Bringing out the authenticity

A chef from the Big Mango is a hit on the Big Apple dining scene

It is not easy to get 100% positive reviews on a leading cooking website like KitchenSurfing.com, which is a community marketplace matching talented chefs with discerning clientele, many of whom are well-known celebrities. Chuck Valla, a self-taught Thai chef, gets there with his flavourful Thai food.

Chuck worked as a Chinese teacher at schools in Bangkok, before deciding to pursue his passion for fashion by taking a course in New York City. But throughout his life, he'd always found solace in the kitchen.

"I grew up in the restaurant business because that's what my family did, and I always helped my grandmother cook when I was young. She was the best cook and her Thai food was excellent. That's where I learned how to cook. I never went to proper cooking classes or anything _ I learned on the go while helping my grandmother," said Chuck, who is ranked first in the Thai food and Asian food categories on KitchenSurfing.com.

He got into the business by chance, and had never actually thought about making a living as a chef. While staying in New York, he enjoyed cooking for friends and taking pictures of his creations, which he uploaded on Instagram.

Coincidentally, a childhood friend of his who followed his Instagram was working for KitchenSurfing.com in Berlin, and recommended the company contact Chuck.

"I was quite surprised to receive an email from the CEO of KitchenSurf-ing.com. I talked to them and showed them a few examples without hoping for any stint at the time because I wasn't a professional. Soon, they contacted me to pitch for a client, and I was chosen," said Chuck about the beginning of his career as a private chef.

How this works is a client contacts the website with details and preferences. The website will contact a few chefs in its database, and the chefs submit their proposed menu for the client to pick. The selected chef gets the job and goes to cook for the client at the venue. Chuck explained that this business model is quite popular in the US as people want their meals to be special, personalised and private, and they are tired of making reservations way ahead of time or queuing up for hours at a good place.

"This way, they can have restaurant-grade food brought to their home, and enjoy the meal without bothering with traffic and queues, or worrying about finding a babysitter," Chuck said.

Although he had been cooking all his life, it was quite a challenge cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, especially when it is not equipped with Thai-style crockery. But he fell in love with the fun and the challenge, particularly when he learned that his clients were extraordinary people _ sometimes they are even renowned chefs.

"One of the most memorable clients I have had was celebrity chef and Billy Joel's ex-wife, Katie Lee. I was excited enough to know that she had picked me to cook for her, but my excitement turned into nervousness when I learned that her guests included the critically-acclaimed chef/restaurateur Bobby Flay and Michael Symon from Iron Chef," said Chuck, whose regular clients include the Consulate General of Thailand in New York City and eBay's New York City office.

While he had already finished cooking, after learning who would be eating his food he felt that he could do better. On a whim, he dragged out his mortar and started whipping up som tum with pla ra. "They were blown away by the taste, and they also fell in love with my sai-ua [northern-style sausage]. They asked me a lot of questions about Thai food, and I realised that while Thai food is already popular in the US, a lot of people still only know so little about it."

Chuck also participated in the 2013 Burger Bloodbath in Brooklyn, competing against six renowned chefs. He created Thai-style hamburger using sai-ua, lemongrass and chilli paste, topped with deep fried basil leaves. There were two prizes at the event _ people's vote and judges' picks. He won both prizes.

More than his personal success, he is proud that he is able to show the world that Thai food is amazing, and there is more to Thai food than pad Thai and tom yam.

"Thai food is limitless _ even Thai people haven't tried all of it. Don't assume that foreigners are afraid to try spicy or unusual food. From my experience, it's the most unheard-of dishes that attract them the most," Chuck said.

"I don't believe in adapting the flavours to please the non-Thai palate, otherwise Thai food will be seen as just another Asian food.

"We have so much more to offer than that, and I want Thai food to be famous for what it actually is."

About the author

columnist
Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Former Guru section Editor