Toronto's female Thai chefs serve up a new paradigm
In a male-dominated sector, restaurateurs find their voice making food from their homeland
Peer into the open kitchen of Pai restaurant in Toronto and you're sure to notice a lot of women working at the stoves. They're tossing ingredients in flaming hot woks, deftly rolling thin sheets of rice paper around savoury filling for spring rolls, chopping mountains of lemongrass, garlic and cilantro and stirring coconut milk into broth for Khao Soi. It's a stark contrast to the male-dominated culture behind the swinging kitchen doors in most North American restaurants. But chef Nuit Regular's mostly female team is not an exception; it's the norm in Thai restaurants.
"Many guests ask me about it," she says, "Traditionally women take care of the family in Thailand, and most women know how to cook." The transition from home to restaurant kitchen is natural for a cook with passion and talent. And with women on this side of the Pacific facing formidable barriers in professional kitchens, and home cooking considered less important, it's refreshing to see spaces where women's skills at the stove are esteemed.
This custom is especially alive in Toronto, where waves of immigrants are selling and serving their cultural dishes as a way to subsist and thrive. "We believe our success owes much to the positive and open minds of Torontonians," says chef Patchmon Su-Anchalee of Patchmon's Thai Desserts, "We often see families coming in together to try Thai desserts, which warms our hearts because that's how traditions and knowledge are passed on."
In the pocketbook-sized space in Bloor-West Village, her kitchen is similar to Ms. Regular's. While she creates exquisite jewel-like Thai sweets, her friend, chef Chanpen Thangton, makes the daily savoury take-out specials. Ms. Su-Anchalee says the tradition goes back to working-class women in Thailand, where cooking serves a dual purpose. "It's a way to feed the family and when it's sold in markets or on the street, it adds to the household income."
Cooking in markets, at street stalls and in restaurants is one of the ways women participate in the work force in Thailand. Entrepreneurship is a valued career choice according to a 2017 report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. The number of business owners is also relatively equal across all age ranges, and ownership of established businesses is high for Thai women.
This year, street-food culture in Thailand received a considerable nod from the international community when Jay Fai, a 72-year old cook from Bangkok, famous for her crab omelettes, was awarded a Michelin star. Locals know her as Auntie Fai. The matrilineal line running through Thai cuisine can be heard in the language of the kitchen. Senior female cooks are often called "Mum" by their staff. "The familial term is a sign of respect," Ms. Su-Anchalee says.
And for many women in Thailand, learning to cook starts young. Ms. Regular was born in a small town in northern Thailand, near the Myanmar and Laos borders. She was the only daughter in a family of four, and it fell to her to help in the kitchen. When her mother went out to work in the fields, Ms. Regular made the family meals on her own. "In the beginning, I didn't love it because it was a responsibility," says Ms. Regular, "While other kids were playing I was in the kitchen."
But even after she became a nurse in Thailand, Ms. Regular would still sell food from a small stall after her hospital shifts. That's how she met her future husband, Torontonian Jeff Regular. Love eventually brought them to this city where her father-in-law, recognizing Regular's culinary talent, encouraged them to open a restaurant in a building he owned in Regent Park.
For Chanpen Thangton, it was the same story in eastern Thailand. While her father worked the farm growing rambutan and durian, she helped her grandmother and mother by cooking rice and cutting up ingredients for the meals. But she perfected her culinary skills much later when she went to Bangkok to study accounting. "I lived with an auntie, and she was a good cook," Ms. Thangton says, "She taught me everything."
Pim Techamuanvivit is another chef who didn't set out on a career in cooking. The owner of Michelin-starred Kin Khao restaurant in San Francisco has made a name for herself in food media as a respected authority on Thai cooking. Her restaurant is on every Bay Area "must-eat" list and has been lauded in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living and GQ, but she didn't even learn how to cook until she was living in the United States after completing a master's degree in cognitive science. "It became clear if I wanted to eat a lot of the dishes I missed from home, I would have to learn how to make them," she says. Ms. Su-Anchalee echoes that sentiment. "I wanted to make authentic Thai sweets, even the containers holding the desserts I try to make it just as it would be served in Thailand," she says, "Eating them reminds me of home."
So Ms. Techamuanvivit began a period of expensive, long-distance calls home to Bangkok to talk with the family cook. One of the first hurdles was trying to get the details right. "Thai cooks are not great at articulating recipes," she says, "They don't work by writing things down." Ms. Techamuanvivit would go home each summer with a list of dishes she wanted to learn how to make from her grandmother, an aunt, or a family friend.
Meanwhile, fetching ingredients such as banana leaves, coconut and fragrant pandan leaves out of her aunt's big garden in Bangkok was as close as Ms. Su-Anchalee got to the kitchen growing up. As a young woman, she studied linguistics at university and went on to travel the globe as a stewardess with United Airlines. She was determined to settle in North America, and in 2003 arrived in Toronto with her husband and daughter. Her first few jobs were in bakeries, where she learned how to make Western bread and pastries. It was her husband Romyen Tangsubutra's sweet tooth that inspired her to try her hand at Thai sweets. "He grew up near the canal in Bangkok and as a child bought Thai sweets and ice cream at the floating markets," she says, "He pushed me to do this."
As with Ms. Techamuanvivit, she had to call home and quiz her mother. Then she'd compare family recipes with those she found on the internet. Creating authentic Thai flavours and presentation was her goal. Equipment such as the moulds she uses to shape glistening little flowers from Kha-Nhom Chun, or Thai Coconut Layer Cake, was purchased on annual trips home. She tested her sweets out on members of the Thai Society of Ontario and the Yanviriya Buddhist Temple in Richmond Hill. "I got lots of comments and feedback, and people were asking me to make desserts to sell to them," she says, "That's how I got started."
While these women were finding success and a hungry audience in North America, some family back home were less than thrilled with their career choice. Ms. Regular's stepfather was distraught she wasn't practising in her field of nursing in Toronto and insisted that cooking was not a real job. While she and husband Jeff were working hard to establish their first restaurant, Sukhothai, she continued to study nursing to prove to her stepfather she could do it. But the restaurant was proving more compelling. "When the guests would come back to the kitchen and tell me how much they loved the food it made me happy, it was the best feeling," she says. And there was no way Ms. Regular's stepfather could foresee the kind of success that awaited her. Ten years and seven restaurants later, she's is a highly respected chef in the Toronto food scene. And local food lovers continue to flock to her restaurants, such as the recently opened Kiin, where she serves exquisite dishes and presents them in the manner of Royal Thai Cooking.
Internationally, a few non-Thai men have established their authority in Thai cooking, including American chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame and Australian chef David Thompson whose restaurant Nahm in Bangkok is ranked No. 28 on The World's 50 Best Restaurant's list. It's a non-issue for Ms. Techamuanvivit, who says, "They both have spent a lot of time living and working in Thailand, and for the media, they can explain and translate in a way Thai cooks may not be able to."
There's no sense any of these women are worried men are going to squeeze them out of their kitchens. Ms. Regular's son, Tanatai, is following in his mother's footsteps, albeit by studying at cooking school. Most of the women working in her kitchens are Thai or Filipino, and she doesn't need them to have restaurant experience, just a passion for food. "You don't need to be a student who goes to chef school," she says, "As long as you love to cook I can show you what I'm doing here."