Fates in plates for traditional chefs

While things may not be as harsh now, the path to power in Chinese restaurants has long been a gruelling one, with endurance and a lifetime of hard work key to success

A chef's life is not an easy one. It means getting up and leaving the house early, getting everything ready in the kitchen, and working in front of a hot stove from 11am until about 2pm. Then follows another period of preparation in the kitchen before the cooking starts again at 5pm and continues until around 9pm.

IRON CHEF: Chinese restaurants have a hierarchal structure with master chefs at the top.

After the last order of the day has been sent off there are many things that need looking after in the kitchen. By the time the chef finally gets home it is very late. At New Year's, Chinese New Year, Songkran, Loy Krathong and Christmas a chef can't go anywhere because the restaurant will be busier than usual and the workload increases proportionately.

It's a demanding profession, but many people are happy to undertake it because they enjoy putting their culinary skills to work, and find satisfaction when people appreciate their cooking and the restaurant does good business.

Becoming a front-rank chef is not something that comes right away. It requires a lot of work and endurance, and this is especially true of those who specialise in old-fashioned Chinese cuisine. These chefs do not study in cooking schools but learn directly from accomplished senior chefs. That is the way it was done 50 years ago, and it was an exhausting, stressful experience. Today it is much less stringent.

Half a century ago, the most expensive and luxurious restaurants in Bangkok were Chinese, and there were only a few of them. They were all located in the Yaowarat area, and included places like Hoy Thien Lao, Joak Kee, Yaowayuen and Lai Kee. Hoy Thien Lao was especially lavish, with big band music and a dance floor for weddings. The food was served toh jeen, or "Chinese table"-style. Socialites preferred to dine at restaurants like Joak Kee and Lai Kee at 3pm, because at other times these places filled up with regular customers.

The chefs at these restaurants had to be Cantonese. Some came from Canton province in China, others were born in Thailand but trained by Chinese-born Cantonese chefs. This training was not just a matter of being told what to do and then doing it. The apprentice cook had to work his way up, washing vegetables, boiling ducks, plucking chickens, scaling fish, cleaning out carcasses and washing beef and pork. They had to spend a great deal of time on such tasks. A restaurant would have several chefs with many of their children and young relatives working in the kitchen. Friendships and hostilities would form, and if there was a young person whom everyone liked, he might be assigned more important duties.

But if the kitchen assistant was Chinese but from outside the family groups, he would be under pressure. He would have to wash clothes and run out for coffee, tea, pastries and cigarettes. Chinese chefs of the older generation felt that if a senior chef taught a younger one, he was a kind of professor, and it was the duty of the younger one to do whatever he could to please his mentor. If the older chef had half a bun or the unsmoked part of a cigarette left over and gave it to an apprentice, the helper would be very grateful and see it as a special kindness.

As time passed the younger members of Chinese families did not want this kind of life. They saw that their chef fathers and uncles were exhausted all year long, and they studied hard to prepare themselves for other kinds of work.

Workers from Isan came to take their place, and they were pushed especially hard. At first they might have to clean the latrines, mop the floor, and wash tablecloths. If their work was satisfactory, they might be allowed to work in the kitchen, where their first position would be as a sailo, washing vegetables and anything else that needed it. Their behaviour determined whether they advanced.

They might be placed close to the chef, where they would assist him by handing him platters and bowls for dishes that had been cooked. It was important to know what kind and size of dish to use and how to place it. Setting it down incorrectly was considered a serious mistake. The chef might spill the food onto the table, and the sailo would have to remove it by hand, even if it was scalding hot. New Isan staff had a bag of ice handy to plunge their hands into after burning them.

The next position up was kratha 3, or "frying pan three". Kitchen staff who had reached this level started by frying foods like fish and chicken; when they became more skilful they would graduate to kratha 2. At this level they would make sauces, knead dough for steamed buns and pancakes for Peking duck, and inflate the ducks used to make the same dish (the bird is inflated by blowing air in through the anus, which used to be done by mouth), and getting them ready for the oven.

A kratha 2 would also make certain simple dishes like kui tio pad (fried noodles), khao pad (fried rice), and would be responsible for ensuring that everything needed in the kitchen was on hand. Any item that was running short had to be ordered so that it was always there and ready to use.

The next step up was as assistant to the chef. By this time the worker would be able to make more difficult dishes, like the repertoire of steamed soups made with the red berry called ya jeen. He would have to be able to substitute for an absent chef. Some staff members, called tahaw, would not work at the stove but stay at a counter in the kitchen where they would take orders from the head waiter and then determine which chef they should be assigned to, according to a queue. When meals were ordered to be served as a toh jeen-style meal, which involves a whole series of dishes, the tahaw had to know which ones should be served first and which ones would follow, and in what order. Barking out all of these orders and commands required a very loud voice.

Both a kratha 2 and a tahaw would have a good knowledge of cooking techniques and kitchen procedure. The time it took to reach these positions was not the same for everyone. For some it took decades.

But above this rank there was kratha 1, which was almost at the top. A kratha 1 knew how to do everything and had helpers all over the kitchen. At 11am they would move to the stove, and when a dish was fully cooked they would hand the pan to a sailo, who would present them with a new platter or bowl and send the used one to be washed.

The highest position of all was the thaochew, who reigned as emperor in the kitchen and didn't have to do much of anything. He was an administrator who would conceive new dishes for the menu. If business was bad he would be the first one to be fired, but generally he was treated with fearful respect. If a thaochew was dissatisfied with his employer he would resign, and he wouldn't leave alone. He would take the whole kitchen staff with him. This meant that the restaurant owner would treat the thaochew deferentially to avoid having to hire a whole new kitchen team.

This is the way that Chinese restaurant kitchens have traditionally operated and the chefs who work in them have lived. Today it remains largely the same, if less harsh, except for the fact that the number of Cantonese and Teochew chefs has gradually diminished and been replaced by cooks from Isan, to the point that now fully 90% of the cooks in Bangkok's Chinese restaurants are from Thailand's Northeast. As soon as they achieve the rank of kratha 2 or kratha 1 they bring in children, younger relatives or their wives' younger relatives to work as sailo.

There are restaurants now where the entire kitchen staff comes from the same Isan village.

But the food is as tasty as ever.

Dishes prepared by Isan chefs lose little in comparison with those made by cooks who come from China, because the Northeastern cooks have passed through the same long and rigorous training procedure as their Chinese predecessors.

If they were not up to that high standard, their cooking would not support the high reputation that good Chinese restaurants continue to enjoy today.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer