People 4 minutes 20 February 2019

Chef Spotlight: Pim Techamuanvivit Of Nahm And Kin Khao

Behind the stove in every Michelin-starred restaurant is a great chef. We find out more about their passions, their inspirations and what drives them to create some of the culinary world’s most unforgettable dishes.

When Pim Techamuanvivit first received a Michelin star in 2015 for her restaurant Kin Khao in San Francisco, it was one of the most unforgettable moments of her life.

She went to the ceremony in a wheelchair.

“When I spent time working in France, the MICHELIN Guide was my travel guide of choice. I went around eating at a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants around Europe. But I didn’t open Kin Khao to get a Michelin star. I was so surprised and honored to be awarded one, I could hardly believe it.”

But that year was a difficult one for her personally.

“I found out I had breast cancer early that year and spent most of the year taking care of myself. I had to rely on my amazing staff and many kind industry friends to help me run the business while I was in hospital,” she says. “I heard the news about our star a week after my third surgery and went to the award party in a wheelchair. I wasn't going to miss it for the world.”

She collected the star, celebrated — laughed, cried and drank a lot of champagne — and then went back to work with her team.

“It feels great to have recognition. I’d never thought I’d get a star, so it’s still astonishing to me, even after four years.”
Chef Pim and nahm staff 2.jpg
But her advice for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars is not to aim for one at all.

“They should just cook their food and take great care of the staff and their guests. The stars and other recognitions are great, but ultimately they’re not something we have any control over. It’s better to focus on what we do and try to be the best we can be. If accolades come, great. If not, then at least you have a good business and a happy life. That’s how I see it.”

A Bangkok native, Techamuanvivit, more affectionately known as Chef Pim in the industry, gave up her Silicon Valley career to pursue her passion for cooking.
She was a foodie and already a well-known blogger before she opened Kin Khao. Her blog Chez Pim, launched in 2003 was voted as one of the most influential food blogs in the world by The Guardian newspaper.

Ask her what unlocked her passion for cooking and she responds: “Hunger! I found myself in the States without any Thai food I really wanted to eat. So I decided to learn how to cook it myself.

“I barely knew how to boil water and this was before you can easily google how long to cook an egg. I think it took me nearly the entire dozen before I managed to cook one properly.”

But she grew up being fed “really great food” by a nanny.
Kin Khao in San Fransico was started by Chim Pim as she wanted to pursue her passion for cooking. (Credit: Kin Khao Facebook)
Kin Khao in San Fransico was started by Chim Pim as she wanted to pursue her passion for cooking. (Credit: Kin Khao Facebook)
In 2014, Pim realised her dream of becoming a chef with the launch of Kin Khao in San Francisco. The concept won international acclaim and received its first Michelin star the following year.

“Kin Khao was my first ever job in the restaurant business. I’d never even waited tables before that. But I knew I had a vision and I was determined to see it through. I knew failure was a possibility and I was okay with that. I’d just go back to Silicon Valley and find a proper job.”

Prior to this, Pim was a cognitive scientist doing design research in Silicon Valley.

But gone are those days. She now splits her time between San Francisco and Bangkok, where she heads the kitchen at Nahm in COMO Metropolitan Hotel. She was headhunted by hotelier and retail tycoon Christina Ong, who owns the hotel group, to join the team.

“It took me a while before I decided to take the job. Not because I didn’t want to do it or didn’t recognise it as a great opportunity, but because it took me a while before I decided that I could take the job and do it justice.”
The elegant interior of Nam. (Credit: Nahm)
The elegant interior of Nam. (Credit: Nahm)

Launched by David Thompson at The Halkin Hotel in London in 2001, Nahm won hearts of foodies and gourmands alike when it drew inspiration from the street food of Bangkok and old cookbooks belonging to private Thai households. It became the first Thai restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star.

In September 2010, Nahm returned to its roots in Bangkok and built up a reputation for harmonising big, bold flavours with meticulous attention to detail, fresh local produce and traditional cooking methods for authentic Thai cuisine.

Michelin inspectors clearly appreciated this style, saying: “The flavours of the superbly sourced ingredients are intense yet perfectly balanced. The set menu offers the perfect way to experience this cuisine as well as offering surprising value.” 

Nahm_Kanom jin nam prik.jpg
This appreciation for Nahm opened up new chapters for the restaurant when it was recognised with one Michelin star in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide Bangkok selection in 2017.

Pim joined the restaurant a few months ago with the vision of upholding Nahm’s original roots in traditional Thai cuisine while injecting her personal style and flavours to the menu.

“I want diners who visit Nahm to feel as though they’ve been invited to the home of their Thai friends and to experience an authentic cuisine that’s rich in flavours and cooked from the heart.”

She describes the cooking at Nahm as “heritage Thai cooking with a focus on great ingredients”.
“I cook the Thai food I know from growing up in Thailand. The food I grew up eating. I reference a lot of old Thai cookbooks, but within the frame of flavours I know from growing up around great food in Thailand. I also focus on great ingredients: wild seafood, artisanal ingredients from all over Thailand. My cooking always honours the ingredients first. I’m not afraid to use spices or strong flavours, but I don’t let them cover up the nature of the ingredients themselves.”

She wanted to work as much as possible with local artisans and farmers. For instance, she organised a big taste test of fish sauces from all over Thailand. In the end, she picked three — one made from freshwater fish, another made from saltwater fish and the last one not made of fish at all but tiny little krills.

Her attention to detail goes down to the condiments and curry pastes: “We did the same with palm sugar and coconut sugar. We started making our curry paste in-house again, so the cooks know how to build a dish from scratch and not from pre-made curry pastes.”

Pim draws strength from Thai culture and Thai women, who have a deep-rooted tradition of passing on their skills and recipes to the next generation. She is also looking forward to forging closer relationships with farmers across Thailand to ensure only the most exceptional produce makes it onto the menu.

She adds: “I'm amazed every day by the tenacity and determination of farmers and artisanal food producers everywhere. It’s such hard work and my food will not taste any good without their great work. I see myself as a link in this chain.”
Massaman curry of lamb with longan, young potatoes, and burnt shallots.jpg

At Nahm, lunch highlights include a massaman curry of lamb with lychee, young potatoes and burnt shallots (left), steamed leopard coral grouper with pork, fermented yellow beans and fried garlic, and wok-fried fiddlehead ferns, sour pork and heirloom tomatoes. 

For dinner, the à la carte menu changes regularly, with highlights including southern yellow curry of blue swimmer crab with betel leaves and calamansi, stir-fried wagyu beef with young coconut shoots, basil, and green peppercorns, and black grouper fish in tamarind and ginger broth. 

The meal is served on a handpicked selection of crockery, including Benjarong bowls from Thai artisan Pinsuwan Benjarong and Celadon plates from local manufacturer Mengrai Kilns.

An active instagrammer, Pim says these days she does not have time to blog anymore, but she does find time to enjoy wine. She also sails.

“I also read a lot. When I’m stressed I escape into post-apocalyptic sci-fi — perhaps because whatever stress I face in my real life is never going to be as difficult as the ones I’m reading in those works of fiction.”

RELATED: MICHELIN Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang-Nga 2019 Selection


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