While many girls grow up playing with miniature pots and pans, chef Nathinee Chiralaksanakul spent much of her childhood in an actual kitchen, helping out her mother, who just loved to bake.
PHOTO: ANUSORN SAKSEREE
The daughter, too, realised from an early age that she had a bent for baking, but it was only after doing a course in management that she discovered that her true calling lay in the kitchen, not the office. After graduating from university here, she flew to the UK and enrolled in a diploma course at catering institute Le Cordon Bleu. It was, she said, love at first sight.
"Although I'd baked all my life, I never knew I loved it so much. I literally fell in love with it in the first class of the course, and I knew right then that I was on the right track to my dream," she said.
What she loves most about baking is the magical fact that even using the exact same recipe and ingredients, 10 people can create 10 different tastes. The uniqueness of each person's style is what appeals to her most.
"Every little detail affects the taste. Every extra second in the oven, every whip and every stir, everything counts," explained Nathinee, adding that this is why cooking is an art.
But she said it is also a science, especially regarding the ingredients. For example, the first time she made banana cake, she had some extra banana left over and didn't want to throw it away. So she added just a little more to the mix, hoping it would give the cake a stronger banana flavour. But this made the mix too heavy and consequently that cake refused to rise properly. She ended up having to throw the whole batch away.
"You can't just add things without thinking how they will react to other ingredients. It's like a scientific experiment in a way. I've learned so much from messing up recipes!"
It's been an arduous yet much-cherished journey for her, particularly so when after finishing the course at Le Cordon Bleu, she started working as a commis pastry chef at the Connaught Hotel in London, in a restaurant managed by the Gordon Ramsay Group. And working with the notoriously perfectionist Ramsay was every bit as intense an experience as she'd been expecting.
"He was just like what everyone sees on television. It was a lot of pressure. It was very hard work, but I have learned so much from working with such a great chef. You miss one tiny thing and the whole process stumbles.
"Everyone else would have to either wait for you or start over, depending on the mistake. They say that, based on statistics, chefing is the most stressful job in the world, and I'd have to say I agree completely!"
After a year with Ramsay, she expanded her horizons at a few other places, working as a demi pastry chef at Hotel Duvin in Bristol and as an RD chef at Trust Quality Food, producer of meals for airlines. After five years away from home, she decided she'd acquired enough knowledge and that it was time to pack her bags and return to Thailand.
With so many skills up the sleeves of her chef's coat, she had planned to open a restaurant. That was until she found she was getting a very rewarding feeling in a most unexpected role - as a teacher. Soon after she came back, she started working as bakery instructor at Dusit Thani College and Le Cordon Bleu Bangkok.
"Making great desserts makes me feel good, but teaching others to make great desserts makes me feel even better," said Nathinee. She feels proud to see her students making desserts that are sometimes better than hers.
She has noticed that there's been an increase in the popularity of chefing as a profession, which she attributes to all the cooking shows on television, reality TV shows about cooking, a Korean period drama series and even Thai soap operas. A lot of people decide to enroll in cooking courses based on what they see on television, she thinks, and then expect the training process to be smooth sailing on the way to a glamorous career.
"I've seen many students who come to class because they genuinely love cooking, but many also come because they like what they see on television. Being a chef is hard work: you don't get to sit down until you've finished - and that could take up to 12 hours. You don't get to rest on holidays because that's when work is the busiest. Without real passion for the job, it's hard to keep up with all the demands."
So she came up with an idea - a tailor-made cooking class. Those who just want to learn to make a few dishes can do so without the need to enroll for a whole semester at a cooking school. Palais du Dauphine, her recently opened private cookery school, goes beyond teaching how a dish is done by telling the students about the origins of the ingredients, where to find them and how to choose them.
While private, tailor-made classes makes things easier for the students, the teacher has a lot more work to do. She needs to sit down and talk to her students before the class to make sure she knows what they want and what they have already learned, and then build the course based on their reality.
One advantage of private classes is that students can tell her what tools they have at home, and together they can work on the best way to cook a dish without the students having to invest more in extra equipment.
"The idea is for them to go home and really be able to do it, otherwise it would be useless. I don't want to teach based on what I have, and it's unrealistic to expect everyone to go buy professional ovens. You can do so much with a stove, a fridge and a microwave."
For students from abroad, she also makes sure to research where they can find some ingredients that might be hard to find in their native countries or, failing that, what alternatives could be used.
Nathinee rarely mentions the accolades she's received in her career: a silver medal from the Chefs on Parade Asian Market Basket Competition in the Philippines and the title of Outstanding Asian Dessert Display 2011 from TICC. Her true sense of accomplishment comes from seeing her students create delectable dishes.
"I'm very happy and proud of what I'm doing now. There are so many bakeries and restaurants already, so it's not like there aren't enough choices. But for tailor-made cooking schools, the choices are limited.
"Most schools have fixed courses which might not be suitable for all students. What I am offering can be put to real use - and that's what cooking is all about."
About the author
- Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Outlook Writer