When Qi Esarn Thai Kitchen reopened in September, they tapped two chefs to spearhead the menu: Pichet Ong and Claire Handleman. Unusual? Maybe. Isn’t there some expression about too many cooks in the kitchen?
But, this time it really works.
Both are adventurers and lovers of food, but their take on the food of Thailand differs.
Just to show how globalized the world has become; it’s the dishes from Handleman, who hails from southern California, that are more faithfully regional.
She loves the food of Esarn, the northeastern region of Thailand. “It’s the land of a million som tams (green papaya salads). The food is spicy, like the kind of spicy that makes your lips look like you’ve just had injections. Your eyes will mostly likely tear up and you’ll probably have a mustachio of perspiration by the end of an Isaan meal. It’s really quite exhilarating!” she wrote on her blog last May, while traveling and getting local street vendors to show her their cooking methods.
Her affinity with Asia runs so deep she often says she’s half-Asian—and gets knowing nods when she says it.
Ong, best known for his pastry work, was born in Bangkok. A self-described blend of Chinese, Thai, and American, he grew up eating and cooking Cantonese flavors at home, but his culinary path started through classical French cuisine. It was later, when working at Jean-Georges, that he went back to Asian flavors.
“I’ve been going to Thailand, I’m Thai, … it’s native to me,” Ong said. “To [Claire] it’s a new vision. Everything is an eye-opening experience. She sees things I don’t see. … She’s really exploring Thailand in a way that most locals don’t.”
Her dishes stay authentically true to regional tendencies. Her dishes are more acid, drier, the spices are more pronounced.
As for Ong, he’s got his finger on the pulse of Thai trends, from his base in Bangkok, where culinary influences meet and meld. When he was there last, Ong made urban forays into restaurants frequented by gangsters (so he says), where the kitchens (and only the kitchens) sit outside in an alleyway. He also ventured to floating villages in the countryside, which harbor culinary specialties of their own.
Ong, who lived in Bangkok in his youth, brings more of a central Thai approach: more variety in the dishes, less dry—more dressing, more sauce.
Sweet and Savory
When we sat down for lunch with Ong at Qi Esarn Thai, it became clear how appropriate it was that Ong, a seasoned pastry chef, was tapped to create a Thai menu. It’s appropriate for Thai cooking, where sweet flavors and sweets both play a significant role.
Sweets just as the end to the meal? Forget that. In Thailand they are something you have throughout the day.
“First bite, last bite,” said Ong. “When you get up in the morning, you have a bit of pastry, and when you go to bed, there’s like a little candy almost like a macaron-type of concept, like a cookie.”
His working style has always been more of a savory chef’s approach.
“Pastry is a very kind of cathartic procedure: step one, step two, step three—a very linear sort of process—whereas savory cooking is a little bit all over the place … with a lot of last-minute, spontaneous additions or changes.”
Working with his hands comes naturally to Ong, who before embarking on a culinary career was a practicing architect. But it was around the time that the profession was becoming more reliant on computers. “Something about designing with a computer is a little cold for me,” he said. “So I went back to cooking because I like working with my hands.”
His pastry training was really self-taught; he was at San Francisco’s La Folie when the pastry chef position opened up. “At that time I was juggling trying to learn everything from the chef cooking out of cookbooks, which ranged from Lenôtre to Julia Child and Fanny Farmer,” learning basics from custard to chiffon cake.
After opening a number of well-loved (and now closed) restaurants and bakeries (Batch, P*ONG), Ong has been focusing on consulting, both in town and worldwide.
Ong’s interests diverge and converge. His self-description on Twitter reads “food pimp, author, indie, baker, butcher, spelling bee, mama’s boy, wanderlust, uncle, original hipster, hunter, mr fix it, country songster, occasional tv star.”
He loves mash-ups, in food as in life. “Like music and fashion, or architecture and art. It’s a great starting point to create something … a mash-up between appetizer and dessert, a chocolate chip soufflé; or mashing up two popular concepts like the cronut.”
Hearing him talk about his love for casinos and mountains, the bustle of cities and far-flung natural wonders, rock climbing and yoga, you think, this man will never be bored with life.
These days, Ong is making a priority of taking care of his family. His parents are now in their 80s, and he wants to spent more time with them, as well as his nephews and nieces.
Part of being a chef, earlier in his career, meant sacrificing that family time.
“I missed my siblings’ weddings, I missed every family gathering. It was something I knew beforehand, a sacrifice I had to make as a chef and definitely as a restaurant owner.”
Still, after having been in restaurants for so long, he says he sometimes feels like he’s missing a home.
Next he plans to focus on desserts, though no solid plans are in place yet. “I feel the dessert scene is in limbo, in transition. It used to be that people liked things that are simply delicious. It’s not that way anymore. The concept of branding and celebriti-dom in desserts has really come in the way. … People like famous cupcakes or donuts or macarons. … Those kinds of places are completely dominating the market right now,” he said.
“Actually it’s interesting, the concept of celebrity. … I never sought it. To me it was always about good food,” he said.
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Qi Esarn Thai Kitchen
31 W. 14th St. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues)
Lunch: Daily 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday–Thursday 3:30 p.m.–11 p.m.
Friday–Saturday 3:30 p.m.–11:30 p.m.