Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A different kind of Father's Day

For those who don't know, the 3rd Sunday of June is not Father's Day in Thailand. Thais celebrate their fathers together with the birthday of the recently-deceased King Rama IX on the 5th of December (I guess it's appropriate that they did not change the day despite his passing).

As a result, we often celebrate Father's/Mother's Day twice a year here, following both the international and Thai occasions, because being a parent engulfs the lives of my wife and I completely every single day. I actually look forward to Father's Day most of the time, because it seems like a celebration of the one job I feel I might excel the most at (I do not know others who have watched me up close will agree or not). I find it a reason to do something nice for myself, to give myself a pat on my own back.

This year feels different. Circumstances that led up to this day have been quite sobering. It is more like a reminder that I cannot and should not take being a father for granted. It is a blessing and yet a huge responsibility.

It has been a tough year. Work has consumed me more than ever in Thailand. I am one year into what people consider the best 10 years of a man's life. Coincidentally, I feel a window opening up to push my company to brand new heights, albeit a small one that will not be there for long. It's now or never. I have a team in my office waiting for inspiration everyday from one they see as their leader. I have a supportive boss who I cannot disappoint. I have understanding family members in Singapore and Malaysia who I have neglected. Friends - let's not even go there.

Things have not been plain-sailing (but can they ever be?). Nothing has gone to plan this year. Stuff that have actually yielded decent results were achieved in the most laboured roundabout ways, others are still not right despite monstrous efforts to do so. Things that have gone wrong always seem to have been my fault somehow or another, whether at home or out.

Back to being a father. I wasn't supposed to even be in Bangkok to celebrate Father's Day this year, but I am. A lot of poor decisions initiated by yours truly caused this, and I have nowhere to hide. I have been abruptly-reminded that we cannot take something like fatherhood for granted. Sometimes we are too used to the daily routine that defines us, that we forget what it takes to play our roles well. It takes a lot of disappointments, sacrifice and decisiveness to be the leader of the house. It's just as well that I am here, because this is a time my family needs me the most. This Father's Day is not the time for celebration but a moment for the father to show up.

And then, there's this:

My girl made this from school. XOXO

And a brilliant walk at the magnificent Suan Luang R.9 Park

I finally enjoyed a couple of nights of really, really good uninterrupted sleep.

My wife is making me breakfast as I am typing this. The fragrance is irresistible. Can't wait to tuck in.

Life is good.

Happy Father's Day.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Could this be the last Goodbye?

This morning, as usual, I helped Noah put on his bag straps and asked him to go to his classroom by himself.

I planted a kiss on his cheek in the accompaniment of a tribute song for King Rama 9 (I haven't gotten bored of the songs yet btw), playing in the background. It's been like this for best part of a year, as the entire country prepares to bid farewell to their father figure tomorrow. This could be the last morning I hear this song in school.

As I watched Noah walk away from me, it was hard not to feel emotional.

For as long as I can remember, I have been waking up every morning, preparing things properly in order to say goodbye to my family. First, my wife, then my son, and finally my daughter, before zooming away into my 'enviable' alone time to fight battles that my family will never know took place.

One of our frequent wefies on the way to school, pictures I hold dearly to my heart.

Noah turned back one last time and waved to me.

What if this was the last goodbye?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Follow the Chef: Pongcharn Russell, young man aiming for the Top

If you are following my Facebook and Instagram feeds, you will realise that I have been frequenting a restaurant called Freebird. It has a menu that combines brilliantly, comfort food with dishes you can only find in fine-dining establishments, at an impeccably-designed space which gives customers no rules at all, meaning I can go there in my berms and slippers, little kids in tow, and still feel welcome.

That said, foodie friends tell me they didn't like the food at all when Freebird just opened, and all these improvements (in the food) were recent, after the promotion of a certain young sous chef to take over the kitchen, and this man is the Pongcharn Russell, more amicably known as "Top".

Incredibly, Top just turned 27 (he's almost a whopping decade younger than me), it baffles belief how someone so young can cook so well and seamlessly take over (and improve) an entire kitchen. It turns out that Top has already been cooking for 10 years (even I, being so much older, cannot consider myself to have honed a specific craft for that long), at various Michelin-starred restaurants in London (Pearl and Sketch) under the tutelage of household names like Alexis Gauthier, Jun Tanaka, Jason Atherton and most notably the legendary Pierre Gagnaire. And all of a sudden, the excellent food he churns out doesn't feel so unbelievable anymore.

