Chewing the Fat with Chef Prin
“Everything starts from family,” says Chef Prin Polsuk as I tell him that I am ready to begin. . . and that is how we start our philosophical “Chewing the Fat”
May 23, 2017
Chef Prin Polsuk, the Head Chef of Nahm, did not come to cooking until he was 30 years old: relatively late for a profession in which training and apprenticeships begin at an early age. Over the decade or so since Chef Prin first picked up his knives, David Thompson’s Nahm London became the first Thai restaurant to receive a Michelin star (2001) and Nahm Bangkok earned a place as 50th best restaurant in the world in 2013. Nahm Bangkok is now five years old now and we sit down to Chew the Fat with Chef Prin, the man of the kitchen that has become training ground for many a super Thai chef, to find out what inspires him and how his kitchen continues to produce some of the best Thai food in the world.
Nahm means “water” in Thai, and water is the essence of life. To Chef Prin, an extension of this is that love is everything, that feelings are what define our everyday lives and this too extends to food. The overlap between food and feelings came up often during our conversation and, over two hours of discussion, I discovered that there is a lot more to food than just ingredients and cooking well. In fact, to Chef Prin, food and philosophy go hand in hand, and our conversation made me think about the relationship between feelings, memory, and food.
From a family of farmers and academics in Chiang Mai, Prin grew up in the company of a great many books by Rong Wongsuwan. A renaissance man and the father of contemporary Thai literature, Rong convinced a generation that life is about living, about being: an existentialism with contentment and acceptance at its core. Prin was entranced by Rong’s writing as a teenager. Although he would go on to study engineering at university, he saw himself more of an artist and, to this day, he continues to draw. Prin never intended to be a chef: it was something he fell into.
After leaving university, Prin went home to work with the family business, making choux pastry goodies that were sold in front of their home as well as at Chiang Mai schools and markets. Thus, his career in food began with honing his buttercake baking skills. After seven years, Prin decided to become a chef and went to work at The Oriental Hotel’s Sala Rim Nam under the famous Chef Vichit Mukura.
This was in the days before Nahm, Soulfood Mahanakorn, bo.lan and the like. As I am sure many of my friends have fond memories of, dining at Sala Rim Nam was about Thai food with an ambiance and cocktails: a sumptuous affair. It was at Sala Rim Nam that Chef Prin was approached by David Thompson, by that time already a world-famous chef. With Chef Bo (Duangporn Songvisa) leaving London for Bangkok to open bo.lan with Dylan Jones, David needed a Thai chef in his kitchen and Prin was offered the job.
Prin spent three years working in London at Nahm, which is situated within The Halkin hotel in Belgravia, Christina Ong’s minimal tomb of a hotel. He would arrive every morning by bicycle from his home in Stockwell—for those unfamiliar with London geography, Stockwell is south of the river: a somewhat trendy area today, but still relatively local. It was in Stockwell that Chef Prin would hang out in reggae bars and venture to nearby Brixton Market (David Bowie was from Brixton, also home of the Brixton Academy which has hosted every hip hop legend you can think of).
After three years in London, Nahm closed its doors in London, and Chef Prin headed back to Bangkok to head up the Nahm kitchen at The Metropolitan Bangkok. When he returned, Nahm was already the 50th best restaurant in the world. The kitchen was clearly functioning well with David Thompson overseeing a kitchen of fine line of cooks; it just had no head chef. Chef Prin returned home from London to fill this hole, and take up the challenge of improving what was already an excellent restaurant.
At the core of his beliefs are relationships and emotions: to Chef Prin, cooking is therefore also about relationships. In the first days that he took over the kitchen at the Nahm, he would take each one of his line cooks aside and have a one-on-one conversation with them. For Chef Prin, it is important that the kitchen staff becomes a family and, as in all functional families, there must be communication. Chef Prin then made a great point about feelings: if you feel sad and you cook, your food could also feel sad, whereas if you are happy, you express this in your cooking. In this way, what you create as a chef is an expression in much the same way that a painter paints or a musician composes.
So when I ask him what is the hardest thing there is to cook—knowing full well that this is a chef who spends a lot of time researching old lost recipes, the same methodology that David Thompson takes to cooking, devoting time to unearth beloved receipts that would otherwise be lost—to my surprise, he says the humble fried egg. This is what he loves to cook for his 10 year old son (who, coincidentally, is currently being taught how to make a fried egg), and is also—now unsurprisingly—what he would be if he were a food. The fried egg: hard but delicate, simple yet difficult to get perfect—a real feat. For a while I thought that we would talk for hours about the fried egg. And yet it is true, as I think about it, the fried egg, done the Thai way in a wok filled with oil: there is really nothing quite like it.
So, as we get to the part of the conversation about his own food, what he cooks (the kitchen at Nahm, no doubt, is David Thompson’s), the dishes that Chef Prin creates with his team adds to the repertoire at Nahm that is ever growing and changing: day in and day out, creating relishes and curries, and selecting the proper seasonal vegetable to bring out the proper accompaniment of flavors: the balance. Together with Mint Jarukittikun, Chef Prin had an idea to bring Thai home cooking to the fore: not what you normally find in a restaurant but what was cooked in old Thai homes of the past.
They introduced Samrub Thai, first at Jack’s Bar on the river, bringing the river way of life, with dishes of days long past, to those who live on the river. It is strange that such Thai dishes can feel unfamiliar, rare, and even unexpected. But that is what we experienced at dinner: strangers sitting on a pier, dining together as a family. That is the idea of Samrub Thai: to bring us together with fresh Thai cuisine, not the kind that our government parades out for the sake of some kind of patriotic ideal, but good Thai food that was eaten in the past: local, seasonal, and fresh. And with it a way of life that could be so simple.
So cheers to a “Chewing the Fat” in which the fat we chewed was more like a trip down a philosophical lane, the kind that celebrates food and sees it as an extension of our feelings and emotions. Interesting that it required an engineer’s mind to direct those erratic, human feelings to create dishes that taste the same every time, consistently delicious. That is Chef Prin’s food. You know that the shrimp eggplant curry will make you cry, but you will remember with accuracy both the taste and the feeling from such herbs and spices; you will realize that the relish he serves with a rainbow array of seasonal and local vegetables will leave a lasting impression; and you will discover that the fresh krong krang dessert will bring you back to your childhood, in a Thailand that was so much more simple than the Thailand of today