Thailand was one of the countries on my bucket list; I’ve always wanted to visit, mainly because I am a huge fan of Thai cuisine. So I could not contain myself when I learned that I would have the opportunity to cook with one of Thailand’s top chefs; considered one of the best chefs in the world, Ian Kittichai.
When I stepped foot in Chef Ian Kittichai’s flagship restaurant, Isaaya Siamese Club in Bangkok, I knew I was in for something really special. The place was small and relaxed, yet hip, situated within a beautiful manicured property. I could instantly tell from the exterior of the refurbished older house that a great deal of attention was paid to the design of this restaurant; the personal touches made by the owners were evident.
From the moment we walked in, the staff warmly welcomed our crew and so did Chef Ian Kittichai. A very simple, down-to-earth man was my first impression of him, although I must admit, I was a bit star-struck from knowing his body of work. Ian is a big celebrity chef not only in Thailand but internationally as well. Chef Ian was wearing a simple t-shirt and jeans, welcoming our entire team into his beautiful restaurant with the biggest smile.
Looking out from the dining room of the restaurant, all you see is the lush gardens that Ian and his wife Sarah put together themselves. During our time there, I had the opportunity to get to know Ian a bit more. I was surprised to learn that there was a time when he never liked cooking. As a child, he told me he would always tag along with his mother going to the wet markets in Bangkok to go shopping for his mother’s lunch service company, and then help his mother deliver cooked lunches to workers. Ian never once thought he would be cooking for a living. After graduating high school, he wanted to learn English and moved to London. Ian’s humble beginnings were as part-time dishwasher at popular hotel. One day, the restaurant was short staffed and Ian found himself in the kitchen filling in for one of the cooks. The hotel chef immediately saw something in Ian and they sponsored him to attend a culinary school in London. This was the moment when Ian thought he had a new path, a path he never expected would come. He subsequently pursued his culinary training and then went to Australia to learn about French cuisine and worked at a top restaurant there.
After his training, Ian decided to move back home to Thailand and work as a Demi Chef at the Four Seasons Hotel where he learned and mastered multiple cuisines. He soon found himself travelling the world and competing in different international competitions and taking on culinary exchanges to continue mastering his craft. He relocated in New York to tackle the North American restaurant scene and started his first restaurant, Kittichai, where he won countless awards. During his time in New York, he met his partner in business and best friend, Sarah Chang. They were introduced by a mutual friend and within a few years, Sarah decided to leave her job and run the business side of things. Together they’ve grown a highly-regarded group of restaurants and a food and beverage consulting firm.
In 2012, Ian became a permanent household name on Iron Chef Thailand and recently added the role of lead judge on Masterchef Thailand to his resume. Not only is Ian a television celebrity and successful restaurateur with restaurants crossing oceans, Ian is also an author and has two award winning books under his belt.
Over drinks Sarah shared with me that the key to their success is having a great team. “no business revolves only around one person – it takes a lot of hard work and passion by everyone involved to make it a success”. She explained that as a business, they always try to evolve and stand out from others. They are hands-on owners and their restaurants strive to offer diners a full sensory experience – not just the taste, but sights, sounds, smells and touch.
It was not only wonderful to be able to spend time with an Iron Chef but it was also a privilege of being able to cook with him. Together, we prepared
Yum Som-O. A heritage pomelo salad with prawns and hard boiled egg in a chili jam dressing. It was delightful.
After this cooking experience with the famous Chef Ian, (he gets mobbed almost everywhere he goes in Thailand and throughout Asia) Ian went back into the kitchen to personally prepare us a feast. It was such a kind and appreciated gesture. We got to experience some his signature dishes, starting with Kradook Moo which is spice-rubbed pork baby back ribs glazed with Issaya house-blended chili paste. As soon as it hit the fork, the meat just fell off the bone, so tender and delicious! The Mussamun Gae, an Australian lamb shank simmered in a mussamun curry served with pickled cucumber ajard, was just unforgettable, leaving a lasting authentic Thai curry taste in your mouth. We could also not stop admiring the Tang Mo Pla Tuna, a quick-seared yellow fin tuna with pickled watermelon rind in a lime-chili dressing. Each bite of the dishes were aromatic, flavourful and memorable. I savoured first-hand and began to understand what Sarah had said about their food being a full sensory experience. Our dinner experience was also paired with a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc that Sarah herself selected.
We finally reached dessert. I am a big believer of dessert being the best part of the dining experience as this is the last taste that will stay in your mouth. It can really make or break the entire dining experience. Out comes Chef Ian’s Kanom Dok Mali; a handmade jasmine flower panna cotta which literally melted in our mouths, served with jasmine rice ice cream and jasmine rice tuile. I was too shy to ask for a second one, but I was tempted, it was just that amazing. I’ve dined across my city and around the globe, and never before have I tasted a dessert like this! Last but not least, dessert was followed by… another dessert! The Khao Niew Mamuang with Mango Sticky Rice is a well-known traditional Thai dessert represented in Issaya style. The presentation was so unique! We had to break the mango shell casing to reveal even more surprises inside the dessert. After enjoying such a dinner, I now understand why this restaurant was named in Asia’s top 50 restaurants in the world multiple times. Ian is a creative and innovative Chef who is also known for his Thai herbs grown on-site all year round and for only using the freshest, direct market, local ingredients in his cooking. A philosophy he’s always believed in since the very beginning of his culinary career.
As if this overwhelming experience were not enough, after dinner, Sarah took over and escorted us to another of their many culinary businesses, Naamsah Bottling Trust, for cocktails. This bespoke bar and restaurant is considered one of the best in the heart of Bangkok. Housed on a 20th century villa, I was first struck by the bright pink color of the building, which really stand out against the foliage and other buildings. The heart of the place was the bar which boldly greets you as soon as you walk in. The beverage menu highlights classics and drinks with Asian twists and other flairs and touches; while the food menu features a variety of playful “bar bites”. The mixologist whipped up right in front of me a classic zombie with a Thai twist. As I was enjoying the drink, he quickly snuck out and shocked me when he came out of nowhere wearing this incredibly scary mask! I had no idea this was coming, but it’s part of one of their cocktail presentations. My crew was in on the surprise, and we all had a good laugh as he continued making unique cocktails. This was my last day in Bangkok and absolutely a great ending to my trip.
The Kittichais’ seem to have done it all from producing award winning books, to building popular restaurants and a consulting firm. The duo tells me they still would love to open an Issaya in another country and have been approached from many corners of the globe. They say it is really about finding the right time and location. In the meantime, they are actively exploring opening more branches of Spot Dessert Bar in the US, another of their many cool brands.
Bangkok is a city filled with culinary experiences, but this “insiders evening” was an experience not to be missed, and one which I am forever thankful for.
Cristina Carpio is a television personality, brand and restaurant strategist as well as a passionate food and beverage expert. Travel and living life to the fullest is in her DNA. In addition to hosting Going Global, Cristina is a country ambassador for a global immersive dining platform and has a column for a noted North American food and beverage industry magazine. She has also been recognized for her work and involvement in charitable and community projects and has hosted several prestigious festivals, fashion and cultural events.