Thai It All Together: Learning what I thought I already knew.

It was my first morning waking up in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had arrived the previous morning by an overnight train from Bangkok, where I had spent the first couple days of my trip to explore and acclimate. Although I had time, I wanted to waste none, therefore jumping into one of the activities I had my heart set on for this trip. I wanted to experience Thai food. Eating it, learning it, and most importantly making it. I had heard about cooking classes in this region, and luckily there was one located nearby the guesthouse I had chosen to stay. In making arrangements the prior afternoon, I had been given two options: a half day course there in the city, or a full day that would take me into the country, cooking farm-side. There was no question that I wanted to experience all that I could, therefore choosing the latter.

With a relatively early start, I grabbed a coffee Americano, and made my way to the culinary school located in town. There, I met our instructor, Palm. He spoke good English, with a great sense of humor, and had been raised nearby. A few other students had arrived visiting from France, and after a few more as well, I was the only one not speaking French. We left for the morning market, picking up more students on the way. A few English-speaking Canadians & Europeans evened out the bunch. Arriving at the market, Palm gave us a few minutes to spend some baht (currency of Thailand) on some of the many distracting food stalls that were already open for business. Here, a meal is a meal. Most everything you can find at night, is also out early day. Gnawing on our skewers of grilled meats, Palm began schooling us on many of the herbs & produce we would be seeing throughout the day. Tasting, smelling, touching these things (some recognizable, many not) was the beginning of an experience I could, before, only imagine. A late night and a rough stomach took one student out immediately, but for the most part, we were all in it for the long haul. We toured the market, asked questions, sampled ingredients, then it was time to move on. Our train awaited, and so we made our way to the station by pick-up truck. Piled in, we continued meeting one another and realizing the good fortune of having such a fun, energetic group. We boarded our train, meeting many locals, and even sitting in a car with a bunch of children on their way to school. The kids were as entertained by us as we were by them. Once we arrived to our destination station, nearly 17 km out-of-town, they continued with their farewells long after we walked out of earshot.

We strolled for a while, before arriving at a large barn. Not knowing if this was our final stop, we walked in curiously to find that this place was loaded with bicycles. We followed instructions to find a bike, and meet out front. From there, we happily cruised through the countryside. Feeling like kids, ringing the bells, and waiving to the locals furthering their curiosity of who the heck we were, Palm pointed out some of the larger homes, and how much they costed. Once conversions were done, realizing two million THB was roughly $60,000 USD, these borderline mansions were even more desirable. The look on his poor face when he converted the amounts I informed him houses sold for here in California. Things were so simple here. Here, there was just something special.

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We had arrived at our location for the day. A beautiful farm connected to an elevated house, hovering over numerous cooking stations. We gathered and made our way to the garden. Wasting no time, we had determined what each of us would be making, and listed the ingredients we would need to harvest. As a group, we wandered the land receiving descriptions and uses for each of the items we’d pass. I volunteered to dig for our ginger, taking what was needed & re-covering the root with dirt so that it would continue to grow. Then making my way over to pick green papayas, trim Thai basil, and pull up some cilantro, keeping the roots intact for the source of true coriander flavor. I learned the traditional way to cut papayas for Som Tum (papaya salad). Adding it into the mortar & pestles that are used for so many Thai staples. A great batch of Tom Kha Gai (coconut & chicken soup), red curry paste made from scratch then added to our curry dish, along with traditional Pad Thai (stir fried rice noodles) rounded out the rest of the day before we savagely picked apart some fried bananas & mango sticky rice. Palm’s questioning of my desire for spice led to some intense capsicum filled bites, making the temperature and humidity outside seem a bit more even. To this day, I think my tolerance for spice has remained borderline entertaining. All in all, it was one of the most memorable days in both my culinary & travel experiences. We finished up our feast and reversed our tracks making our way back into Chiang Mai. Mixing the heat, the long day, and a desire for relaxation, we all parted ways to our guesthouses. But, rest was short-lived.. I mean, it was almost time to start the next hunt for the next snack. It’s Thailand.. One never really stops snacking. And there are enough street food vendors to make sure of this.

Eventually, I would cross paths with friends from the States, and we would venture up to a small town called Pai, three hours and 762 curves away. Which, with its street market and fresh selection of food, was so memorable on its own. But, remembering Chiang Mai, and learning the authenticity of Thai cooking among the natives, is something this chef will never forget.

The Re-Fire.

Over a decade ago, I found myself working in some pretty decent fields for a number of reputable employers. And although I seemed to thrive in whatever environment I was in, I knew the sole purpose of showing up every day was to earn that check. Now, to almost all of us at some point, this is a no brainer. I mean, who doesn’t need to make a living?

It wasn’t until I had to genuinely ask myself what I believed it was that I wanted to do with my life. I had gone to a JC when I was younger, with no aspiration. I had worked jobs that had paid bills, but slowly nipped at my soul. So what was it? What was out there that could reward me, both financially and mentally? My previous jobs had consisted of sales, which was fine considering I deal with people relatively well. And I had worked years in accounting since numbers always came easy to me. But, neither field sat right down deep.

