A Thai Chef Heads Home for a Challenge
Posted June 12, 2018 5:28 p.m. EDT
BANGKOK — It was close to 2 a.m., and Pim Techamuanvivit couldn’t sleep. So, like a tenacious detective, she taped huge sheets of white paper to her hotel room wall and covered them in color-coded sticky notes, charting out her clues.
The case at hand: Devising a new menu for Nahm, the internationally acclaimed Thai fine-dining restaurant.
She shuffled dish names into clusters, aiming for a variety of flavors and techniques, imagining the pace at which family-style plates would be set on the table, then cleared. She moved the notes around, again and again, writing new ones in a mixture of Thai and English.
Techamuanvivit lives in San Francisco and opened her first restaurant, Kin Khao, at the edge of the Tenderloin district in 2014. She was recently tapped to lead Nahm by the Singaporean business mogul Christina Ong, and for more than a month she has been living in this suite, 11 stories above the restaurant in the Metropolitan Hotel, in the Sathorn district of Bangkok.
For Techamuanvivit, the high-profile job is both a chance and a challenge to express her precise vision of Thai fine dining on a world stage — the kind of opportunity that is rarely presented to Thai chefs.
Nahm was opened in Bangkok in 2010 and run until now by Australian chef David Thompson, who gathered and translated traditional recipes belonging to Thai families, and served his versions of them. Under his tenure, the restaurant landed on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and won a Michelin star, making it a destination for diners from outside Thailand.
When a customer told Techamuanvivit how nice it was to see Thai food back in the hands of Thai women, she was startled. Even though white chefs were more visible in the press, celebrated with top jobs and awards, Thai women had been cooking all along.
“Thai cuisine has always been in the hands of Thai women,” she said. “It never, ever left us.”
Traditionally, culinary expertise in Thailand has been passed down from one generation to the next, earned through access to family recipes and through practice, said Thai cookbook author Leela Punyaratabandhu. “There is no standardized, formal culinary education when it comes to Thai cuisine,” she said.
Techamuanvivit, 47, was born and raised in Bangkok. She learned to cook while in her 20s, from her mother’s two elder sisters, who had learned from her grandmother. She studied more techniques and dishes with relatives and friends.
Even with that essential family tutelage and a Michelin star of her own, Techamuanvivit worried before starting the job here that she would be perceived as an interloper. In Thailand, she isn’t as well known as she is in the United States. The bar is high, and the restaurant competition is fierce. As Punyaratabandhu explained it, “like anyone selling refined Thai food in Bangkok at a high price point, to bring in a Thai audience, she will have to prove that Nahm is performing at a certain level.” But she also noted that Techamuanvivit had a distinct advantage, as a Thai chef who lives and breathes Thai cuisine, who would be making reference to dishes from her family’s recipe vault.
Any doubts Techamuanvivit had about the new job passed quickly. She reminded herself that her grandmother’s cooking was not only the foundation of her approach, but that it charged her work with a sense of purpose.
“I don’t own this, but I inherited this,” she said of Thai cuisine. “Now I’m here to keep it going.”
‘How My Brain Works’
In less than a month, Techamuanvivit has introduced many new dishes to the menu, including young, green rice folded with curry paste and banana blossom petals and cooked inside a banana leaf, which she based on a recipe that dates back to the 17th century.
She has instructed Nahm’s 30 cooks how to calibrate their flavors exactly to her taste, and restructured the flow of service to include more courses. She has purchased a PacoJet, to freeze seasonal fruits and purée them as needed into smooth, airy sorbets.
On visits to farms and markets, Techamuanvivit has connected with small growers and tracked down new ingredients to refit Nahm’s pantry: heirloom rice, rare citrus, bitter leaves, handmade palm sugars, small-batch fish sauce.
In her hotel suite, Techamuanvivit showed the jumble of handwritten sticky notes to Suraja Ruangnukulkit, the chef de cuisine at Nahm, and Meghan Clark, the chef de cuisine of Kin Khao, who had come to Bangkok to help with the transition.
“This is how my brain works,” Techamuanvivit said as the chefs opened their notebooks and studied the chart she had compiled in the middle of the night. Shoes off, still in their whites from lunch service, the three women rehydrated with cold water from steel cups, and ate handfuls of sweet, airy meat floss and tiny pork-stuffed pastries from crinkly plastic bags. Together, they analyzed the menu out loud.
“Do we want people to have a choice right here? Or do we want to choose for them?”
