Ho Chi Minh City was terrific so I had to wonder if a short trip to Bangkok would be similar, maybe a little spicier, or would it be different in a way that we didn’t get? Our last time here was just a couple of days so our view of the city was limited to one small neighbourhood. Our friend Aaron Foster, Niagara College grad and Exec Chef at Westin Singapore used to live here, working as restaurant chef in Centara Hotel – he gracefully offered to fly up for a day to show us around his Bangkok. Aaron’s wife Pai is from Thailand and he spent enough time here to both speak Tinglish and a decent amount of Thai. He is very much at home here, negotiating his way with ease through tiny corridor back lanes, through the public transit and around markets – and he can order from a menu like a champ.
We toured his old hotel restaurant, a place that I had heard about for year and seen pictures of but had built an impression that it was much smaller than the real thing. The Centara is a 1000 room hotel on top of an ultra modern mall packed with every brand name store you could imagine and then some. Red Sky is on the 55th Floor, open air with a high end menu and a view that is honestly breath taking. And big. The place is huge and I now know that this is where he cut his teeth in terms of learning to manage. Doing 200+ covers nightly is tough enough without the struggle of language and cultural barriers, I know of the many challenges he had in learning to deal with people without the shouting that many restaurant chefs seems to adhere to; he made mistakes, he dealt with that, learned and moved ahead. It was so great to see his old staff welcome him like a relative returning home and I noticed that it is polite to ask after family and health before any work talk.
Next stop was a local dive to meet up with Pop, a Thai chef who is living in Singapore working as Aaron’s sous chef at the Westin. I met Pop a few weeks back when we were in Singapore and I spent a couple of days in the kitchen with the whole team. We settled in to the open air joint with plastic furniture and no frills. This was the food, however, that chefs eat after work, snacking on spicy crunchy and beer into the wee hours – yes it was early evening but Anna and I knew right away that this was the right place. A simple broth with pork bones did not look like much but was so full flavoured from lemon grass, herbs and chilies that we were all digging in, delicious. What followed was a series of grilled pork with fiery hot dipping sauces, fried catfish with sweet vinaigrette, crisp duck heads, green papaya salads, ribs and frosty cold beer. We talked about food mostly, asking Pop & Aaron questions about ingredients and preparations, and compared Vietnamese to Thai food. A wonderful evening – we said goodnight to Pop and headed back to our neighbourhood, a wild corridor of flea market vendors, sex trade workers, food stalls, bars and all sorts of wildness. We went to bed early, no dirt, sorry.