As I became more independent from family, self-sufficiency led me to have to fend for myself. This obviously included cooking. I knew nothing. Re-heating? Yes. Simple recipes? I could manage. Beyond that? You may as well ask me to speak a foreign language. Strangely enough, there was still some curiosity I had; some desire to learn. I knew I had a chef in the family, but what did it take for him to start in that direction? I had called my uncle, a well-known chef in Maui, HI, to find out what led him to develop a career out of what many people do to merely survive. I explained to him that my trips to the store for pantry staples were becoming mystery baskets of who knows what, and it somehow intrigued me. After some further research, consideration, and effort, I looked into culinary school and went to visit. There, they informed me of the toll this career takes, and that it’s recommended that we discuss with our family and friends their feelings on this, as this life can take away nights, weekends, and holidays as we know them. Willing to make this sacrifice, I moved forward, enrolled, attended (with perfect attendance, I might add..), and graduated with an Associates Degree of Occupational Studies of Le Cordon Bleu. This was a larger task than you may think, as I had never possessed very good study habits prior to.

Upon exiting the educational portion of my new career path, student or not, it was time to pay dues, start at the bottom. Again, all sacrifices I was willing to make. I proceeded to spend a number of years in both restaurants and catering, eventually cooking for tens of thousands of guests, clients, and customers. Being able to take part in restaurant openings, cater events in amazing places, these were all experiences affirming I was on the right path. Eventually, I had gained access to the world of tour catering. Here I would be able to put all skills to the test. This was big time. I began cooking for musicians and artists, traveling the country, riding tour busses, and catering to their needs on the road. All these different opportunities were astonishing. The experiences I was having, the recognition I was receiving, it was all a surreal experience.

Eventually, life was life, and plans changed as they always did. My short attention span, my uncertainty of direction, and constant questioning of the next step came into play. I would soon find myself switching gears to re-enter the world of restaurants. It was time to become a bit more grounded. Get back to living a somewhat “normal” existence, as if I ever knew what that meant. After a gig as Sous Chef of a successful restaurant in Marin County, again success called, and it was time… A chef’s dream. It was time to open my 1st restaurant.

I had been through this process before. From the ground up. But not “mine”, as a partner, financially obligated and soon to be, hopefully, rewarded as well. Latching onto this opportunity, my direction was again set, and the process began. This time around I was going to see what it took behind the scenes to get this thing going. We had decided on a name, had the location, and the dynamics & demographic were calculated. Over the course of the next five months, I sat with my partners through licensing, meetings, contractors, designers, and all of the other aspects of opening a restaurant.

In March of 2013, the time had come. We were successful in our task. The doors to our new lives had opened.

Greeted with open arms from the city of Santa Rosa, CA, everything was right where it needed to be. Or so I thought..

You see, there were underlying personal circumstances that were hindering me throughout. Going back way earlier than I was willing to admit. Normalcy of my behavior, the way I handled life had never been too much a nuisance, at least not to me. For a kid that grew up, blaming a great amount of self-destructive behaviors on “just being young”, similar traits in my later years were not so easy to dismiss.

To this point, I had lived my life with certain theories. Some of these involved the perception I shot for. Convincing the world I was ok, and as long as it looked that way, all was good. I was successful! I mean, who does what I did if they have a problem?

It wasn’t but 2 weeks after the opening that I had broken yet another promise to myself. Another word that I would change for the better, health wise, once things calmed down. What had happened along the way was a change in my motives. The inspired chef who had dedicated his life to mystery baskets, menu writing, pleasing people’s palates, had altered his priorities. I was now surrounding myself in a career that embraced the way I liked to live. I could eat, drink, drink (not a typo), and be merry. Although it was a different story in the morning. It had become more about me. What I was getting out of it. Going from working a dead-end job just to pay bills, to finding a love for a career, had circled right back to doing it for the money and the lifestyle. Being a creative culinary mind ran a distant 2nd. I had deteriorated mentally & physically. It wasn’t until the man in the lab coat spoke to me as I lie in bed that my body was not well. I wasn’t yet to the point of being unable to heal, but that’s where I was headed. It brought all of the initial exterior problems into perspective.

Luckily for me, this last broken promise would be the game changer. There would be no more living life in a way that would cost me what I had worked so hard for. I was going to get back on track, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

After some discussion with my partners, it was clear that certain things needed to happen for me to focus on these changes. Although I loved what we had built so much, it was best I stepped away. The restaurant was going to be a success, and I wanted to in no way jeopardize that. I separated from the restaurant, and put all of my energy & focus into getting me back, mind & body.

Throughout this process, it became clear that the field I was in is very enabling for someone of my personality. So, I had two options as I saw it:  change my career, or do what I need to do to get my priorities back. And thank God I was able to do just that. By following a few simple suggestions.

I found my legs again. I found my drive, my desire, my passion for my culinary life. I have remembered what it was that led me to the kitchen in the 1st place. I have adjusted and my motives are now realigned. I deal & react to life differently, and have a purpose.

To this day, I hold my chef’s knife again, embrace my creative side, and try my best on a daily basis to stay out of my own way.

Recalling working on the hot line in the restaurant world, the last thing you want is a returned dish. Hearing the chef or expeditor call for a “re-fire!” at first sound is a frustration; a feeling of failure. When, if you can put that aside, redo it with an even brighter outlook, it can be even more amazing than the first attempt. Sometimes, the experience of not doing it right is transformed into doing it better than you ever thought you could.

I see where I am in my journey today, and realize everything happens the way it’s supposed to. That said, I’d be naive to not realize what I am experiencing. It’s simply a re-fire of my career, and my life.