Last week, he showed off his full artillery on his first ever personal showcase as head chef during a one-night-only special dinner, and even though my table-full of industry experts were all nodding their heads in unison at most of his dishes, I personally felt that he was capable of doing much better in more than one of them. That's how highly I regard him.

Culinary skills aside, the trait I appreciate most about Top is his willingness to share. I cook at home myself, a lot. Whenever I need suggestions, I will ask him because I know he will always come up with useful advice. I strongly feel that for anyone to rise to the next level in any craft/job, one must open his/her heart and be willing teach, train and share. This is the only way up-and-coming juniors can improve and take over what you do, releasing you to take up bigger better things. At a ripe young age, Top has already achieved this, and that is why I feel he is able to take care of a full kitchen team that's made up mostly of staff older than him.

The picture which I feel most represents Top, showing his team how things are done.
So, Foodies in Bangkok, keep this name in mind, Pongcharn Russell aka Top. Go try his food, follow his IG account (he shares a lot about his dishes and how he came up with them) because as his name suggests, he's on the up and destined for the top.


"Follow the Chef" is a new blog series where I sit down face to face with chefs and help them tell you what they want to say, in their perspective. My inspiration for this series stems from the fast-changing dining landscape in Bangkok, which is both exciting yet confusing for consumers like us. Do we follow the restaurants, or follow the chefs? I hope I can help you make a better decision.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Birthday Letters from Daddy: Ellie is 3!

Big Brother more excited than birthday girl
3 years on, sometimes it still feels like a dream that you are among us. 

Daddy grew up in a family full of boys. I have never understood how it feels to have a little girl in my house. Little girls are pretty, sweet and angelic isn't it? Well, you have proven to be all of that and more.

Unlike your brother, who considers his every action carefully, you are a little daredevil with no care in the world. He spent a best part of 2 years crying in the morning when I send him to school, you protested for hardly 2 weeks, and you barely even look at me when I leave you every morning. So independent, yet so close to Daddy's heart. Whenever I slump at the front door, dejected, you will always appear to give me some hugs, as if you knew I really needed them.

If you can turn into a little genie and be so kind to grant Daddy 3 wishes, first, I wish you will be less picky with your food and start eating more fruits and vegetables. The world of food is so amazing, and your Daddy is spending much of his free time telling the world how fascinating food in Bangkok can be. It disheartens me sometimes to see my little girl rejecting almost every green thing on the plate.

Noah joins in!
Secondly, I wish you will be kind to Noah in all situations. I know he's possessive and sensitive and drives us crazy sometimes, but he wouldn't even think of hurting you. Those screams, shrieks, pushes and scratches are totally unnecessary. Your big brother loves you to bits. Remember, he will be the one who will accompany you for the best part of your life, not Daddy.

I am in love with this picture. Credit: Aroimakmak
Last but not least, I hope you will continue to love Mummy with all your heart. Since the day you were born, Mummy has given nothing but her very best for you, 24 hours a day, everyday. I have not seen her make a decision that doesn't have your well-being as the ultimate priority. Love mummy, make life easier for her. That's the least she deserves. 

I shall not use any of those wishes on myself because you are already perfect. The untidy free-spirit hidden under the covers of your flowy dresses. The sweet, considerate darling bursting out of Noah's boyish old outfits. You delight and surprise me at the same time.

I love you Ellie, you complete our family with all of your kiddy witty ways. I hope you stay healthy, happy and free of worry. 

Happy birthday.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Nicest Durian Vendor in Thailand!

Today, I am going to talk about the most misunderstood local fruit in Thailand - the durian.

Honestly, growing up eating durians from Malaysia, I was a hater as well, but after many years here, I gradually realised that things are not what we make it out to be. Firstly, we need to accept that local palates are not the same as ours. For example, I wouldn't walk into MK to have their hotpot even if you beg me to, but last I checked, they have 433 branches in Thailand, so who am I to say they don't know their stuff?

Giving another example, 5 years ago, I brought my staff to Singapore for a business trip. He spent some time scrutinizing some pre-packed durians which were sold for 10SGD per pack. He then looked at me with a perplexed face, "Eddie, why do they sell these durians so expensive? They are rotten." This came from a Thai man on his first-ever overseas trip, and ate Thai durians for 31 years.

I gradually understood that the difference (note that I didn't use the word problem) lies in the fact that Thai durians, unlike Malaysian durians which fall from the tree, are harvested way before they are ripe. That's the way Thais like it, unripe durians with a slight crunch, just mildly sweet and doesn't smell pungent (there is only a light smell when you chew). 

However, trust me when I say that Thai durians are sweet and creamy when they are fully-ripe too! Thai durians have been misunderstood, because even for our palates, they are very respectable taste-wise when ripe. The most commonly-found Monthong is sweet and creamy, but less rich and bitter compared to the most popular variants in Malaysia. It does taste a little boring, so if you are looking for a Thai cultivar that tastes closer to what we are used to in Malaysia/Singapore, go for Chanee or Puang Manee. I haven't tasted Kan Yaaw before to give a verdict on it.

All said and done, I must admit I have faced difficulty explaining my preferences to durian vendors in Thailand. Like us, they completely misunderstand our durians as over-ripe to the point of being rotten. I have even been spoken to with an air of disbelief and contempt by durian vendors when I explained the kind of durian I wanted. Why can't we just agree to disagree and get on with life?

That's why I got so inspired to write this piece after meeting the nicest ever durian vendor last week (I featured a taxi driver too here). He didn't understand why I wanted 'over-ripe' durians, but opened durian after durian after durian in search of one that's most suitable for me, telling me not to worry and he's not going to charge for the ones I rejected. 

Such nice people!

The nicest durian vendor in Bangkok and maybe Thailand!

It got to the point that I asked him politely to stop, and purchased the ripest one of the lot. The durian was not perfect of course, but for me it was the tastiest sweetest durian I had ever eaten.

Oh, if you have never seen a Thai durian vendor break a durian apart, it is quite a sight (watch video below).

Disclaimer: I was tempted to do a thorough research on Thai durians online before writing this, but decided not to, and share what I personally feel about durians in Thailand through my years of personal experience. If there are any inaccuracies, let me know in the comments!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Guss Damn Good: Ice Cream that makes me go Wah Lau Eh!

It's been way too long since I gave out my "Wah Lau Eh!" sticker to any establishment (since Paris Mikki last year), not because there were no good restaurants popping up. In fact, the dining scene here is so exciting that the heralded Michelin Guide has chosen to feature Bangkok this year. That said, the volatility of the industry has made it increasingly difficult for me to be sure that the eatery I root for not only produces food I love, but also stay true to their spirit in the long term.

After brief meeting on a rainy evening over some coffee with Rarin, co-founder of Guss Damn Good, I felt proud to have finally found the next fitting owner to my little sticker. It's quite incredible actually, how the concept behind Guss Damn Good resonated with me. Rarin and her partner found their love for ice cream during an unprecedented snowy winter in Boston, spending large amounts of time chilling out in various ice cream parlours, eager to find out why customers were digging into these mountains of ice in spite of the freezing weather. They finally understood that in Boston, ice cream was not only a dessert, but an emotion, a memory. Ice cream brought people to a happy place, it actually reminded them of summer.

Following the revelation, the spirit of Guss Damn Good was born, Guss, a combination of the words 'gut feeling' and 'focus', and Damn Good, an outburst of exclamation when someone eats something delicious. Even their hashtag #feelingcrafted brings through a combination of emotion (feeling) and a description of their expertise (Rarin describes their craft ice-cream as more than home-made ice-cream, as every ingredient is meticuously sourced and every element made from scratch). Their spirit isn't dissimilar to my own, as I only endorse food that wows me enough to exclaim "Wah Lau Eh!", which can literally mean "this is so damn good!"

I tried the Maine Rocky Coast, which tasted like pop corn with salted caramel, on their cocoa cone.

You might wonder why the names of their flavours are so peculiar. And where are usual suspects like strawberry cheesecake and cookies and cream? Every one of Guss Damn Good's flavour was (and will be) inspired by a story. No story, no inspiration. No inspiration, no flavour. And THAT, my friends, is why their flavours sound (and even taste) so polarising. Some are so extreme that you either love it or you hate it.

Make no mistake, they do not hold back on their flavours. The caramel in Bonfire (inspired by the moment after skiing/snowboarding, when people gather around the bonfire to warm themselves and toast marshmallows in the cold) is burnt to the edge of bitterness. Bow Tie In The Bar has enough liquor in one scoop to make me dizzy for a few minutes. I especially love the story behind one of their coffee ice-creams, when their trials have resulted in the right taste and texture but not the colour, and decided to go with it and call it "Why can't coffee be white?" It's one of the nicest coffee ice-creams I have tasted, though it doesn't look anything like one.

Their take-home packaging is on-point.
Now to the important question, does a scoop taste better, or the take-home cup?

I was a little surprised when Rarin said that quality is more consistent in her take-home cups. As if she could see the question marks appearing above my head, she further clarified that due to the frequent opening and closing of the freezer door, there is a chance that the scooped ice-cream can degrade slightly with too much exposure to the environment. On the other hand, the take-home cups will almost always be kept at the same conditions without exposure. The key is PATIENCE, as we need to wait for the take-home cups to be kept under room temperature for 2 minutes before it reaches optimum texture/softness.

Rarin with my Stamp of Approval at her permanent stall at Ei8ht Thong Lor outside Foodland.
They also scoop permanently at Sala Daeng Soi 1, below Bangkok Screening Room.

So good job Rarin. I am sure with your team's dedication and and the passion you share with your partner to stick to your unique concept, the only way for Guss Damn Good is up.

PS. If you miss the smooth creamy ice cream baos at the closed Little Bao Bangkok, it might interest you to know that the ice cream was made by Guss Damn Good. You know where to go now if you get that craving.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Follow the Chef: Gary Butler, the chef you must follow, literally

To say that my Follow the Chef series has been exciting (at least to me) thus far is an understatement. My previous 2 chefs had brands they created with their bare hands stripped from their grasp, and eventually found their own ways to survive in the business. My third chef though, is in a completely different category, and I shall start off with how he looks (finally, a picture of the featured chef!).

Presenting Gary, The Roaming Cook
Thanks to Martin, I recently got to know The Roaming Cook, Gary Butler. He's a die-hard Arsenal fan from the UK, and is not supposed to become friends with a hardcore Spurs fan like me, but there are too many things we have in common for a BITTER football rivalry to tear us apart.

Gary is not a trained chef, nor has he ever worked in a restaurant. He has a natural flair for cooking, and finds himself in the kitchen during all his free time. He shared with me that he lived a couple of years in his fiancee's house in the UK and started cooking for the family. Soon, he found himself cooking for his fiancee's parents' friends, then the entire street, which developed to even cooking for small events and dinner parties. His repertoire ranged from Italian, British to even exotic cuisines like Thai and Lebanese. Forget Curtis Stone, Martin is the true take-home chef.

Have a look at his website/instagram account and it will be clear where his cooking inclinations lie. He's just this Brit who's crazy about Asian food. I've been on 3 food expeditions with him, and not once has he suggested a Western restaurant. In fact, the older the place, the better for him. I can totally imagine him crouching gleefully near a low table in Hanoi digging into some Vietnamese rolls after rejecting a proposal to dine at a posh French restaurant in town. Hunting for original, local, Asian food is in his DNA.

What started off as a recipe website teaching his fans how to cook proper Asian food has also evolved into a platform with posts and videos on the authentic Asian fare he encounters during his extensive travels (increasingly in Thailand).

Gary doing what he does best, taking pictures of authentic Asian cuisine
Gary is a chef you must follow, and by that, I don't mean just Instagram or Facebook. He's uber familiar with the traditional eats in Bangkok old town (a place where I try to avoid as much as I can). If you need some advice, he is more than willing to help, and if he likes you enough, I am sure you will be invited to follow him around as he does his own food exploration.

Gary's ultimate goal is to have his own little eatery in Bangkok, serving a couple of delicious Thai dishes cooked from scratch with some yummy local coffee. As another self-taught home cook, I wish him all the best, as his success will mean hope for like-minded food-noobs like myself.

Make it happen, Gary! You already have your ambassador right here (provided I like the food)!


"Follow the Chef" is a new blog series where I sit down face to face with chefs and help them tell you what they want to say, in their perspective. My inspiration for this series stems from the fast-changing dining landscape in Bangkok, which is both exciting yet confusing for consumers like us. Do we follow the restaurants, or follow the chefs? I hope I can help you make a better decision.

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