Thailand travel 31: Dinner with top Chef Tammasak Chootong (Noi) at Suay
I read in my Lonely Planet about Suay Cooking School. It says I can do a morning class with one of the best chefs on Phuket island. I email “Chef Noi,” as he is known, before I leave for Thailand. He gets right back. Not offering classes now. Too busy consulting; too busy traveling; and busy upgrading his restaurant, Suay.
But he invites me for dinner the night before I am scheduled to fly out.
Chef Tammasak Chootong, who I read in his Suay Restaurant website bio lived for some years, and trained, and worked at a Michalin star restaurant in Germany (there’s loads on him when I Google), will be back by then from consulting in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The Suay upgrade will be complete.
And so I find myself at Suay for dinner, on a drizzly night in Phuket Town, learning, among other things, that he is building a home kitchen to run cooking classes from as a “retirement” activity sometime in the future. And he’s just been consulting on luxury dining on a luxury cruise ship that will soon be a Mekong River option for those not so keen on my low-key Slow Boat option.
Thais’ love food. So many eateries, big and small and roadside and on two wheels and four wheels; so many it would seem every Thai offers food for sharing of some sort. The markets. Morning, noon and late-night places. You want to be friendly with Thai people? Just visit a market and look interested. Buy something to try, you’ll be put at an outdoor table and treated like a family friend.
To taste, to eat, to relish
To taste, to eat, to relish — it seems the national pastime.
Much of the Thai food, though — until you get to the proper restaurants, the beautiful food that is as pretty as a gorgeous Thai orchid on the plate — is simply “served.” Chef Noi draws my attention to this. It usually is fresh and seasonal and local by nature, not by design (as it often is in Western “cultures” that have gone the way of fast-food and preservatives and are now trying to reverse). But it is usually “basically” dished, plated, presented, served.
Chef Tammasak Chootong — Chef Noi — tells me as we chat over dinner that his “mission” is to make authentic Thai food and to present it elegantly. With creative and innovative flair. To put thought into this. “Often the food is there, the flavors are there, but it is just put on the plate,” he says.
Chef Noi, who lived in Germany for 14 years, tells me got into cooking, in Germany, sort of accidentally.
“I had thought to get a job in food service. I was told I needed to get into the kitchen first, to learn about food.” Once there, he was mentored by a chef who saw Noi loved what he was doing and who also saw his aptitude. He encouraged Noi to stay in the kitchen. It didn’t take must arm-twisting.
Next thing, Noi was in the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant. He was cooking on the QE2. (He visited Cape Town, among many other places, while on the luxury vessel.)
Then he moved back to Thailand to made his mark on Thai cooking. His Suay Restaurant resume — he opened it in 2010 in Phuket Town — gives the details. A scan through it is impressive. All the places he has consulted, both within Thailand and internationally. His awards. His TV presence. Gorgeous dishes beautifully and artistically presented. The European and the Thai artfully, tastefully and artistically blended.
Finding Suay and Chef Noi
I had made a point of finding Suay during the day of my planned night-time visit. A friendly elderly man waved at me, at the entrance, from where he was closely focused on painting a section of the bar area. Noi points out later places that still needed finishing touches. From how he described the “before” compared to the “after” it sounds like the ambience has become more sophisticated.
I did what I love to do when someone knows about food. Say: bring me what “you” think. I chose the drinks: A coconut and butterfly pea juice — a sexy, exotic drink, especially when you learn the Latin name is clitoria ternatea (why is clear when you see the flower’s shape). Fresh young coconut, natch, which pretty much grow wild in Thailand, apparently first planted there by the Chinese (the trees), which then self-propagate in the forested areas (and are also farmed).
The waitress explains that the butterfly pea is a flower, a gorgeous dark blue to mauvy in color, is boiled down to extract the juice. It arrived rich and intense and icy-cold.
Starter, courtesy Chef Noi, was the laab tuna (259Bht), a tuna tartare “with miso paste and a dressing of north-east Thailand spices: rice powder, chili flakes, palm sugar, lime juice” and more, says Chef Noi. Served with palm hearts, grated into slim crunchy strips, and a fried mushroom ball and decorated with edible needle flowers.
Nine on the mouth orgasm scale
The tartare is served at just slightly above room temperature, which brings out the flavors. It’s succulence offset by the crunch of the palm hearts. There’s a subtle blend of distinctive flavors with little hints of intensity. It makes me think of my therapist friend Helen Perry (author of Experiencing CBT from the Inside Out: A Self-Practice/Self-Reflection Workbook for Therapists) and her mouth orgasm scale. This, I would give a nine.
Meanwhile, the “elder” at the table next to me, a Thai gentleman, slim and elegant in casual attire, has struck up a conversation. He is a restaurant owner, long-time, currently completing a new one on an island down south, with magnificent sea views (he asks for my card and gets the Chaing Mai “master chef” among the party to give me his).
He is happy for me to take pics of their dishes, and encourages me to taste a couple. I photograph the grilled lemongrass lamb chops with papaya salsa (650Bht) and the braised beef cheek in Mussaman curry, coconut gnocci, edamame bean salsa and cashew nut crumble (650Bht).
For me, Chef Noi suggests the yellow curry. Which is not a yellow curry as one is usually served yellow curry, as in a ladle-full of something over rice. It is salmon in a rice noodle roll served with yellow curry (“from Chiang Mai) and crispy fried rice cake (there are crispy white rice and black rice cakes).
The strips of texture, it turns out, that I thought might be strips of mushroom, is young bamboo, grated. There are
mushrooms. There is onion, red chili and spring onion, all sliced tiny and delicate. A mix of intense and subtle flavors. The curry is mildly spicy, delicate. The rice noodle roll is somehow sensual in texture; the fish plump and decadently fatty and warm, again a temperature that releases the flavor. Comfort food and at the same time sensual and exotic is what comes to mind. Perhaps another nine on the private Perry scale.
My new friend at the next table, who will leave to spend six weeks at his house in Maine in a week’s time and who says he sold a previous US house to protest Bush’s attack on Iraq back in the day there were no weapons of mass destruction, not knowing how else to protest, asks for my plate to spoon something on to.
“They wouldn’t like this in the US,” he says. It’s raw squid, slim little slices and tender-chewy. The menu says “sepia carpaccio with chili and lime dressing served with sea pearls salad” (239Bht). The sea pearls is delicate strands of seaweed with tiny balls that burst in the mouth like caviar.
For dessert I have fresh mango, sticky rice spring roll and black sesame ice cream (199Bht) which is a take on the comfort food dessert I ate at Pakbeng.
And so went my evening with one of Thailand’s top chefs showing one of the alternatives one can have in Thailand to outdoor market food.
© Wanda Hennig 2016, story and photos.