Isan's slice of Italy

People from a small northeastern village play a unique and important role in Bangkok's Italian restaurant scene

Some 400km away from Bangkok in Nakhon Ratchasima province lies a rustic village of about 1,000 people called Non Udom. Unlike the nearby tourist destination of Khao Yai, which is likened to a Siamese Italy thanks to a boom in Italian-style properties, Non Udom has retained its customs, culture and environment as a profound Buddhist-driven, rice-farming community. Yet this rural area may be the most amazing link between Thailand and Italy one can discover.

Buono Bistro is among many Italian restaurants whose kitchen is run by culinary talent from the Northeast. Its owner Thanwat Suwinai-Pruksabenja, sitting, takes great pride in the phenomenon.

Pla-ra (fermented fish), som tum (sour and spicy green papaya salad) and phak chim (boiled vegetables with chilli dipping), all prepared with ingredients snatched from local ponds and fields, have long been traditional fare of Non Udom people. But for the younger generations aged between 18 and 45, foreign culinary terms such as fettuccini, anchovies and pizza seem to make more sense when it comes to cooking.

Bangkok is full of stand-alone Italian restaurants. Highly popular and well-respected venues include Zanotti, L'Opera, Giusto, Gianni, Bella Napoli, Bacco, Enoteca and La Bottega di Lucca.

Others that also enjoy high praise on the city's gastronomic scene are Lido, Antonio's, Basilico, Delicatezza, Bravo, Capri, Bliss, Beccofino, Il Tartufo, Buono Bistro, Chef Thanom, Fuzio, L'Ulivo, Scoozi, Romana, Sala Rossa, Opus, Pomodoro and Via Vai, to name just a few.

If the fact that the kitchens of most Italian restaurants in Bangkok are staffed by people from Isan, Thailand's northeastern region known for its poverty, isn't surprising enough, you may be amazed to know that approximately 100 of these staff come from Non Udom. In addition, all of them graduated from the same local school where Grade 9 is the highest level of education on offer.

Today, dominating the city's gastronomic districts from Sukhumvit to Phloenchit and Sathon to Bang Na, some of them have reached the positions of executive chef and sous chef. Some have won culinary awards locally and internationally, while the rest are expert in their fields, whether it be pizza, pasta or pastry, or simply on their way to achieving a similar standard.

When (North) east meets West

It all began 20 years ago when a young man named Sa-it Pittafai (now owner of Two Chefs restaurant and bakery in Pattaya) left his agricultural homestead in Non Udom for a job opportunity in the country's capital city. He first took a labouring position at a nail factory for a few months until he found that a small bakery shop in Sukhumvit was hiring.

Sa-it's destiny in the culinary circle kicked off with a salary as low as 900 baht per month. However, over the years, the hard-working man with only a Grade 6 education has worked his way to career excellence through a number of culinary awards and higher positions including as an executive pastry chef at five-star hotels in Bangkok.

"When I was working at the bakery shop I decided to persuade younger folks from my hometown to come and work in Bangkok's food scene, because the industry grows very fast and there's a lot of better job opportunities compared to what we had at home. Otherwise, they would have to become a labourer at an industrial factory," recalled Sa-it.

Perhaps that was the starting point for Non Udom's unique position. The earlier generations then recommend the next. Following Chef Sa-it's lead are Chef Utain Yuyotha (executive chef at Buono Bistro and Via Vai restaurant) and Chef Plamuan Anukul (executive chef at Nang Kwak wine bar and Italian bistro). Since 1995, an average of nine youngsters from the village have entered Bangkok's restaurant businesses each year. While the boys go straight to the kitchen, the girls are trained for front of house.

Kitchen kinship: A road to culinary excellence

Forget years in prestigious culinary institutes, days in cooking classes or even a basic background in cookery, young people from Non Udom arrived in Bangkok mostly with a junior high education as their best qualification.

This Buddhist-driven, rice-farming region has contributed over100 Isan-born talents to the fine-dining industry.

Yet nothing proves better than hands-on experience when it comes to professionalism. All of them began in the kitchen as dishwashers and gradually attained culinary wisdom and techniques from helping and observing more experienced crews, mostly from the same Isan region, if not from Non Udom itself.

If you step into the cooking chamber of many Italian eateries, you will wonder if you are really in Thailand's metropolis.

Not that it evokes a sense of a Venetian kitchen or Tuscan cucina sanctuary, but you'll be dazed by the distinctive Isan dialect and unfamiliar Korat vocabs _ anchovy is called pla ra, angel-hair pasta is known as sen mee (fine rice noodles), and fettucini is referred to as mee Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima-style flat rice noodles).

