Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen King

An insight into what brought Khun Itt to the Italian kitchen at Olivio.

 

4 There are a lot of restaurants on Samui. And that means a lot of chefs. On the one hand there are your normal workaday cooks. And you’ll find them everywhere, from the little street stalls to the top international eateries. And then there’s the elite. These are top chefs who’ve often worked all over the globe, mostly in world-class restaurants. And, quite often, the first they’ll see of Samui is when they come here to take up an important post: they’ll be interviewed elsewhere first, in a corporate HQ somewhere, or maybe in Bangkok. And they’re of every nationality under the sun. Well usually, except for Thai, that is; it’s rare for a top Thai chef to be flown to Samui right out of the blue – they’re usually here to begin with and then work their way up. Except for Khun Itt.

     Khun Ubon Pleepool (nicknamed ‘Khun Itt’) came to our island on the 2nd May 2012, to begin working as the new Executive Sous Chef at Olivio, one of Samui’s best-known Italian restaurants, attached to Baan Haad Ngam Boutique Resort & Spa. For a long time now it’s had the reputation of being ‘the Italians’ Italian restaurant’, and now Khun Itt is busily engaged in making a superb menu even better.

       “Most people automatically think that an Italian restaurant has to be run by an Italian,” Khun Itt reflected. “But there’s no reason for this. I’ve been preparing and cooking Italian cuisine for almost 20 years now, and I can make dishes from both the northern and southern regions. I know the importers that specialise in Italian ingredients that you can’t get in Thailand. We make our own pasta and pizzas in-house. It’s just about as authentic as you can get – even our Italian customers are a bit surprised when they find out that what they’re eating has been made by a Thai chef!”

       Khun Itt comes from a farming family in the north-eastern region of Korat. But as soon as he was able to leave school, he headed straight for Bangkok and the bright lights of opportunity. His first jobs were humble, in small local restaurants, but over the years he steadily progressed onto bigger establishments and into better posts. And, switching between Bangkok’s top hotels and Italian restaurants, he began to make a name for himself, eventually becoming employed as Sous Chef in the capital’s well-known Rossano’s restaurant.

       “One of my friends was working at Olivio,” he continued, “and when the previous chef left he called me to let me know. At the time I was under contract in Bangkok. But, as this drew to a close, Samui began to look more and more appealing. I eventually applied for the position, was interviewed, offered the post and accepted. And then I came to Samui!”

       Although he’s actually scheduled to start the day at 6:30 am, in time to prepare for the breakfast session, Khun Itt is usually in the kitchen around 5:00 am, in order to get all the preparations well under way before his staff arrive. And, although the kitchen closes at around 10:30 pm, he’s also the last to leave, some 30 minutes or so later. But, then, he does live on-site in the staff quarters and is able to catch a substantial siesta in the afternoon!

 

It’s just about as
authentic as you can get
– even our Italian
customers are a bit
surprised when they find
out that what they’re
eating has been made
by a Thai chef!


       Olivio has always prided itself in the authenticity of its cuisine, and Khun Itt is keenly committed to this aspect. There is a full and traditional menu of southern Italian and Sicilian cuisine already in place, but he is slowly expanding this. And, in addition, he’s gently introducing some more-creative elements. Already he’s come up with such tempting items as a ravioli in butter sauce with Parma ham, and a spaghetti vongole, which comes complete with an innovative garlic and chilli sauce. “I’d like to introduce a selected variety of dishes which are a little bit more adventurous,” he told me, “but I’m wary of influencing the integrity of the menu. Traditional cuisine is what people come for, and that’s always going to be at Olivio’s core. But one or two more unusual items might well have a broader appeal.”

       Khun Itt has expanded the pizza menu to over 20 different options, and is in the process of trialling a couple of more adventurous toppings. “I want to try combining traditional Italian pizzas with one or two traditional Thai dishes,” he explained. “Different types of cheese, such as feta, go well with curries, and ingredients like tomatoes and mushrooms, even olives sometimes, are a perfect complement to this. Massaman curry is an intriguing topping for a pizza, as is green chicken curry. But what I want to do is to fuse the two cuisines, rather than just putting a curry on top of pizza bread. It’s coming together slowly but surely!”

       And so what of Samui? How does Khun Itt like the island after all those years in Bangkok? “It’s just wonderful,” he enthused with a grin, “so clean and fresh, no fog or pollution. And I just love seeing all that sea and sky when I come to work. I should have come here years ago!” And then his face fell as I asked him what he thought of the rest of the island, and the more isolated southern coves and beaches. His eyes widened with concern. It turned out that he hadn’t yet actually ventured away from Chaweng Beach Road, as he was too worried about becoming lost – a touching insight into a humble man, despite his status. But never mind, I told him, it’ll happen in time. For now, be content with being king of the kitchen – the rest will come later!

 

Rob De Wet


 


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