Chef Ian Kittichai, celebrity chef, Thailand’s Iron Chef, and a global ambassador for Thai cuisine, has restaurants in Bangkok, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and New York City, and does a weekly television cooking show Chef Mue Thong, which has been broadcast since 2001 in 70 countries around the world.
Somewhat surprisingly, Chef Ian Kittichai (whose full Thai name is Pongtawat Chalermkittichai) regarded locally as a a world representative for Thai cuisine, began his formal training at London’s Waldorf Hotel, apprenticed at one of Sydney’s finest French restaurants, Claude’s, under Chef Damien Pignolet, and, after returning to Thailand in 1998, built a reputation as Executive Chef at the Four Seasons, Bangkok.
The first Thai to hold that position at a luxury five-star hotel, Chef Ian Kittichai successfully launched and turned around a dozen different kinds of restaurants during his time at the hotel, from Japanese to Italian, including Spice Market, Shintaro, Biscotti, Madison, Aqua, and the Four Seasons’ famous Sunday brunch.
Chef Ian Kittichai’s culinary roots, however, were firmly in Thai cuisine. As a child growing up in Bangkok in modest circumstances, in a humble house that also served as a grocery store and simple restaurant where his Mum sold home-cooked food, Ian would push a cart around the neighbourhood after school selling his mother’s tasty curries.
He would also accompany her to the markets before school, and, along with his seven sisters, make school bags, belts and shoes in his free time, and help his Chinese-speaking insurance salesman father with his paperwork.
That demanding upbringing undoubtedly explains Ian’s amazing multi-tasking abilities. When we first met the inimitable Chef Ian Kittichai and his lovely wife and business partner Sarah Chang at their Bangkok home for an interview and portrait shoot for a story for Dusit Hotels’ EIGHT magazine, Ian had just returned from the UAE, where he occasionally cooks and provides a signature menu for the InterContinental Hotel Abu Dhabi.
Soon after our interview, Ian jetted off to London. Once back in Bangkok, he opened his newest restaurants: Sucre, a dessert café in movie heaven in the Major Cineplex in Bangkok shopping mall Siam Paragon; and 99 Rest Backyard Café, a stylish eatery at a posh housing estate on Rama 9 in Bangkok. He then hopped back on a plane again to Mumbai, Abu Dhabi and New York.
It made sense to us, when we were looking for a Bangkok-born expert to give us their lowdown on the Bangkok eating and drinking scene, to ask Ian. We had to get in quick though! Here you go…
Chef Ian Kittichai’s Guide to Eating and Drinking in Bangkok
Q. How would you describe Thai cuisine and what sets it apart from other Asian cuisines?
A. I love the diversity of flavours in Thai cuisine. There is really every texture and taste to be found in the wide variety of food from all of the different regions of Thailand. In no other cuisine do you get the salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and herbaceous in one bite that you can experience in a Thai dish.
Q. What should people settling into Bangkok for a while learn to cook?
A. I would say, apart from the typical curries and wok dishes that most people learn, to cook first in Thailand people should try to learn how to make the ‘yums’, the Thai sour, salty and spicy salads. They’re easy and healthy and can really be made with such a variety of proteins and vegetables.
Q. What’s Bangkok’s quintessential dish?
A. I would say that Bangkok’s quintessential dish is Pad Krapow. This can be made with pork, beef, or chicken, served with holy basil and chillies over rice, and is classic street food, but you can find it on the street and in restaurants. And it’s great hangover food after a long night out in Bangkok! (Hmmm… perhaps we should ask Ian to teach Terence to make this one for The Dish?)
Q. The best eating experiences for foodies in Bangkok?
Q. What about breakfast?
A. Thais traditionally eat jok or khao tom. Jok is a rice porridge, much like congee, and khao tom is a rice soup. These are savoury dishes that usually have some sort of protein in them as well, such as chicken or pork. You can find these on the street or even in some hotel breakfast offerings.
Q. Bangkok’s best markets or food shopping experiences?
A. I think Or Tor Kor market opposite Chatuchak is a good market experience. The market is very clean and modern and really has the best produce and products from all over Thailand. I personally also like to go to the Lao Wet market in Wong Wan Yai as it’s more of a traditional market and you can find lots of different herbs and produce there. If you want to go to a supermarket, I would say the food hall and Gourmet Market in Siam Paragon, as you can get local as well as imported goods and see a lot of food being prepared in front of you but in a more comfortable, air conditioned environment.
Q. Bangkok’s must-do restaurants?
A. My picks are:
1. Klua Kling Pak Sod, close to Thonglor soi 5 — the restaurant specializes in southern Thai dishes that can’t be found in a lot of other Thai restaurants.
2. Kaiyang Nomjit in Ekkamai, close to Ekkamai soi 18 — it’s excellent for grilled chicken som tum and other Isaan dishes. It’s in a shophouse and is a very traditional style and has been around for almost 40 years.
3. Maru, Thonglor soi 3 — the best Japanese sushi bar in Bangkok (according to CNNgo as well!) The fish is amazing and fresh and delicious and you can sit at the bar with the friendly owner selecting the best offerings of the day.
Q. Bangkok’s best street food?
A. I like to go eat in Chinatown. It’s bustling at night and there are tonnes of different foods, including a lot of Chinese-Thai food that you don’t see everywhere in the city. Another good area for night time street food dining is Sukhumvit Soi 38. It’s a rather residential area and one of the cleanest places to eat street food. For me, the best dishes to eat as street food is satay and khao men gai.
Q. Bangkok’s best bars?
A. I like Iron Fairies in Thonglor. It’s such a unique concept and when you walk in you are truly transported into a different world via the décor as well as the music and vibe. I also like WTF in Sukhumvit 51. It’s a sort of artsy ‘dive bar’ cum gallery and a great little place to sit at a table and catch up with a friend. And of course there is Hyde & Seek, which, although some may say I am biased, does truly have the best cocktails as well as cocktail list in town.
Chef Ian Kittichai
Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+ 66 0 2 672 9040
Hyde & Seek
65/1 Athenee Residence, Soi Ruamrudee
Wireless Road, Lumpini
+ 66 0 2168 5152
Koh by Ian Kittichai
Intercontinental Marine Drive Hotel
135 Marine Drive
+ 091 22 3987 9999
647 9th Ave
b/w West 45th & 46th
New York City
+ 212 245 8880
See our Year of Asian Cookbooks series for recipes from Ian’s Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook, including Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng or Red Curry Paste, Thai Phanaeng Nua Penang Beef Curry, and Gaeng Hang Lay Moo, a Pork Belly Curry.