“How quickly can we train everyone to change this around?”
“OK, when is the curry-paste machine getting here?”
Nahm used to buy its curry pastes from Aylmer Aaharn, the food company founded by Thompson, the previous chef. But as part of her overhaul, Techamuanvivit wanted to make all the pastes from scratch.
The machine arrived at the end of the week, ready to grind piles of aromatics between two powerful, spinning stones. Though it would make the process more efficient, it still required an investment of time and attention to detail.
Techamuanvivit vividly remembers the most intricate Thai dishes from her childhood, when her extended family would gather for Sunday lunch and eat kanom jeen nam prik, lightly fermented rice noodles in a rich, gently sweet coconut sauce heightened with makrut lime and shrimp, surrounded by a bank of blanched and delicately fried vegetables, and a boiled egg with a soft, satiny yolk. It wasn’t everyday fare.
“Elaborate dishes, like kanom jeen nam prik, that’s not something you make for just two or four people,” she said.
Back then, like many Thai families, her extended family lived together on the same compound. Their Sunday meals were special occasions marked by extraordinary, labor-intensive home cooking.
Now, spread out in different homes all over the city, the family is more likely to meet at a restaurant for dim sum — though her family’s version of kanom jeen nam prik is already on the new menu at Nahm.
A Chef’s Education Techamuanvivit left Bangkok to attend graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where she studied cognitive science. But unlike her three siblings, who were also educated abroad, she didn’t return home after graduation.
Instead she worked in Mountain View, California, building collaborative work tools for Netscape, and later for Cisco Systems in San Jose. As she traveled more to Europe for work — often following engineers around their network operation centers with a notebook in hand — she looked for meaningful distractions after hours.
That’s how Techamuanvivit found herself dining alone, in excellent French restaurants, documenting the experience course by course with a pocketsize Sony camera.
In 2001, she was an early user of the Blogger platform, writing posts for her friends back in Bangkok about the tiny, crucial details of her life, like what she was watching and reading, or the things she overheard strangers say. But within two years, she shifted her blog’s focus to restaurants.
Her site, Chez Pim, was a popular first-generation food blog — intimate and idiosyncratic, generous with its commenters and very often off the cuff. Techamuanvivit wrote it the way she speaks, with a charismatic sharpness and a sense of humor. Her annual fundraising event, Menu for Hope, which she started for victims of the tsunami that hit southern Thailand in 2004, raised more than $300,000.
In 2005, after Techamuanvivit started dating David Kinch, the chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, she continued to work in Silicon Valley but blogged less frequently about restaurants, and more about cooking.
She studied the work of Christine Ferber and June Taylor, bought herself a copper pot and learned to make jam, selling about 400 jars each year. She picked heirloom peaches and cooked them with the pits for more flavor. She perfumed blueberries with wild elderflowers that she foraged. Her strawberry compote was seasoned with hibiscus and rose water. Techamuanvivit’s jams won awards and sold out.
“But eventually I realized, I have more to say about Thai food than I do jam,” she said.
When she opened Kin Khao, she was still commuting between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, but after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2015, she broke up with Kinch and moved closer to the restaurant.
Later that year, she went to a big party in San Francisco celebrating her team’s first Michelin star. She was only a week out of surgery, and still recovering, but she didn’t want to miss out. She went in a wheelchair.
Techamuanvivit often talks about her brain trust of women in food: the cooks and managers who stepped up when she needed to recover and take care of herself. The family, friends and strangers who shared their food knowledge with her.
One source, Nantana Chitman, came to visit Nahm on a recent Friday, bringing along the cast-iron tools required to make traditional rice crackers.
“When Westerners make coconut milk or peel peanuts, it sounds so exciting to everyone, but that’s what we normally do and that’s what our grandmothers did,” Chitman said. “What’s the big deal?”
“It’s hard for me to explain, but I’d really like to see a Thai chef making a good name for Thai food,” she added. Techamuanvivit’s plan is to split her time, month by month, between Bangkok and San Francisco, where she is building her business. This year, she will open a restaurant in San Francisco International Airport, in collaboration with the local restaurants Tartine Manufactory and Cala. And early next year, she intends to open another restaurant in that city, which will be larger and more ambitious than Kin Khao.
Though the opening date isn’t set, there is no debate over the name. Techamuanvivit has known for years that when she opened a Thai fine dining restaurant in San Francisco, she would call it Nari — a Thai word meaning women.