On the day that tickets for Next Restaurant's Tour of Thailand went on sale, Thai celebrity chef M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti, aka Chef McDang, had a question for me: "If I think I would like to go to eat at Alinea, do I have to make a reservation now?"
McDang, one of Thailand's most recognized and learned food authorities, was sitting at a computer in his Bangkok home talking, via Skype, about his visit to Chicago next week to give a series of demonstrations at Le Cordon Bleu on modern Thai cuisine. Before calling, I had vague hopes of scoring timely Next tickets and bringing him along to observe his reaction to America's greatest chef interpreting the food of his homeland. But while McDang was warily curious and diplomatic about the potential of Next's Thai menu—except for one particularly frank moment—he was much more interested in taking the grand tour at Grant Achatz's first restaurant. Though "I would like to give him my book," he said.
McDang, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a member of the Thai royal family, is recognized by millions as a television host, newspaper columnist, cookbook author, and proprietor of McDangGuide.com, where he reviews restaurants all over the country and beyond. If he disapproves of something he doesn't hold back. It was on his English-language blog that he blasted the Bangkok branch of Copenhagen's Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin: "Obviously, both Kiin Kiin and worse still the Michelin guide people know nothing of Thai food."
This blunt expression of disdain for a foreign company's anointment of a problematic nonnative interpretation of Thai cuisine isn't unique to McDang. Last year a period of existential angst descended upon Thai food writers and intellectuals when Australian chef David Thompson opened a Bangkok branch of his own Michelin-starred restaurant Nahm, and boldly declared that Thai food was "decaying."
McDang wrote a fairly positive, though not uncritical, review of Nahm and considers Thompson a friend. But it irks him that ever since the 2002 publication of the latter's exhaustive Thai Food, the Aussie is widely held to be the outside world's foremost expert on Thai cuisine. "Most farang think David Thompson is god," he says. "Now, David has done a great service for Thai cuisine. He really goes into it, but that information is not all correct. I don't think he recognized that Thai food has to be made with a paste. I don't think he really understood the fact that royal Thai cuisine isn't any different than regular Thai cuisine."
But the chef's frustration also extends to his own people—at home and abroad—and his contention that Thais don't respect their culinary traditions or act as proper ambassadors for it doesn't sound out of line with Thompson's criticisms.
Though he likes Orange County's Thai Nakorn Restaurant, American Thai restaurateurs are a particular object of his scorn. "Most of the time Thais don't know what Thai food is," he says. "They don't know what the Thai profile is, and what happens is they try to please the Western palate. You know, a green curry is supposed to have specks of fat on the surface. Now all of a sudden green curry becomes creamy? When I say, 'Where are the specks of fat? That's important because that's where all the spices and the herbs, and the essential oils are,' they go,'Westerners don't like fat, so we make it this way.' And I say, 'That's it—you don't even know how to cook.'" (Incidentally, he's never been to Spoon Thai, TAC Quick, Sticky Rice, or Aroy Thai.)
McDang's culinary education began in his early childhood, when he would sneak into the royal kitchens of Sukhothai Palace, the home of his great-aunt Queen Rambhai Barni, and accompany his food critic father into the city and countryside on eating excursions. These meals taught him that the only difference between the food of the palace and the common people was the former's elaborate presentation. He was sent abroad for his education, and while he was groomed to be a diplomat, during a summer break from Georgetown University in the late 70s he took a job at the Back Porch Cafe in Rehobeth Beach and decided to cook for a living.
Though the queen was paying for his education he told her that instead of returning home he was enrolling in the CIA. After graduating he cooked mostly in the style of 80s Pacific Rim cuisine at restaurants in Washington D.C. and Key West, and bought into the restaurant that gave him his start. There he introduced Rehobeth Beach to its first Thai food, cooking the red curry fish custard hor mok and serving whole grilled fish with spicy dipping sauces. "People were like 'What the fuck? Can't you take the fish heads off?'"
McDang returned to Thailand in 1993 and walked in his father's footsteps, writing a review column for Thailand's Daily News and The Nation. TV shows and cookbooks followed, but despite his fame McDang grew frustrated. "I am a celebrity because I have royal blood," he says. "My parents are very wealthy and very well-known. I happen to be on television, and that's the only reason. And that really bothers me because I want to be taken seriously and most people don't."
McDang, who dismisses his early Thai-language cookbooks as mere recipe collections, felt that a simple English-language codification of the fundamentals of Thai cuisine and a clear historical accounting of its not insignificant foreign influences were desperately needed. He went into debt self-publishing The Principles of Thai Cookery, which was released last June, just a few months before the Thompson furor erupted.
Where Thompson's book is almost intimidating, encyclopedic to the point of impenetrability, McDang's is streamlined, gathering a handful of recipes to illustrate particular techniques and categories of foods, such as boiling and grilling and curries and salads. What's key are the axioms that these rely upon: with the exception of certain soups, Thai food is based on a pounded paste made from selections of nine essential ingredients—chiles, cilantro root, white peppercorn, lemongrass, shallots, galangal, garlic, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime. (A video clip of a cook at Next muddling spices instead of pounding them caused McDang to exclaim, "Oh fuck!").
Further, salinity comes from fish sauce, sweetness from palm sugar, sourness from tropical fruits. Rice is eaten with everything, and the common practice of diners in American Thai restaurants huddling over their individual bowls of curry or pad thai is antithetical to the practice of sharing a balanced sam rap that includes a soup, a stir-fry, a curry, a salad, a deep-fried dish, and a chile dip, or nam prik, to eat with raw or steamed vegetables. If you want an accessible, inspiring introduction to Thai cooking, this is the place to start.
For the last six years McDang has lectured on these principles at yearly residencies at Le Cordon Bleu campuses in the United States. This is the first year he's scheduled to teach in Chicago, and for the first time he's demonstrating how they can be employed in noncanonical recipes and presentations and still remain fundamentally Thai. Beginning Monday he'll show students how to prepare a hor mok timbale, tuna carpaccio with a dressing typically used in minced larb dishes, and a traditional pumpkin custard disguised as a creme brulee. (Find his recipe for a green curry osso bucco on the Food Chain).
He's slowly developing material for a second English cookbook on modern Thai cooking such as this. In the meantime he hopes that The Principles of Thai Cookery will be translated and adopted in Thai culinary schools.
"Right now in culinary school they teach them not to understand the food, but to memorize the food," he says. "Thai people think that culinary arts is an art. It is also a science. You have to understand both of them. Convincing them is my mission in life."
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.