Meet Chef Tam.
Sitting in a room with Chef Tam, the air feels almost electric. She’s undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. There’s a lot of things that drive Chef Tam; her intensely competitive nature, passion for sustainability and desire to creatively showcase farm-driven cuisine made from local Thai ingredients, just to name a few. Fame aside, she's incredibly hard-working, humble and super nice to talk to. If Thailand ever participates in the culinary Olympics, you know who we’d be rooting for.
|| How It All Began ||
• What were you passionate about at a young age?
Sports were a huge part of my childhood. I was incredibly passionate about swimming, football, basketball and never stopped improving myself. I wanted to be taken seriously. To challenge myself even further, I moved to a boarding school in the UK, where the training was supposedly more rigorous.
• How did your interests shift to food?
By chance, actually!
To enhance my athletic performance, I regularly monitored my nutritional intake and found it rather intriguing, so I chose to study Nutrition at university. However, in addition to Nutrition, my parents encouraged me to explore Food Science too because of the better career prospects.
While studying Food Science, I had to carry out research and development, which involved a lot of cooking — this was the turning point.
• What was your first job?
While my friends applied for big food companies, I interned at Water Library Chamchuri ... Up until then, my home cooking always received many compliments from family and friends alike, so I was super confident this would translate well into a professional kitchen. Oh, how wrong I was! [laughs]
I realized that there were so many things I didn’t know about the basics of cooking. That’s when I decided to further my studies at the International Culinary Center in New York. At the same time,I also interned with Chef Jean-Georges whilst I went to school. Those were pretty long days, usually 8am to 1am. Then I worked with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for 3 years.
|| Life of a (Top) Chef ||
• What drove you to enter the Top Chef Thailand competition?
When I first moved back to Thailand, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to explore farming and agriculture as I enjoyed working on the farm at Blue Hill. There wasn’t a restaurant that I felt had the same philosophy as Stone Barns where I thought I could further my knowledge. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to start my own restaurant either …
In fact, I was ready to become a farmer. I was so inspired by Dan and the farmers’ community in New York and wanted to bring that here. So I started a garden in my own backyard and actually generated a lot of produce. I was sending out samples to restaurants, the feedback was really good and I was about to start making deals. But then someone I knew nudged me to try out for Top Chef Thailand and I just went with it.
• Did you ever imagine yourself winning the competition?
Not at all! I had no expectations. However, to be fair, I’m competitive by nature, with the sports and everything that I do. Therefore, I genuinely tried my best in every round. Honestly, I still didn’t think I was going to win in the final round.
• Since winning Top Chef, it took you 3 years to launch Baan Tepa Culinary Space. Can you take us through that?
Seeing first-hand how world-class restaurants operate made me feel like I wanted to create something exceptional that I can be truly proud of.
I wanted to take time to experiment, gain experience and fill in any knowledge gaps. For me, one of the gaps was Thai ingredients. As a result, I travelled around Thailand to learn more about it and wherever I was, I always ended up doing a pop-up project showcasing that local cuisine, using local ingredients that we found.
After going through that journey, I finally felt ready to launch something of my own.
(Photos via www.baantepabkk.com)
• What’s something we can do better to reduce food waste?
People’s perception of fine dining. I think customers often have expectations that food needs to be presented a certain way with a certain level of detail. So everything has to be trimmed to the perfect shape and everything - the wastage there is just insane. That’s a good start I think, changing the way people think what ‘good food’ really means.
At Baan Tepa, we take waste management really seriously. All the food scraps have to be carefully sorted and recycled into compost for our urban farm. I go through the bins sometimes just to check that nothing weird has been dumped by accident. [laughs]
We’re always thinking about how to become more sustainable, from the building materials and lights to the paper, ink etc. It’s become second nature at this point.
• What’s a new project you’ve been working on?
My hands are pretty full with Baan Tepa Culinary Space. We recently launched the Café in Tepa Garden too. That’ll be open during the day and an a la carte lunch menu will be served very soon! [smiles]
|| Up Close & Personal ||
• What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?
Oh, God. I don’t have that much great advice, to be honest. [laughs]
My mum once told me that nothing lasts forever. Whenever I feel shitty or tired, knowing that this negative feeling won’t last is how I snap myself out of a funk. Rest assured, tomorrow will be better.
• How did you take an interest in sustainability?
I can honestly tell you that prior to my 3-year stint at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I knew nothing about sustainability and the environment. As an advocate for the farm-to-table philosophy, Dan Barber introduced me to the world of seasonal food, organic farming, food waste and much more. He made me believe that good flavour starts with the soil and it's my duty to actively find creative ways to cook sustainably grown, local ingredients. Eating seasonally offers so many health benefits, and at the end of the day, it’s a matter of taste. Seasonal food is fresher, so it tastes better.
• What’s been an eye-opening moment for you?
The first time I went to the farmers’ market in Union Square - that blew my mind! Everything was colourful, fresh and hyperlocal. It was so exciting to chat with farmers and hear where the food comes from. It was a really warm feeling. Since then, I’ve been more interested in the sources and stories behind food.
• In your own words, what is love?
Wow, this is hard. I’m trying to think what my girlfriend would say … for me, the biggest thing is the sacrifice. I guess it's like giving someone the best part of something.
• As a celebrity chef, what’s your relationship with fame like?
After winning Top Chef, it was incredibly overwhelming and tiresome to be stuck in the limelight all the time - I struggled a lot. I’d rather focus on my food. I’m much more used to it now, but it’s always a work in progress.
• Favourite restaurants ever?
benu in San Francisco
Blue Hill at Stone Barns (obviously!)
Per Se in New York