Q&A: Chef Ian Kittichai and his role as an anchor of Thai cuisine

Updated on October 13 2018

You may recognise Ian Kittichai from two of Thailand’s most acclaimed TV shows, Iron Chef and Master Chef Thailand – the culinary battles featuring masterful chefs and talented cooks. As one of Thailand’s most creative Thai figures on the food scene, Ian is a true restaurateur, owning and managing over ten restaurants, including the far-famed Issaya Siamese Club (ranked as No.39 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018), Namsaah Bottling Trust, Issaya La Patisserie, and Hyde & Seek Gastro Bar — with 4 total locations in USA, India, and Spain. And he’s also authored three cookbooksIssaya Siamese Club Cookbook and Chef Ian’s Kitchen Revealed.

Maybe you were first introduced to him as Thailand’s godfather of good. But before all of this, Ian started his cooking career at the bottom; he was the biggest helper in his mum’s food cart business where he would go around the neighbourhood, pushing a cart and shouting “Khao gaeng ron ron ma laew ja” — which literally translates into “the hot curry is here” — to sell his fare. So it might not surprise you then to learn that the man really has a culinary particularity both in his genes as well as mind. And working in a part-time job at the Waldorf Hilton London while he was in language school in England, the head chef saw his starred potential in the kitchen. As a result, the hotel sponsored him to attend culinary school in London. The young Ian then went on and completed his culinary studies and apprenticeships in French-dining in many cities, including Sydney, Australia.

Now finally fulfilling his cooking ambition and Thai cuisine obsession, his repertoire of Thai food-focused restaurants has become the fertile soil for Thai cuisine as well as being the anchor within the local chef community. We got a chance to sit down with him recently to speak about all his inspirations. Scroll down for our full interview and find out the personality and the mind of this master chef.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

I would say my style of cooking is like my mum’s way of cooking. When I was a kid, we did a lot of street-style cooking. So now I am cooking street food-inspired dishes but with a contemporary look and taste. Look at Issaya Siamese Club for example. We have traditional dishes like the pomelo salad and the banana blossom-inspired dishes. My style of cooking also represents the royal Thai cuisine from the reign of King Rama V or King Chulalongkorn. I always add creative twists to all the traditional dishes that I cook so they become more exciting and fit in with the current time.

What was the proudest moment in your career?

When I opened my first restaurant in New York. I was really pleased about that.

What was the inspiration behind Issaya Siamese Club?

It has a lot to do with the Colonial-style house which is the setting of Issaya Siamese Club. The restaurant itself was a former residence from over a hundred years ago and then we turned it into a restaurant but still kept all the pictures that were present during the colonial period that came with the house. So it has this rustic and old-school feel to it. And we are serving traditional Thai food so the house complements our ambition in cooking and serving Thai food.

How is your personality reflected in each of the restaurants? They are different. Are these different aspects of your personality or are they one and the same?

First of all we created a concept for each and every restaurant. Then we worked out the style while trying to stay focused on the core concept of each restaurant. For example, Issaya Siamese Club’s themes would be the colonial period and WWII so we would feature food from those periods in the menu and combine it with royal Thai cuisine. While Namsaah Bottling trust, which is an Asian Gastro Bar, focuses on premium spirits, Asian-style comfort food and playful bar bites.

What kind of stories are you telling through your food?

My childhood was not easy. We were a big family of eight children and I needed to help my family by cooking and selling food. Where Issaya Siamese Club is now is near where I grew up as a kid so I know the area well. The neighbourhood market there is where I used to play and spend a lot of time with my mum. And so the story that I’m trying to tell through my food is my memory of my family, with my mum and my time as a kid around here. Every day I was serving the food that my mum cooked for me as a kid. I’m also trying to promote Thai agriculture through my food by using organic ingredients from local farmers.

What kind of stories do you want to tell next?

I would love to just continue my goal in telling my childhood memories through my food and also supporting Thailand’s farming culture because personally, I really do believe we grow great and high-quality produce.

What meal inspired you to become a chef?

My mum’s stir-fried morning glory. As a kid, I used to always watch my mom when she made it and because I liked it so much, I kept trying and trying to perfect it. It wasn’t easy then. Once I got ahold of it though, the taste was really a revolution for me. Another dish would be ratatouille with crepes which I first tried when I was 16 and living in London.

Do you find it challenging to constantly create?

It is challenging. But when you’re in the kitchen, you always feel this urge to create and invent something new to enhance the flavour of the original dishes all the time. So for me, the challenge of creating new dishes doesn’t stress me too much. Besides, I also have a good team who always bring ideas and we grow together as chefs. So the process of creating is actually really fun.

Are there any chefs that you look up to?

I look up to Paul Bocuse a lot. He sets a good example in creating classic and old-fashioned dishes done with traditional cooking techniques. He is someone who doesn’t follow the trends. Though I’ve never met him or tasted his food, his ways of cooking inspired me tremendously.

What were the best three best dishes you created during your culinary career?

  1. Baby back ribs – This is my signature dish. So we start by preparing the glaze, using the recipe I created which only calls for three ingredients that are red curry paste, palm sugar, and salted yellow beans. Then we cook the ribs in tom yum stock and cook it for a long time, for 2.5 hours until the meat flakes from the bones. And the glaze has this perfect combination of salty and sweet. Once we glaze the meat and grill it over the live fire again, the crust has this barbecue-y look to it but the taste just really represents Thai ingredients.
  2. Massaman curry lamb shank – The lamb used here in this recipe must age under one year just so that it won’t have that unpleasant smell of meat. Lamb between one or two years has a stronger smell and the meat is slightly less tender and that’s why people do not like lamb as much. So for this massaman, we cook the curry for a very long time just so that the meat can absorb the curry liquid and becomes very juicy and tender.
  3. Jasmine Flower Flan – We call it khanom dok mali. So the dish has jasmine rice ice cream and khanom bueang (crispy coconut pancake). And instead of using coconut flakes, we cook the pancakes from jasmine rice. Then we cook the hotcakes on the charcoal grill. This dessert is friendly for everyone since it is gluten-free and has no dairy at all. For the finishing touch, we have our signature crumble which is made with puffed rice – it is very crucial for Thai cooking. So the whole dish really represents Thai cuisine.

Any tips for aspiring chefs?

Get into the kitchen and get your hands dirty. Keep trying and experimenting with new dishes. Then find out if you truly enjoy it. If you do, then it is for you.