''Without support from your own folks, it would be hard to succeed in the kitchen because no one wants to spend their time teaching you,'' said Charoenrat Kingvaklang, a veteran cook of more than 15 years in the Italian scene.

''I can say that I'm at this point because my brothers, cousins and friends supported me. They taught me many things, from cutting vegetables to making pasta dough.

''Other than the fact that we might have fallen in love with cooking, I believe a main reason why the number of Non Udom folks in the industry continues to grow is that we are very comfortable working among our own people. We love sharing our knowledge with each other and would like the younger generation to be able to flourish,'' he said.

Jetwarut Suanboon, a pizza chef with five years experience added: ''Since we are from the same school, most of us have known each other since first grade and have a great trust in one another. I take the senior generation as my role models. I study how they've come to their success and tried to follow. Now I am very proud that I can cook farang food for farangs and also receive their compliments.''

''Being in the business for over 10 years, I've never seen anything like this,'' said Thanwat Suwinai-Pruksabenja, a veteran restaurateur who a few months ago opened Italian restaurant Buono Bistro. Its 20-strong kitchen crew is run by boys from the Northeast.

''As a Thai who takes great pride in my country, I think this phenomenon is amazing and should be highlighted. Because most diners prefer to go to Italian restaurants that have Italian chefs, Italian restaurateurs don't usually reveal their chefs are locals, which is understandable, but sad,'' Thanwat added.

Passing on the tradition

Anan Kingwahklang, Non Udom's village chief, said that he hopes the unique tradition will continue because it has a lot of benefits for the hometown _ the fate of which is often at the mercy of Mother Nature.

''If these children were rice farmers like their ancestors, their hard work would pay off only once a year when they sell the rice. That's only if we have good weather.

''But now they get paid every month. They can live a good life without having high education and are able to support their parents,'' said Anan.

''At first, the job wasn't approved by old people in our village _ especially for the girls. They thought it was a karaoke eatery and didn't want their children to serve food and be sexually fondled by men,'' added Lanthom Duangkaew, another villager whose nieces and nephews are also working in the Italian restaurant scene.

''But what happens is the opposite. Our kids are in a good place, have a nice job and when they come home, they drive their own car. Some go on to have their own shops or work overseas. Many regularly send money to their parents. So the dissatisfaction turned to pride,'' Lanthom said.

Marisa Pranee, whose son is also an Italian cook in Bangkok said: ''These kids are really good at what they do. When they're back home, they usually cook for us _ all that pasta and big shellfish and prawns and steak. They are very tasty, but expensive. It's funny that we used to cook for them when they were young, now they are better and more fluent than us. Their stir-fried vegetables and spicy yum looked and tasted better than what we do. Sometimes my son shares cooking tips, but I still can't make it as good as he does.''

Secret behind the success

Located right next to a laterite road and surrounded by nothing but paddy fields in the middle of the village is Non Udom Nopphadon Upatham School.

Having contributed more than 100 talented people to the refined gastronomic industry, one might wonder if there's a secret to this local school's academic syllabus.

''Our curriculum is of the government's standard. But what's different is that 100% of our students go to the temple regularly to practice meditation and listen to dhamma lectures. It helps groom them to be good people and closely bonds them together,'' explained Ajarn Rapeeporn Tammaratwattana, the school's teacher.

''Compared to children from other villages in the same district, Non Udom kids are a lot more more ambitious, more hard-working and more polite. One of the reasons is because they live very close to the temple and absorb a lot of Buddhist teachings,'' she said.

Ajarn Siriphong Lumklang, another teacher, added: ''Most children here don't have a chance to pursue their study after Grade 9, so they have to find a way to make a living. And I'm so proud that they have done something exemplary for the school and the village.

''First I was surprised to see that our students had grown to have career in surroundings that are very different from their origins. Now I've become very proud that even without a degree they are able to succeed. On top of that they always support their families and offer help to the community.''

She pointed out that in 2010 the school was seriously damaged by flooding in the area and one particular group of Italian restaurant employees organised a fundraising event to help with the restoration.

''The school's computer centre was established with almost 1 million baht in funding, thanks to them. It was a wonderful thing. That has inspired the younger generation. But I always tell them that they have to be diligent and determined to be successful like their seniors,'' she said.

Ajarn Siriphong Lumklang, second right, and Ajarn Rapeeporn Tammaratwattana, right, of Non Udom Nopphadon Upatham School, among soon-to-be star chefs.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter