Born into the Thai Royal family, ML Sirichalerm Svasti, known as Chef McDang, grew up in a Bangkok palace and has gone on to become one of Thailand’s most famous celebrity chefs. Ellie Dyer caught up with the forthright food expert on a recent visit to Phnom Penh. Photograph by Charles Fox.
With his multi-coloured hair, natural charisma and honest opinions, Chef McDang — once dubbed the Thai equivalent of Gordon Ramsay (but more courteous) by an Australian newspaper — is a force to be reckoned with. The expert in Thai cuisine, who studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, is now bringing his knife skills to Cambodia, by helping Metro review its menu prior to the launch of a new restaurant, Metro Azura in Toul Kork, later this year. AsiaLIFE got him away from the frying pan, and into the fire, to grill him on the secrets of Thai cookery.
What inspired you to become a chef?
More than anything else in the world, my father is probably the person who really is the driving force. He’s the one I try to emulate. He’s the one I try to be. Ever since I was born, my father [respected gourmand MR Thanadsri Svasti ] was the most famous man in Thailand, and he still is. There is no one in Thailand who doesn’t know who he is. My father is an aristocrat. We are blessed and cursed by being born into a palace. My great-aunt was Her Majesty Queen Rambhai, [wife] of His Majesty King Rama VII — the last absolute monarch of Thailand.
You grew up in a palace and went on to study at Georgetown University, when did you first consider cooking as a career?
After about three years at Georgetown, there was one woman — you probably know her very well — on television. Her name was Julia Child. I spent most of my time watching Julia. I bought both her books and I started doing dinner parties, because I was a nice rich kid who could afford a lot of things. One summer I went to the beach and started having parties, and my all friends said to me “You know, you’re very good at this, don’t you want to cook for a living?” A restaurant wanted a lunch cook… I went to the interview and I got the job. I remember the first day I worked. It was like someone took me into a room that didn’t have any lights on, and all of a sudden this light was switched on. I just said: “Wow, man, I belong here.”
You’ve since written cookery books, columns, starred in TV shows and met Chef Gordon Ramsay. What was that like?
He is a person who is a passionate about what he does. And I’d rather not meet anybody who is like a wet towel. I want to meet real people. Be passionate about the things that you do, be creative. Meeting people, travelling, eating great food — what can be better than that? It’s better than sex.
What is the key to Thai cuisine?
Most people think of Thai cookery as remembering recipes. Any kind of cuisine in the world has structure, has history and has a profile. Therefore you have to identify those profiles, those structures and the system of how to cook first, and understand the history of our cuisine first before you can start cooking Thai. I just want to know how many Thais really know Thai food. Do they know that we never had chilli peppers before the Portuguese came in the 1600s? Before that there was no heat, there were peppercorns.
What should chefs do to better understand Thai cuisine?
For one thing they need to read my book [The Principles of Thai Cookery], then come to Thailand and go in the countryside and understand the ingredients, how people live and the culture. If you understand it, you can come up with great recipes. There are no’s. Thai salad dressing has no oil. You put something like that in there, then I’ll throw it out of a window. It’s not Thai.
Where should visitors to Thailand go to taste authentic cuisine?
The street food is better than the food in the hotel. But for traditional food, you have to go outside Bangkok. But there are some restaurants in Bangkok that serve really good, traditional Thai food. One is called Nud Pop, the other one is by the river near King Rama IV Bridge. It’s called Hong Seng.
What makes such traditional food stand out?
The way they cook it, the way they use the ingredients, and the way they don’t screw it up or do not have a balance in flavours. Green chicken curry — in Thai, it’s called khao kaeng. Khao is green, kaeng is sweet, so [some people] pour in about three bucket of sugar in there and you get a green curry syrup. They don’t have a brain. It’s supposed to be sweet from the sweetness of the coconut milk, and the balance is between the saltiness of the fish sauce and the palm sugar.
Is balance important for Thai food?
Thai food has three flavours that are very important: sweet, sour and salty. The sweetness comes from palm sugar or coconut sugar. The sourness is always natural: tamarind juice, lime juice, green mango and other kinds of sour fruits. The saltiness comes from fish sauce or salt. [Another] rule is that [unless it’s an infusion soup] you cannot cook Thai food without a paste. You take a mortar and pestle, and pound ingredients up. What ingredients do you need for a paste? There are only nine: galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, kaffir lime rind, shallots, garlic, coriander roots, white peppercorn, chilli peppers.
Do you get angry when you people add extra ingredients?
No, if they can explain to me why. But you know, with this big mouth, they always say: “Oh Jesus Christ, he’s going to give us hell again.”