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."
Tep's quest for ice cream perfection then led him to a man outside Bangkok who has made industrial ice cream machines of his own design for two decades. Initially, the man threw him out of his workshop, mistaking Tep for one of Bangkok's many young, frivolous aristocrats. But when Tep returned and explained his mission—to use organic milk, tropical fruits, palm sugar, and coconut cream to make Thailand's best ice cream—the man took him in. An hour outside of Bangkok they reduced milk, separated cream, mashed fruit, and made desserts for 12 hours a day for a month.
Today, Tep's desserts are sold only in one Japanese ramen restaurant, on Sukhamvit Soi 24, in an apartment complex called Hope Land. Yesterday evening, I met him there for noodles (which were the best ramen I've yet to eat in Bangkok). Afterwards, I ate more of his ice cream.
His chocolate has a quick bitterness that trails off into semisweet, eye-rolling richness—like a ganache in frozen form. Coconut flavor is made from the "head" (first pressing) of coconut cream and organic palm sugar, and is a frozen expression of why I love eating in this country. But Tep's best is a duo of sharp ginger ice cream aside a mellower, nutty flavor made from the paste of Japanese black sesame seeds. It's an icy doppelganger of Bangkok Chinatown's bracingly sweet soup of sesame dumplings in ginger broth. It is a minor work of genius in its clean precision.
"God gave Thai people one of the best places in the world to grow food—and it hurts me that people don't care, and don't make the most of it," he said, as we ate. "We need to wake up."
You might wonder why I've written all this about a kid making ice cream, when I'm trying to open a bar that sells Thai street food. For one, I'm going to sell Tep's ice cream.
But more importantly, it's because in Tep I see the devotion in a younger generation of Thai cooks that I'm searching for—the sort of entrepreneurial spirit and drive and dedication that, with the right direction, could make a new generation of Thai restaurants great.
It's that same spirit I admire in the army of aging cooks here—the ones that perfected Bangkok cooking in the sweaty shophouse restaurants of the old town. But with a greater awareness of what they've got to work with, and what might be lost if they don't step up and do something.
For more information regarding les-bou-les ice cream, send Tep an email at email@example.com.