Not many chefs start there culinary career pushing a food cart through the streets of Bangkok, but “Ian Kittichai” Chalermkittichai isn’t your average chef. He has bragging rights to multiple restaurants around the globe, cookbooks, and as a permanent Iron Chef on Iron Chef Thailand. And that barely scratches the surface.
Chef Ian Kittichai didn’t start out with dreams of chef stardom, in fact, being a chef was the last thing he wanted as a child. Despite aspirations of studying English, Charlermkittichai was recruited into the restaurant world while working part time at the Waldorf Hotel in London. He’s worked everywhere from George V in Paris to El Bulli in Spain and The French Laundry in Napa. A lifetime later, he remains in the kitchen, experimenting with traditional Thai recipes at Ember Room in New York City, turning out cookbooks, and running an international food and beverage consulting firm. His progressive Thai cooking at Ember Room results in Lobster Pad Thai, Green Curry Lasagna, and Red Curry Crispy Duck.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Anything but a chef.
What was your first food related job? What did you take from that experience?
I cooked with my mother since I can remember. She had a neighborhood green grocery and a street food cart. I would push the cart around our Bangkok neighborhood. I learned that it was a 365 day a year job and a hard way to earn a living.
You’ve worked everywhere from Georges V in Paris to The French Laundry in Napa to El Bulli in Spain and more. If you could do it all over again, what kitchen would you like to find yourself in again?
I would love to spend more time in Japan to further study Japanese cuisine.
Who are some of your culinary mentors? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from them?
My mom and Chef Mark Miller. My mom taught me how to pick the freshest produce and ingredients, how to cook classic Thai cuisine, and the value and discipline of hard work. My friend and mentor Chef Mark Miller taught me (and still teaches and advises me) a lot about the restaurant and food industry. He is a close friend and an amazing chef and mentor.
Of all of the restaurants you’ve opened, both in New York City and internationally, which is your favorite concept or menu? (And yes, you have to choose)
My favorite is my flagship restaurant in Bangkok, Issaya Siamese Club – the menu as well as the concept as I have an organic chef’s garden on the property. Cooking Thai food in Thailand is always the best for ingredients and freshness.
Describe what it was like to make the transition from running a kitchen to starting an international food & beverage management and consulting firm?
Well, since I come from working in 5 star hotels as well as stand-alone restaurants and still own and operate my own restaurants as well as consult for others, it wasn’t a big transition. I get the best of both worlds and get to see and do a lot.
What has been your biggest kitchen flub?
Probably when I had one of my first restaurant openings and I tried to do too much too fast with too many food writers and industry veterans in the dining room.
What do consider the most challenging part of being an Iron Chef on Iron Chef Thailand?
The filming time commitment and the amount of energy needed to film such a show – it’s a pure adrenaline rush for that 1 hour, followed by a lot of long takes for the results section and tasting section.
You recently opened Bangkok’s first “nose to tail” concept eatery, what was the inspiration for that menu?
The inspiration was some of the restaurants my partners and I enjoy in the UK as well as the actual architecture of the building that houses Smith. It is in a 40-year-old refurbished warehouse in central Bangkok and was so beautiful even before we renovated it with exposed iron beams and wooden plank floors. In our Thai culture we have nose to tail dishes, but a different style of cooking. The name of the restaurant, Smith, comes from that of skilled artisans, such as a blacksmith.
The menu at the Ember Room is described as “Progressive Thai Comfort food,” how do you define progressive Thai comfort food?
Its taking old favorite dishes and adding a twist on them. These type of dishes can be commonly found in cafes and coffee houses in Bangkok.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at the Ember Room right now?
I love the duck noodles as well as well as the Thai pastrami meatballs
What are some of your favorite restaurants in New York City right now?
I am a creature of habit, so I tend to eat in the same places a lot, such as Blue Ribbon Sushi.
On a rare day off, what can we find you doing?
Spending time with my family and walking around the city.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Another restaurant? Another book?
My partners and I are in the process of opening another branch of Spot Dessert Bar on 32nd street. I’m also working on my restaurant, Issaya Siamese Club, cookbook in English. It will be released in Asia and Europe first, then hopefully the US.
You’re on your deathbed, sex or dinner? (And yes, you must choose one!)
Address: 647 Ninth Ave., btwn. 45th & 46th Sts.