By Duan Liu
Winter is Khwanruean Suwannakat’s favorite time of year. After work, she likes to meander between the skyscrapers and see the twinkling holiday lights and festive window displays. When she gets a chance to call her 14-year-old daughter in Thailand, she always describes those elaborate scenes again and again. “We will reunite soon in New York after you finish high school. I’ll bring you to see all the window displays then,” she promised.
Suwannakat is now the head chef in Bodhi Tree, a small Thai restaurant in the East Village. All her friends and colleagues like to call her Chef Khwan. She came to New York nine years ago from Thailand. In 2000, she quit her job as a chef in Oriental Hotel in Bangkok to help with her husband’s flower delivery business. The business failed three years later, which caused Suwannakat to re-consider her family’s future. Persuaded by her friends, she decided to come to New York for opportunities and fortune. She was forced to be separated from her family because she could not afford the extra costs of bringing them here.
Suwannakat learned cooking in Oriental Hotel, one of the best hotels in Thailand. “I had no choice but to work in the kitchen in order to afford my tuition,” she recalled.
However, this experience opened a door for her to the world’s delicacies. During her ten years there, Suwannakat learned how to cook French, German, and Thai food. By learning different cooking styles, Suwannakat gradually realized that she could only cook Thai food authentically.
“Not only because they are very different and sometimes complicated to learn,” Suwannakat said, “every ingredient has its own cultural background that is rooted in its own country.” She thought that she needed to know deeply enough about each ingredient to present the flavor precisely. Even if she used the exact same recipe as a French chef when she helped prepare daily special dishes in Oriental Hotel, she would have no idea whether it was good by French standards just by tasting it. “But I know what is good and authentic in my country and my food,” she said.
Without any established network in New York, Suwannakat started her first job in a small restaurant in Queens in 2004. Not knowing any English at that time, she couldn’t even remember its name and correct address. New york and the U.S. were so foreign to her at the time. She didn’t even know where she was but she was taking part in society nonetheless and in a very anonymous way, as she built an identity for herself in a new land. She switched to another restaurant after eight months and then another after five months. All the restaurants she worked for tried to imitate American’s taste and prepare sweet, oily, non-spicy dishes. However, in Suwannakat’s opinion, the essences of Thai food were its freshness and variety of flavors. Thai food lost its soul here.
During her early days here, the best thing Suwannakat gained was friendship. She never thought she could meet such nice people in a foreign land. Once, she was so ill and could not even get up from her bed. Her woman friend took her back to her own apartment and commuted between work and home three times everyday to take care of her.
In 2006, Suwannakat found another job in Em Thai, a popular restaurant her current boss, Thomas Stilling, ran in Brooklyn. Stilling appreciated Suwannakat’s cooking talents and wanted to give her enough freedom to bring the essence of Thai food back to those dishes. Suwannakat increased the use of pepper and ginger to the level that people in Thailand would use, but ended up receiving complaints from customers. Once, a guest even asked the waiter if the chef could re-cook and lower the spiciness of his half-finished dish because even though the dish was delicious, he couldn’t bear its heat any more.
But Suwannakat didn’t agree to change her recipes. “Cooking authentically” is an important motto in her career. It doesn’t only mean to follow the recipe precisely, but also to let the eaters know what the food taste like in its original country. For Suwannakat, authentic food is a way to presenting Thai culture and her own identity as a Thai person.
After that, Suwannakat added a new page called “Authentic Spicy Thai” in their menu to clarify its hotness for costumers. It says on the menu, “we cannot make it less spicy because we want to keep to the original recipes and real taste. If you can…Enjoy!” But Stilling still required all the waiters to inform customers again when they order spicy foods. Suwannakat started to explore new ways to popularize authentic Thai food among non-spicy food eaters.
Suwannakat eventually found solutions in the “authentic fusion” dishes she created. The shrimp avocado curry, one of her signature dishes, was one of them. She replaced the fresh green chilies with lemongrass – which is duller – and galangal in the Kaeng Khiao Wan (sweet green curry) soup. But instead of using flour to add thickness to the soup as many other restaurants in New York do, Suwannakat insists on the authentic way, adding only coconut milk for a silky feeling.
This “authentic fusion” series became popular in the restaurant. The freshness and variety of flavors attracted more food enthusiasts to the restaurant. Even though Suwannakat spends most of her time in the kitchen and doesn’t have chances to meet her customers, she still recognizes them by their orders. During lunch, she receives an order of chicken basil fried rice that comes with chicken meat. “This customer doesn’t like too spicy,” she reminds her assistant. When she is not so busy in the kitchen, Suwannakat also enjoys hosting small classes for the other employees in Bodhi Tree. “I am more than willing to teach people how to cook,” she says. “I can advocate for Thai food and Thai culture this way.” She always tried to explain the functions and cultural backgrounds of each ingredient to her students. In Thailand, people use a lot of herbs because of their medicinal values. For example, turmeric is good for metabolism, and lemongrass can help people digest. Of course Thai food is famous for its variety of flavors, but what’s more important is the balance in the variety. Lime peel and mint can always balance the heat of a dish and refresh people on a hot humid summer in Southeastern Asia. Suwannakat believes all her students would have to keep balance in mind if they want to cook authentic food; otherwise they would just lose control of all the ingredients and create a meaningless mixture.
Anthony Lu Roonchareon, a former employee in Bodhi tree, who used to manage financial statements in a real estate company in Thailand, learned cooking from Suwannaka in 2009. After getting tired of numbers and investments, Anthony decided to leave his well-paid position and learn how to be a good chef, a career that he was so fond of since he was a child.
“Chef Kwan taught me everything, especially the culture of Thai food,” he said. The idea of balance and freshness that he learned from Suwannaka also contributes a lot to his style as a head baker at the Standard Hotel.
Even though Suwannakat has a little anti-Americanized movement in the kitchen, she tries to be more Americanized herself. When she is not working, she studies English in an ESL program at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. She also learns how to manage the restaurant from Stilling.
The biggest challenges Stilling and Suwannakat face are last minute change from suppliers and the Department of Health. They got a letter grade “B” this year from the department. For Thomas, this grade was partially due to the unreasonable requirements. He said, “some of the regulations make no sense at all.” The crack between the hinges of the window is a fault, but if they open the window and let all air in, then it’s fine. “I swear when they came in they’ve already determined, ‘I’m going to charge him for $500 this time’”, Stilling complained, “and then they find a way to do it.”
Suwannakat’s favorite moment in a day is dinner time. At around 5:30 p.m. every day, Bodhi Tree becomes busy. With the dim lights and melodious rhythm, people gather with their friends after work, have a relaxing talk, and enjoy authentic Thai meals in the cozy restaurant. Suwannakat loves to see the orders keep coming; she switches from woks to pots calmly, mixes all the spice like an artist mixes her color, and releases the aroma by stir-frying them quickly. She fully concentrates on her work, like a ballerina immerses herself in a performance.
Suwannakat wants to gain enough experience here and eventually open her own restaurant in five years. At that time, she would send her daughter to a college in the U.S. and spend more time together with her. This becomes her biggest motivations for work, “I’m working hard to provide her a better stage to pursue whatever she likes.” Suwannakat said, with tears glimmering in her eyes.