Return to the Source
After more than a decade in New Zealand, Chef Lek is back in Thailand and cooking at Capella Bangkok.
CHEF LEK CHALLENGED STEREOTYPES OF THAI FOOD FOR MORE THAN A DECADE IN NEW ZEALAND. NOW, HE’S BACK IN HIS NATIVE LAND, AND READY TO UNVEIL A UNIQUE BRAND OF RUSTIC CUISINE AT CAPELLA BANGKOK
The late, great, Joël Robuchon was asked in a 2014 interview to describe the most challenging part of cooking.
“The truth is the simpler the food, the more exceptional it can be... and it’s the hardest thing to do in a kitchen,” the chef, hailed as the finest of his generation, responded. “It really asks for a mastery of the ingredients and a mastery of taste.”
Turn the clock back 25 years and trade the culinary ateliers of Paris for the paddy fields of Udon Thani in Thailand, and these same principles were being passed down to a budding teenage chef in his grandmother’s kitchen.
Wichian Trirattanavatin, affectionately known as Lek, grew up with a battalion of brothers and sisters in an idyllic rural setting and spent most days foraging for fresh ingredients as he helped his grandmother prepare meals, while his siblings played in the garden.
“Grandma would cook for about 15 of us every day, so she always had to change the menu to make sure we were never bored,” says Lek, who by his own admission was the only child in the family to take an interest in cooking. “She could always come up with something unique and really tasty - and it was all sourced locally.”
Lek carried this passion for fresh ingredients and simple, authentic food from rural Thailand to Bangkok, and then onto New Zealand. Hailing from four generations of chefs, it seems, he was destined to make his name in the kitchen. He began plying his trade alongside his father in Bangkok hotels before enrolling at the prestigious Royal Thai Cooking School. There, he learned to blend the authentic tastes of his childhood with complex, timeless techniques and before long left his homeland for an internship in New Zealand.
Lek initially aspired to excel in European fine dining, but after a few years in a small town near Tauranga where he held down two jobs, cooking during the day in a Thai restaurant and working in an Italian bistro by night, he made a decision that would reroute his future.
“After working in the Italian restaurant, every night I’d still go home and cook something with rice,” he explains. “It made me realise that my heart would always be with Thai cuisine.”
With this revelation came an opportunity to team up with established Kiwi restaurateurs Krishna Bodice, Tony McGeorge and Jason van Dorsten of Comensa in Auckland. However, his new bosses did not initially share Lek’s passion for authentic Thai cuisine. They worried that the food scene in New Zealand’s largest city was already saturated with Thai restaurants. Their heads were soon turned when savouring Lek’s rustic dishes. They even made a trip back to his hometown to experience first-hand what can be achieved with the perfect ingredients and a passion for cooking passed down through generations. On their return from Thailand, Saan Restaurant was born.
“In the early days, I was almost fired for making the food too spicy,” he jokes. “During an authentic five-course southern Thai-style degustation menu, one of the guests started choking and I thought that maybe they can’t take it. But I’d already come that far and wanted to push people to understand - and enjoy - real Thai food.”
Lek’s devotion to this mission, and a desire to be near his family, convinced him after two highly-
acclaimed years as head chef, to trade the 300-cover Saan for Capella Bangkok in the Chao Phraya Estate.
For the new riverside landmark, it seems he is the right chef in the right city, at the right time. Recent trends towards organic, free-range farm- to-mouth dining in the Thai capital and a new- found appetite amongst Bangkok’s bon vivants for the food of their forefathers has provided him with a readymade audience.
Whether it is sourcing fresh oysters from an old friend in Samui or making grandma’s fish sauce from scratch, Lek’s commitment to using only the best produce and eschewing all shortcuts is sure to make Capella’s restaurant one of the hottest tickets in town.
Given its enviable waterfront location, freshwater fish will feature prominently on Lek’s menu. In addition to the dishes he was raised on, which all of course will be served with his signature style in a casual atmosphere that evokes the intimacy and inclusivity of a meal shared with family. Indeed, for Lek, the bond between good food and family memories is inextricable.
“I used to cook for this one Thai general who came often with his family to our restaurant in Auckland,” he says. “One time he ordered beef cheek, whole fish and many more - a full table of authentic Thai dishes. I asked him if everything was alright and as he responded I noticed that he had tears his eye. I thought that maybe it was too hot for him! But he explained that the food reminded him of his mother who recently passed away.”
“And that’s the power of food. You can transport somebody back to a very specific moment or memory.”
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