Prior to moving to Berlin in 2016 to open Kin Dee, Bangkok-born and raised Dalad Kambhu spent a decade in New York. Although she knew early on that she wanted to be a chef, she was discouraged from pursuing it. “Every person I met in hospitality, they viewed me as just a model, because I used to work as one (while working in restaurants) and I was young, dressing up, running around the city wearing my ankle boots. So people just assume that you can’t do it. You’re not tough enough; you’re not going to be able to handle the heat, the hotness. So the doors were all closed, completely closed.”
A series of serendipitous encounters and events led to Dalad reconnecting with Rikrit Tiravanija, a contemporary artist. “Rikrit has amazing, great ideas and it was really fantastic to have him as a mentor and guide in my life. I remember telling him that I wanted to be a cook and he said, ‘You should do it! Why not? We decided we should have a restaurant together, something fun, something with interesting, amazing Thai food, because Thai food was so blasé at that time, so cheap and boring. There are a few really good ones but for the most part they are still imitations of what’s happening in Thailand.”
Dalad possesses a razor sharp intellect, focus, and drive that extend far beyond the kitchen and Kin Dee. She sources local and often organic ingredients while minimizing the imported ones, as she considers the environmental impact of her food. She does this by highlighting local ingredients by creating innovative and delicious dishes that incorporate seasonal ingredients like kohlrabi and rhubarb without compromising the Thai palate. “When you cook Thai food outside of Thailand you have to ask yourself too, ‘What is the reason and how and why do I use all these things?’ We try to import and use as least as possible -only when it is necessary- of the Thai stuff. Everything else we sort of look around and see what is possible.”
“I cook Thai food in a Thai spirit, as someone who has lived in New York and has experienced all that wonderful[ness], but it’s still in the Thai spirit. My food is more rounded because I’m from Bangkok. But at the end of the day, when Thai people come here, they’re going to like it.”
She also works to reform the food industry from the inside, from the top down. “I’m trying really hard to change things—including myself and how I handle things as well.” Coincidentally, her current kitchen staff is entirely female, and who cooks what is determined not by seniority but by skill. “In our kitchen, unlike every other kitchen, I put people on whatever they tend to do best on that section first. […] So far it’s been working and it’s been really pleasant. It didn’t work with another male chef because I think they are used to a different kind of kitchen and they need it, at least the ones that I have worked with. The majority need that; they need that kind of hard[ness], ‘The chef has to be better than me; and the chef has to press me down and I have to fight to go up.’ […] Fortunately that doesn’t make sense in my kitchen because it’s more of a flat structure. There’s no fixation that the chef only does this and everyone else does that.”
Still, Dalad is particular about preserving the Thai flavor in her food and for that reason she has a Thai woman on the hot station. “This is mostly Thai flavor, a hundred percent sautéing and stuff like that. You can go to Thailand a hundred times but I have not [found] one non-Thai person who can cook Thai food as well as a Thai person. Let’s say Thai food has five steps to get there. The closest I’ve had is level three. Yes, the customer might not know the difference, but I can [tell]. And as far as we call this a Thai restaurant, [regarding] the dignity and integrity of being a Thai chef, you can’t lose that flavor. If you want to call it Thai cuisine, or Thai food, then I don’t think you have any excuse to mess around with the flavor that my ancestors, my country, and my people have been developing for thousands of years. Next winter I will be in Thailand taking more classes in cooking to go even [deeper] into all the recipes and things that people don’t really eat anymore. I just want to have an understanding of why it is the way it is.”
“There’s a component, a certain component we looked into deeper to see how Thai food is actually made—like the core flavor or the paste of the curry. Not just the curry but the paste of the soup, the paste of the dish. A lot of Thai food started out with that because back then Thai food only had the mortar.”
Because Dalad creates beautifully plated and conceived dishes that don’t fit into the often narrow Western preconceptions of Thai food, she has encountered some pushback from guests. “People say ‘You shouldn’t be doing Thai food that’s so sophisticated.’ If Singaporean or [some kind of] African food, or anything wanted to be accepted in any kind of way, it should be allowed to. It’s sad to hear that, and it’s a prejudice. A prejudice against any form of cuisine is the same thing, it’s against that form of nation, because it’s all culture.”
It’s hard to believe that Kin Dee is Dalad’s first restaurant. A self-trained chef, Dalad is humble about her natural abilities and competence as a chef/owner and credits her many mentors in life, particularly the women in her family, with imbuing her with the knowledge and self-possession to be an entrepreneur in a very taxing and challenging industry. “I wanted to have a restaurant first in my early twenties and the more I [realized] how much I love food, the more I [wanted it]. I have an aunt in Paris who is a [truly] great chef, a quite famous one too, and somehow she inspired me. The [traditional] idea of being a chef is that you had to [start training] when you were 15 or 16. Because she could do it without going to school, I thought maybe it’s possible. She showed me how it works in the kitchen and let me know that when you have a restaurant, it’s not like cooking at home. You kind of engineer the kitchen with the food.”
She also acknowledges her paternal great-grandmother and grandmother, as well as her mother, as being significant role models. “My great-grandmother was the first female entrepreneur, one of the very first in Thailand at that time. She was so incredibly successful as a publisher publishing school books. It’s a shame she was my great-grandmother—by the time I was 19, she passed away. She was not able to speak anymore and I was still so young. Sometimes I look back and wish I thought like this 20 years ago. I wish I had time to talk with her and ask her lots of questions because she was working with her husband but we all know she was taking care of the business every day. She ran the whole thing, [and she was] the first entrepreneur millionaire in Thailand, at a time when women were supposed to be at home.
“My grandmother, my dad’s mom, also was a great worker. She’s not an entrepreneur but at one time she was running financial administration for the country. People say that if she were not a woman she would have been the number one. I want to say it is a coincidence in my family but I also think it’s in my genes. But also, it could be psychologically, you have someone like that that you look up to. To think all the great things we had in life in terms of luxury, in terms of the means to live, the house, the education, this all came from this woman. I would go to school and most of my school books came from my great-grandmother.”
Dalad keeps a level head despite the hard-earned and well-deserved success of Kin Dee. “We’ve always been self-sufficient, we’ve been self-sustained. Since we opened, we’ve never had to borrow money. Even when you have all this stuff, I have to remind myself that I’m in a very fortunate position. We all have passion but to realize your passion is different than to keep working. These are different things. For me, my career is more about being respected by people I have respect for.” For Dalad, this goes beyond receiving recognition for the food she creates. Her success is more broadly defined and honors her principals: celebrating her culinary heritage while considering the environmental impact, and working towards a more evolved and equal industry for all.