Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen King

We meet Khun Pornpirom Khunwong, Head Chef at The Imperial Samui Beach Resort's Twisted Thai.

 

9How do you identify a chef without the aid of a hat the size of Eiffel Tower? There are two sure-fire clues. First, a chef must love his grub so much that it is probable his midriff would take children weeks to circumnavigate. Second, being a boss of the kitchen, his confidence should be enough to reduce the Incredible Hulk to a timid puppy. But Twisted Thai’s Head Chef Khun Pornpirom Khunwong, better known as Khun Tom, is so completely devoid of these features, that when we arrived at the restaurant, we breezed past him like a speeding car charging past a highway exit. We only stopped in our tracks when the 30-year-old tapped our shoulder and beamed a warm smile and identified himself. The Issan native behind Twisted Thai’s famous fusion Thai cuisine, talks to us about his inspiring metamorphosis from a Samui motorbike taxi driver to a medal winner at a prestigious culinary award.

 

Chef Tom, how long have you been cooking now ?

      13 years. My first restaurant job was as a cleaner at a small roadside eatery. I cleaned the kitchen and learnt the essential cooking skills by observing the owner. But in a place like that, there was very little to learn. Eventually I quit that job and started as a security guard at Chaba Cabana in Chaweng. After a year I moved to Blue Lagoon, initially as a steward, before eventually joining the kitchen staff as Demi Chef. After six years I joined Six Senses Samui’s Dining On The Rocks as a Commi, where I worked under Chef Ryan Dadufalza and Chef Thomas Jakobi for four and a half years. In truth, I prefer working in hotel restaurants because the kitchens are bigger and better equipped. The quality of the ingredients is much better. But the biggest perk of working in a hotel is that there are more opportunities to learn new techniques and cooking styles, as the executive chefs often change every two years or so..

 

What is the most impressive technique in your repertoire?

      About six years ago, Chef Ryan brought a tuna fish into the kitchen. He pulled out a Japanese knife and demonstrated how to use it to scale, gut, de-bone and cut the fish. I tasted a slice of freshly prepared sashimi and the whole experience really blew my mind. That was also the first time I tried Japanese food, and I still love it today. Tuna sashimi remains my favourite dish!

 

You are originally from Issan. What brought you to Samui in the first place?

      I first came here on holiday with my family when I was 15. I fell in love with the place and I left school to come and live here. One of my first jobs on the island was a motorbike taxi driver. I didn’t know any English before I came, but through the many jobs I had, I learned the essentials on the go.


What has been your proudest kitchen moment.

      I represented Koh Samui in the Pattaya City Culinary Cup in July this year, and won the bronze medal competing against 15 teams from 10 different countries. There were two challenges. First of all, we had to pick ingredients from a food basket to create a buffet line for 20 people. The buffet consisted of an appetiser, a soup, a main course and a dessert, plus a cake served tapas-style on serving dishes. The second challenge was interesting. We were presented with a black box, and using only the secret ingredients inside we had to create one surprise dish. We were given a chunk of pork and a very sour Thai leaf. We boiled the pork and the leaf with a bit of seasoning. The pork tenderised in the broth and we allowed the remaining liquid to vaporise. The soup was reduced to form the sauce for the pork. It wasn’t half-bad you know!

What is the philosophy behind the cuisine at Twisted Thai?

      Our aim is to galvanise authentic Thai dishes using modern techniques without sabotaging the signature Thai flavours. Take our Massaman Gai for example. We first marinate the chicken breast overnight with fish sauce and tamarind. We then seal the meat in a bag and slow cook it in a water bath. The massaman sauce is then poured on top of the chicken and the dish is served with risotto rice. We do use some European ingredients to give a twist to our Thai dishes, but such ingredients can only be used provided they don’t overpower the original Thai flavour.

What is the atmosphere like in your kitchen?

      [Laughs] I sing all the time. I love singing while cooking. Sometimes the F&B manager comes in and says my kitchen is too noisy! I have three staff in the kitchen and we always belt out tunes together. Working in my kitchen is a bit like performing. The kitchen is open-plan, and there are two big chef’s tables in front of it, so if we get too sweaty in the kitchen we would need to go freshen up for the guests’ cameras.

What is your recipe of success at Twisted Thai?

      I’m also a customer service guy. The more often I come out to the dining area and talk to the guests, the happier they are. So I strive to greet every single table and explain to my customers how each of their dishes is made. Of course it can get busy here if three or four tables turn up at the same time, in which case I would have to jump and run from the dining area to the kitchen.

You have been on Samui for so long; do you have any tips for holidaymakers?

      Do you know that you can walk down from the Big Rock near Lamai and fish near the shore? It’s very tranquil and picturesque there!

 

Kawai Wong


 


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