A letter can go a long way, Thomas Keller.
It can travel 8,000 miles, from California to Bangkok, and into the hands of a young culinary student named Montep Kamolslip. It can ignite a passion for food. It can even result in a little company selling remarkable ice cream. I'll explain.
Last week I was introduced to Montep, a 21-year-old student and entrepreneur who goes by Tep. I'm looking for young people like him as I begin assembling a produce-driven restaurant business here. When I met Tep in one of the few family-style restaurants left in Bangkok's glitzy Thong Lor neighborhood, he instantly began to talk in earnest about food. Twenty minutes passed—as Tep struggled to shape uncertain English to describe his very particular passion—before I had a moment to order a drink.
"I think Thailand is losing some of its important traditions," he said. "Cooking is changing, farming is changing, food is processed." In between attending culinary school, working internships at hotels, and starting an ice cream company called les-bou-les, Tep, with a few like-minded young people, is attempting to create a Slow Food-inspired accreditation system for food in Thailand.
"I believe that you need to cherish quality, and that begins with good ingredients, and respect for tradition," he said, with what I now know is a nervous sort of urgency. "The question is, how do we get people here to recognize that classic Thai food is dying? How do we make slow cooking fashionable for young Thais?"
(Central Thai cooking, the kind Tep was raised on, is certainly slow. Proper meals take many hours to prepare. But much of this cooking is being supplanted by quick Chinese-style stir-frys, corner-cutting food products like pre-made curry pastes, and MSG-infested stock and soup mixes. CP Foods, a Thai company, is now one of the largest processed food companies in Asia.)
Tep's transition to food advocate began a few years ago when he decided to attend culinary school, an unusual career choice for a research physician's son. After getting his hands on a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, Tep decided to send Thomas Keller a letter, asking him how to become a better chef. And Tep's determination was cemented with the response he received from Keller, which enclosed a menu served at the French Laundry on his birthday and a handwritten note. That letter made Tep sharper, more determined.
And that led to an internship in France, where he found himself at the controls of a Pacojet, making sorbet. "Thomas Keller made me realize how important it is to seek out perfection in what you do. And when I studied in France, I realized that I had never tasted sorbet like that before. And right then and there I thought I would take what the great chef"—Keller—"wrote to me, and apply it to making sorbet and ice cream."