I’ve been working in restaurants for over ten years now, most of them spent cooking, working my way from a dishwasher to a sous chef. For anyone who knows me or reads these blog posts of mine knows that when I travel my main purpose is to learn as much as I can about the food. I’ll take cooking classes when possible, talk with locals about where and what to eat and search out local cuisine and strange delicacies trying just about anything I can get my hands on. It’s not all amazing but it’s all worth a shot. So when the opportunity came to help out briefly in a local Thai restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, there was no chance I was going to pass it up.
Originally only coming here to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, I was introduced to the owner of the Jolly Frog. A guesthouse catering to budget travellers, but the restaurant in front brought in many locals from all over town. I asked if I could poke my head in the kitchen for a couple days, but it turned out we both had something to offer each other. We discussed what he wanted which was a very simple and recognizable Mexican menu. I told him I would return in two weeks after a visa run with a template and ingredient list.
Upon my return, I handed over my menu in which he chose five dishes. Enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, black bean and rice burritos and nachos done with the choice of pork, beef or chicken were the winning items. Time to source what we could in the small city and improvise here and there. Instead of nachos it became the normal toppings over French fries. Having about one to one and a half dollars for each dish I had to cost the menu. Something I hadn’t done much of since culinary school. Good refresher.
This is where the fun began! Back into the kitchen after seven months away from knifes. It was an amazing feeling to spread my travelling knife roll across the counter and put them to work again. At first I was a little nervous to ‘invade’ a local kitchen, that in twenty four years never had a ‘farang’ (foreigner) working behind the line. The kitchen staff was made up of local women who spoke as much English as I spoke Thai, so I knew this would be an interesting experience to say the least. They accepted me openly into their kitchen with the expected smiles, talking and giggles amongst themselves, eager to learn something new and teach me what they knew. I could do the same since they wouldn’t understand me either but I would have looked crazy since I would have been talking and laughing to myself.
They picked up everything quickly for the prep/cooking just by watching and always taking notes, since I couldn’t explain what I was doing. It’s unbelievable how much communication can be done with your hands, through demonstration and a genuine interest in learning. To them they found it very humorous to have a farang in their kitchen, trying to help where possible, watching over shoulders as they prepared their dishes so effortlessly, or attempting to speak the Thai that I was slowly learning.
As time passed they began to let me control the wok with certain dishes such as Khao Pad (fried rice), Pad Kra pao (meat stir fried with chili and basil), Pad Prio Wan (sweet and sour), Pad Thai, Pad Siew and more while simply watching with many others taking notes. As well as watching the menu items be made, I got the chance to watch and eat the dishes they made for themselves for the daily staff meal. Every day they made sure I sat down with them to eat, I think for their amusement more than anything. They would watch me try things and break out in a sweat from the intense amount of chili, or different dishes not usually enjoyed by the western palate to see how I would react, such as ‘nam prik kapi’ a spicy shrimp paste dipping sauce. I always enjoyed what they prepared and appreciated the opportunity to eat them. It definitely gave my heat tolerance a workout.
Walking into a foreign kitchen of any kind respect has to be shown in the way that things are done. Watch and observe, maybe it is a better way then you previously knew, or perhaps you can improve upon their methods. This especially goes for a foreign kitchen of another culture. Many things if not just about everything was different from what I knew. Health and safety standards are quite a bit different from North America, not that I agree with the ridiculousness of our standards but that’s not for me to decide. Nevertheless, everything I had been taught throughout my time in culinary school and as a cook were temporarily thrown out the window. Something I wish could happen everywhere, we had cats running through the kitchen scavenging scraps. It’s free pest control, I never saw a single rat near the premises.
In the end I was extremely sad to be leaving this tremendous group of ladies, but felt so blessed that they welcomed me into their kitchen and taught me some of their cuisine and were happy to learn some of mine. I learned a lot in such a short time and look forward to returning to maybe spend a day or two behind the wok again. This was such a unique experience that I’m sure most chefs don’t get and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.