Last month, Australian chef David Thompson announced that he would be leaving Nahm, the acclaimed Bangkok restaurant he opened in 2010. But the restaurant, which appears on the World’s 50 Best list (currently No. 28) and earned a Michelin star in the first-ever Michelin guide to Bangkok, will continue to serve its take on Thai fine dining. And as Thompson leaves to “focus on his work exploring and protecting the history and legacy of Thai food,” Pim Techamuanvivit takes up the mantle at one of Thailand’s most high-profile restaurants.
Techamuanvivit is the chef at the essential Michelin-starred Kin Khao in San Francisco, where she serves recipes inspired by the food she grew up with in Thailand. At Nahm, she’ll usher in an exciting new chapter for the restaurant, which will be in the hands of a Thai chef for the first time. Techamuanvivit will also be the first female chef at Nahm, making her one of just a few women to head up a restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Techamuanvivit plans to split her time between Kin Khao in San Francisco and Nahm in Bangkok. “I’m a pretty easy traveler, so it is daunting — but at the same time it’s something that I want to do right now, so I’m going to make it happen,” she says. Eater caught up with the chef during dinner service a couple of weeks into her new job to talk transitions and the joys of cooking Thai food in Thailand.
How has the transition been going?
It’s really fun. It’s a little chaotic because transitions always are, as much as you try to manage: Things are moving fast and you’re just trying to have it be a controlled chaos. But I guess that’s the same at any restaurant, any night. Call it a Wednesday.
When did you know you’d be taking on this new, high-profile role?
I was approached last year, mid-year at some point. It took me quite a while to become comfortable and think I could handle it. I didn’t want to take on a project if I wasn’t sure. It’s such a great opportunity, and I really wanted to do it from the get go, but it took me a while to figure out how I can sort out my life and my schedule to make it work. If I’m going to put my name and my face on the door, it needs to be something that I’m confident that I can stand behind.
Had you been thinking about going back to Thailand?
I’ve been coming back more often than before. As we’re all getting older, our parents are getting older. Every time I see my parents I realize that they’re significantly slower than the last time I saw them. So it became a bigger motivation to spend more time at home. I’m really not going to regret spending more time in Bangkok before I no longer have parents to come home to.
What are your goals for Nahm?
People cook differently. I want the food to start to slowly reflect how I cook — my flavors ingredients I want to use. I want to have a great restaurant. I want to have a really, really nice place to eat. I want to be able to work with ingredients that I don’t have access to in San Francisco. Every recipe I have, I could cook with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back: When I come back to Bangkok, I have to start really sniffing everything.
From the base on, I start pounding curry paste to make sure that the flavor and the scent and the texture are what I want, because Thai ingredients are not like Western ingredients. A pound of butter is not a pound of butter. Coconut milk has different fat contents, protein coagulates differently from coconut at different ages. Coconut sugar or palm sugar doesn’t always taste the same. It’s not like a cup of white sugar. So everything needs adapting. It’s daunting, but it’s also really fun, because I feel like I’m starting with these ingredients from scratch again. I’m literally high-fiving my sous chefs in the kitchen when we get a dish and everyone’s like, “Yes! That’s the flavor I want.”
How has taking over from another chef differed from opening up your own restaurant?
When I opened Kin Khao, it was the first time I opened a restaurant. It was actually the first time I worked in a restaurant. I wouldn’t say it’s always been my dream to take over someone else’s restaurant, but the situation presented itself and it was enticing. It’s a great opportunity, and I took it and I’m going to make it mine.
What was your perception of Nahm prior to working there?
It’s a very impressive restaurant. It’s great that someone is serving Thai food in a fine-dining setting and not making it a French restaurant. It’s so tempting to have things come out one dish at a time and pair wine and do all these things that are expected of a fine-dining restaurant, but [in a place where] you eat the way Thai people eat. Maybe too many things come to the table at once, which is one of the problems we’re looking at. I’m not going to turn it into a French Laundry, serving everything course by course. But we’re playing with a few different service models that are still Thai, but again, perhaps afford the diners an opportunity to appreciate a few dishes at a time.
The new role makes you one of just a few women to head a World’s 50 Best restaurant. Was that at all something you thought about before taking on the job?
I try not to think about that because that accolade is Nahm’s, it’s not mine really. My goal is to just have a restaurant be an expression of my food — of my Thai food. I’m not going to start saying, “Oh I have a restaurant in the [World’s 50 Best].” I am responsible for a restaurant on that list, but until it’s actually mine, it’s not really something that I’m going to open a bottle of champagne over. It really is quite a legacy to take over something that has such a great reputation and such a legacy, not just in Bangkok but in the world.
Do you feel any pressure to maintain that legacy?
Cooking anything is a pressure, right? At Kin Khao in San Francisco we have a Michelin star. Even though I didn’t open Kin Khao thinking, “Oh I want a Michelin star,” we got a Michelin star and now every year we’re like, “Oh, I kind of want [the Michelin star].” Now that I have it I don’t want to lose it. So it’s a pressure every day. Cooking is a pressure every day. If people sit down around a table and they’re trying and judging your food, there’s a pressure to make sure they have a good experience and that the food is the way you want to present it. So, it’s all pressure. I happen to like it.
How has the reception been?
I come out and say hi to tables who wanted to say hi to me. I don’t go out and say hi to tables who may just want to have a nice evening between the two of them. But everyone has been so gracious. It’s been lovely.
Change is a little unsettling. Change is hard. But I’m very happy to be cooking here. I’m a kid in a candy store again. It’s not that I was bored cooking in San Francisco, but it’s really so much fun to be cooking with ingredients that I can get my hands on that I can’t there.
• Kin Khao’s Pim Techamuanvivit Named Chef of Acclaimed Bangkok Restaurant [ESF]