|Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s Executive Thai Chef & Senior Consultant Vichit Mukura in his kitchen at Sala Rim Naam|
It was a Tuesday night and we were crossing the Chaopraya River on a plush wooden shuttle boat. Boat crew in raj-patterned shirt and traditional silk pantaloons greeted us aboard and we were on our way to knock on someone’s kitchen for dinner.
|Appetizer of Crispy rice and fish (in shot glass) served with ‘patad lom’ (firecracker) crispy spring roll and watermelon + dried and seasoned fish|
A Chef’s Table dining concept is nothing new. In many places where people practically worship food, going to a chef’s table dinner even requires some secret knocks, covered names or some strong references to secure a table or even a place. Here, at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, where this kitchen can accommodate only 4-12 guests, you also need to book way in advance and get your team ready for then the chef will go shopping and improvise your dinner according to what are the best ingredients he can find that very day.
|Fresh selections from the market being prepared right there at the kitchen with course menu written on a blackboard|
The chef in question is Chef Vichit Mukura, now the Executive Thai Chef and Senior Consultant for Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s famous Sala Rim Naam which has been for decades the epitome of traditional Thai dinner and exotic shows. Even many Thai food connoisseurs regard him as one of the best Thai chefs in the country. Learning to cook at a very young age from his own mother, Chef Vichit gradually adopts his worldly experiences into the traditional Thai cooking. The result is a combination of old-style Thai dishes in modern and exciting presentations.
|Top & right: fish consomme served with dried aromatic fish; left: steamed red garouper fillet on a velvety bed of steamed egg|
Off the boat, it was not yet the time for dinner so we hanged around for a little bit at Sala Rim Naam’s lobby. Chef Vichit was there to greet us; he told us what he got from the fresh market that morning and what he was going to cook for us. Then we were served with a thirst-quenching ‘Tom Yam’ mocktail and a plate of three Thai appetizers of crispy rice + crispy fish, crispy spring roll and a bite of juicy watermelon and dried seasoned fish.
Some food just effectively evokes your memory. And it was this gorgeously aromatic, sweet and salty crispy rice and fish that reminded me of the old times when Thai snacks were made fresh in-house with leftover ingredients such as the rice and fish, combined with some herbs that kept well for the hungry kids. Although we can still find this snack in some specialty stores, none compares to the tastes of the freshly made.
|At the kitchen we were, with fresh ingredients being prepared fresh for a handful of guests, river prawn served with red stir-fried with homemade red curry paste|
Chef Vichit’s kitchen was at the back of the restaurant complex; we walked pass an industrial door and took the stripped steel staircase down to see the whole vast kitchen that serves all the guests of Sala Rim Naam. Our dining destination, however, was a small adjacent but separate kitchen. This is where Chef Vichit teaches his students on a daily basis and it is where guests who book his Chef’s Table dinner enjoy their meals.
Rice – the centerpiece of the Thai cuisine – was beautifully highlighted – not just once or twice, but in four dishes of the whole 6-course meal. After the very well-prepared appetizer of crispy rice and fish, our first course was deep-fried river prawn with crispy rice shell served with nampla reduction and aromatically enhanced by somsa (a type of local bitter orange) zest. Somsa makes an indispensable ingredient for the famous Thai mee krob (crispy vermicelli), but since it was a rare item to be used in the kitchen, it became a hardly known citrus and Chef Vichit excellent brings it back to the modern dinner table not just to promote its existence, but to also showcase that it can be adapted to more dishes with a bit of creativity.
|Chef’s specialty of pan-seared lamb rack with tamarind sauce and Thai bitter vegetables|
Fish and river prawns played key role in most dishes prepared by Chef Vichit that night. The red grouper was filleted and steamed on a bed of velvety steamed egg (quite a tasty innovation), and served with a typical Thai chili+garlic+lime seafood sauce. Those who have been in Thailand long enough should be able to pick a Thai seafood-eating style that always accompanied by this type of spicy sauce. It was no exception in this kitchen, but the way Chef Vichit incorporated a bed of steamed egg with a much gentler taste with the sharply spicy sauce created a nice combination of this otherwise ordinary dish. Loved it.
Then, there was this famous ‘Tom Klong Pla Krai’ soup. Originally, this dish is a soup heavy and thick with herbs (shallots, kaffir lime, galangal, dried red chili etc..) and dried river fish which can make it a little bit too much for some people who are not familiar with Thai food. So, Chef Vichit turned the herbal soup into a consomme so tasty in itself that it practically cleared my head at the first sip. He served it in a cup with a wedge of fresh lime and a separate dish of dried fish. It was a fun soup to eat. First, you sip the soup, then dab your spoon into the dried fish, and then back to sip the lovely consomme again.
|Young rice stew with snow fish served with preserved soy bean sauce|
Thai red curry is a mix of all things very very strong in aroma and tastes. The best way to cook the paste is to slowly stirring it with one or two tablespoons of a type of oil. If you are making a curry, dollops of coconut cream, but if you are just stir-frying, then a good glug of your preferred cooking oil. The reason for the slow-cooking is to thoroughly cook those aromatic ingredients in the paste to make them all aromatic and ready for the further steps of cooking. Thank heaven that this small kitchen has an excellent ventilation duct because Chef Vichit’s so aromatic curry paste could have driven us all sneezing like mad when he was preparing the pan-fried river prawn with Thai red curry. The river prawns are brought from Ranong where the brackish waters prosper them. This is a fool-proof dish because fresh river prawn, cooked anyway you like, is always super-delicious. And the Thai red curry is always a delight. The best part if how Chef incorporated the dish by adding blanched local vegetable of crunchy dok kajorn which rounded off the dish’s tasty combination.
|Traditional Thai desserts of gorgeous look choops (green bean shaped into chili and mini rose apple), bua loy and rice ice cream|
The last two main dishes were the most famous. Everyone I know who came over to Chef Vichit’s talked about his scrumptious lamb rack served with tamarind sauce and the comforting young rice soup with Chilean sea bass (snow fish) pan-fried and served with crispy ginger and preserved soy sauce. Both were so lovely that even though everyone of us (especially me) was moaning as exploding, we ate them all. It was so nice a combination of the Chef who, knowing Thai cooking at heart, adapts it further to make it more interesting without losing touch of the origins.
Above were our desserts. The wonderful bua loi, your red rice ice cream and look choop, all reflecting the Thai way of always exquisitely prepare their dishes. Excellent or superb was the word I would describe my dining experience that night. A big plus is also Chef Vichit himself. It was a rare chance to be able to talk to the chef, asking him all the questions in the world about Thai cooking (even for us Thais, there’re still millions things to learn about Thai traditional cooking and the roots of our various cuisines) and best of all seeing him in the flesh in the kitchen, cooking away each single dish and tasting everything before serving.
Our 6-course meal was Bt2,900++ per person. You can opt for 8-9-course at Bt3,900++. Also optional are wine lists (I’d rather go with a good rose or champagne). Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, T: 02-659-9000. Four to twelve guests are welcome. You can also bring the whole kitchen to your home if you are throwing a party.