoky tones harmonizing with the lively flavors of red shallots and dried shrimp. And, a salad of banana flower and shrimp, where the dense texture of the banana leaves made the shrimp even more voluptuous, both delicately tossed with rich chili paste, fermented shrimp, lime and palm sugar. Bob runs next door to the Mango Sticky Rice and Sweet Shop that is supposedly the best in the city and brings back dessert. It's just the beginning of Mango season and the luscious sweet flesh is wonderful on its own, but when you take a bite with the chewy sticky rice scented with pandanus and the sweetened fresh coconut cream, you just about wet yourself. I dry off while Bob tells me that a great source for recipes is funeral books. This is a way the cuisine gets passed down through generations and, though rarely are their measurements, there are often times explicit directions. We are joined by Mrs. Krachoichuli Kimangsawat, the chef and owner, who brings her own family’s books -- such a warm and gracious lady. I'm so overwhelmed by the moment that I blurt out "hey, can I work here?" She looks over to her two employees, as if to say she's got it covered, and Bob explains in Thai what I meant. She smiles and says okay. I start the next day.


The walk from Phra Athit is not too far, just through Sanam Luang park, past the Grand Palace and down a couple side streets and I'm there. Mrs. Kimangsawat (Tiem) has two helpers, Ele the sous chef and a steward/busser. Together, they are a formidable crew that moves like the wind when it gets busy. Mario may have done all the cooking at Po, but he didn’t wait tables, mix drinks and serve as the cashier too. It's a railroad layout: an open air dining room in the front, a small narrow hallway in the middle that houses the garde manger, dishwashing and waiter stations, all the refrigeration and a restroom. In the back is a small room with a few fans hung from the partially open ceiling where the fans point up. There are two burners set against the wall and mise en place wrapped around its perimeter, set on crates, old tables and a cupboard. This is Tiem’s sanctuary -- all 15 square feet of it. I try to get busy by washing a few things in the sink and I'm politely asked to stop. I try to infiltrate the peeling of the lemongrass, but that task only lasts a few seconds. As I'm learning, most of these restaurants do a minimal amount of prep prior to service. The curry pastes, nam priks, chili pastes and basically all the cool stuff is made by Tiem at her house. Here's a lady who begins her day at 6:00 AM by going to several markets, then she drives with her two fox terriers to the restaurant, which is open from 11:00 AM to10:00 PM, and she finishes around 11:00 PM and then drives home. That's a long day for anybody and she does it six days a week. On the seventh day, she prepares food for the monks at her temple.

YUMMY MANGOS / SANAM LUANG PARK /SANAM PARK WITH THE GRAND PALACE





























The walk from Phra Athit is not too far, just through Sanam Luang park, past the Grand Palace and down a couple side streets and I'm there.
Mrs. Kimangsawat (Tiem) has two
helpers,

Ele the sous chef and a steward/busser. Together, they are a formidable crew that moves like the wind when it gets busy. Mario may have done all the cooking at Po, but he didn’t wait tables, mix drinks and serve as the cashier too. It's a railroad layout: an open air dining room in the front, a small narrow hallway in the middle that houses the garde manger, dishwashing and waiter stations, all the refrigeration and a restroom. In the back is a small room with a few fans hung from the partially open ceiling where the fans point up.


MRS. KIMANGSAWAT (RIGHT)