Born to a blue-collar family, and a former a drug and gambling addict, Thanarak Chuto, 52, is today a notable chef of Chinese cuisine. Affectionately called Chef Pom, he became well-known after appearing on television cooking show Iron Chef.
"I'm not ashamed of my past. It has made me who I am today," he said with conviction.
Chef Pom left his home in Samut Songkhram for Bangkok with his father when still a pre-teen. He didn't go to school and eked out an existence labouring in a garage, a factory where he was introduced to amphetamine, and other odd jobs he could find. Luckily, his friend introduced him to a daily-wage job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.
It was a good job because, at the very least, the work could make his stomach full.
"I loved working in the restaurant the most because I had free meals three times a day and also earned a salary," he recalled of the time. He started off by emptying spittoons, washing dishes and delivering orders, and all the while he looked up to the chefs there and thought one day he would want to be like them. Little did he know that the ambition would drive him on a path that he has been walking for 40 years now.
During many years spent in the kitchen, he learned how to prepare ingredients, and later to cook, when he was only 17, thanks to one Hong Kong chef there who taught him hands-on how to prepare Cantonese cuisine.
"He taught me everything, without hiding his secret recipes, and I respected him like my godfather," he said. Chef Pom wasn't only eager about cooking, he also wanted to read and write Chinese.
"I collected old notes scribbled with food orders and bought a Chinese-Thai translation dictionary to find out the meaning of the words. Initially, it took me a whole week to study and translate just one note," he said.
He tried to memorise each Chinese character and listen carefully to what passed between the chef, captains and the manager when they communicated in Chinese. Once he was familiar with words he learned to construct sentences, and bit by bit he began to communicate in Chinese.
"I learned how to write Chinese even before I could write Thai," he said with a laugh. At the age of 20, he flew out with his mentor to Hong Kong to work as his assistant in a restaurant. Again, in bits and pieces, he absorbed Cantonese-style cooking, but after two years resigned and went on to work as an assistant at a restaurant at a casino in Sri Lanka. He flew there with his younger brother just out of high school who spoke English.
"I remember my brother tutoring me basic words such as spicy, hot, too spicy or not spicy. Things worked well until one day, it was pointed to me that a customer had asked for his dish to be 'less spicy'. Suddenly, I was nervous: I did not know the meaning of 'less', and there was no one I could turn to for help, so I did guess work. And guessed it wrongly: I put more chillies in the dish instead," he said and burst out laughing. He then taught himself to read and speak English.
"My younger brother improved his English watching movies. My elder brother, who is a chef in Bahrain, learned English by singing songs, so I combined their methods," he said, adding he loved listening to music and watching classics like The Sound Of Music which he has watched it more than 1,000 times in the past 10 years. When working in Sri Lanka he could earn a lot but saved nothing, and ran up a huge debt.
"I started gambling," he revealed. "When I won, I thought I could always win. When I lost, I thought tomorrow I would win and recoup my losses. But it didn't happen that way," he said, and admitted that he started to ask for his salary in advance and borrow money until he racked up almost 1 million baht in debt. He decided to sell his townhouse in Thailand to repay his creditors.
He resigned from the job and luckily got another in a restaurant in Beijing. He worked there until the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, when he decided to fly home.
"Fortunately, I met someone I knew after I returned to Bangkok. I got a job as a Chinese chef at Sun Flower restaurant," he said with pride. At the age of 29 he had achieved his goal _ to become a Chinese chef. His skill was admired by well-known food critic Mae Choy Nang Ram, who named him the "Abalone Chef" after hugely admiring a dish made of the prized sea creature. But he did not last long at the restaurant.
He moved the Grand China Princes Hotel and later the Westin Banyan Tree.
"Before getting the job at Banyan Tree, I had to pass a test. The screening committee of the hotel chose me over chefs from Singapore and Hong Kong," he said. The success was sweet and he could finally overcome his own doubt that he would never become a top chef because he was not Chinese.
Chef Pom worked as an executive sous chef for 10 years but resigned because he wanted to work abroad. Through the internet he applied for a job and got one in Mauritius. But he also got a better offer from Six Senses Resort in Koh Yao Noi in Phuket, and chose the latter.
"The style of food there was new to me. I had to learn the concept and process of slow cook, organic, raw food and new types of cooking such as Mediterranean, Spanish, French and Italian," he said.
After six years in the small and scenic island, last year he moved back to his original beat _ Chinese food.
Today he is corporate executive chef with the Burasari Group. He oversees all food and beverage outlets of the group in Bangkok, Phuket and Luang Prabang in Laos.
"I have been sous chef for a long time and want to become an executive chef. I knew it would be impossible for me to climb to the top position in a five-star hotel because here they prefer Westerners to Thais. Although I like what I do and was comfortable working with my foreign boss, my heart wants something else. I want to be my own boss," he said.
Working for the Burasari Group, he has to help raise its food standard and system to an international level, create signature dishes, oversee the new Chinese restaurant Shanghai Inn in Yaowarat. "When I returned to work in Bangkok last year, I was contacted by the Iron Chef production team for an audition," he said, and he passed the test to become resident chef of contemporary Chinese food.
"Joining the programme is pretty good fun and a good experience. It makes me feel terrific, like I am one of a kind in Thailand too," he said.
But he does not want to be only the celebrity chef, he also wants to create a dish "no one has ever seen before".
To achieve the goal, he dreams of having a food laboratory operating like a chef's table where he not only invents and tastes new menus, but also researches new cooking techniques or tools. It will be another step in his learning curve as he still wants to know more and pass on skills to younger chefs.
"I also want to have my own book," he said. He already has one cooking book, though. "I want a book about my 40 years of cooking experiences that also has recipes in the coffee-table format. That is what I really want to do," he said. Another dream he has is to open his own restaurant.
"I want to have a small outlet with only four tables perhaps. There won't be a menu, but I will choose meals for my customers and cook every dish by myself," he said.
When asked if he was sorry he did not have a chance to attend school, he paused, sighed and said that education was important.
"Things might be easier if you have a degree or certificate. It can help pave the way for you. For me, I had to work real hard and it was tough. I also consider myself lucky that I was always able to find good jobs real quick. But life is like gambling. When I lose, I do not feel self-pity. I didn't go to school, of that I feel sad. But many things I learned along the way taught me, to become what I am today," he noted.
About the author
- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe