Pim Techamuanvivit grew up in Bangkok and has long been an internationally renowned tastemaker, with stints as food blogger, author, and jam maker. Her greatest achievement to date, however, may be as a Michelin-starred restaurateur in San Francisco. Her restaurant Kin Khao, which opened in 2014, literally translates to “eat rice” but colloquially means: “let’s eat.”
What prepared you most for being a restaurateur?
Everything prepared me! I’m not self-taught, I learned from everybody and stole from everybody. Cooking Thai food is just cooking. What gave me the confidence was jam making. I was cooking for friends and family and they loved it. And then when I made jam, it was so well received. So I thought, maybe I can try this? It gave me the confidence to go professional. I’m a much better Thai cook than I am a jam maker. Also, I really feel like I have something to contribute to the conversation. It’s not just me; I’m a link in a very long chain. I don’t want the flavors I grew up on to disappear.
When I decided to get serious about it, I sat down and started a list of things I didn’t know—that was probably the smartest thing. There were things I knew nothing about, like running a professional kitchen, then I just worked my way through it. So it became like my road map.
It’s easy to look at a restaurant and think it’s so easy. People think it’s like having a dinner party every day, when really it’s about putting trash bags into cans into everyday.
What dishes are you most proud of on your menu?
It changes, but right now all of the curries, because it’s so hard to get them right. I remember before we opened I talked to distributors and told them I was making my curry pastes from scratch. They were shocked, because it’s difficult and hard to get consistent. Thai ingredients are not standardized, such as chiles and lemongrass. If you ask my kitchen they will say the curry station is the beast. Everything we do is something we want to get right.
You sometimes post photos of dishes you’re working on. What’s your process for developing recipes for the restaurant?
It starts when I’m bored with a dish, and then there are seasonal changes. The way that we’re structured and how busy we are, we can’t throw new things into the menu all the time. Sometimes when I’m bored with an ingredient or brainstorm, reaching back to my childhood. What haven’t I made in a while? What can I use to make something Thai? I talk to our chef about ingredients and ways things are made traditionally and how it can be adapted for a restaurant.
If I really want to make a dish or I haven’t made it but I really miss it, I reverse engineer it. The serious discussion is: can we do this? Can I source the ingredients? Can we make it and can we sell it? It’s a lot more than just, I make it and think it’s delicious.
How much do you have to adapt recipes to local, high-quality ingredients?
Sometimes I adapt because I want to do something different. For example, I do nam pok beans. It’s traditionally an Issan Northeast dish with protein with a dressing, but I already had a lot of meat dishes and wanted something vegan but “meaty” so I thought of Rancho Gordo beans. We take his beans and cook them and then toss them in the same dressing. You tell a Thai person that and they might be confused, but when they see it they get it.
So the intention and flavor of the dish are the same. We don’t really cook with rabbit in Thailand, but lean chickens or gamier meats. So rabbit would remind you of a farm chicken—it’s more muscular and we had a good producer up in Marshall. So it’s made how how it would be traditionally made, but we use a different meat.The dish is driven by the ingredient. Since we are already using parts of the rabbit, it was a good way to use the other little bits of meat.
Why do you think so many Thai restaurants follow a formula of serving the same dishes?
A lot of Thai restaurants are not opened by people with culinary training in the cuisine; they are immigrants who want to open businesses. They are constrained by what they think people want. They think the “American taste” is going to keep them in business.
Another constraint is what people value in ethnic cuisine: people think ethnic food has to be cheap, so they are constrained by that. You can’t do things from scratch, you can’t buy good ingredients if you are trying to be cheap. But you see it changing, with some restaurants using good ingredients and better techniques. We are breaking the mold. I wanted to see if I could make it economically viable.
Was finding the food you want to eat the motivation behind the restaurant?
Yes! You know, a lot of chefs, they are motivated with wanting to feed people. I like cooking for friends, but it’s more about wanting to feed me! I’m from Bangkok so I was exposed to food from everywhere. The menu is not really all Eastern, or Southern Thai. I don’t understand why people aren’t making the food I want to eat.
Where do you see the restaurant going in the future?
We will keep cooking delicious food, keep making people happy and employees happy. We have other projects we are thinking about. We’re staying in San Francisco. I love being here! Even with it changing there’s still so much I love about it. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked but it’s also so much fun. It made me happy to see that’s it a good place to work. People don’t leave, and a lot of people have come back. Brandon [Jew] from Mister Jiu, Shannon [Waters] at Aatxe, and Rupert [Blease] at Lord Stanley have helped out. It’s how we’ve kept ourselves staffed. It’s a nice community.
How do you train your chefs?
I find it easier to work with people without any preconceptions of Thai food. I’m a little bit opinionated about my food so I don’t have to break down bad habits. We cook together and talk about the final goal and the intention. Each particular curry has its own profile; for example, green is spicy and salty but not very sweet or sour. It’s not just how you cook, but what the intention of the dish is and how it should be balanced. It can’t just be delicious.
I’ve been lucky to find people who are really well trained in cooking. If they know how to cook, it’s not that hard to teach them how to cook Thai food.
What frustrates you most about being a restaurateur?
Having people think of it as not valued. Why is my rabbit curry $32? It is because it’s almost an entire rabbit in a bowl. Where else can you get that? At Saison, maybe. It feeds several people. There’s a lot of work going into it. The quality compares to any of the best restaurants. It’s disheartening.
There are 29 ingredients in the Massaman curry paste—made from scratch. That’s the part that I struggle with. At the same time I am sticking to my guns. This is how I’m going to do it. Our average check average is $40 or so per person. Drinks and food! Because we’re Thai, people don’t value it. I have to make peace with that.
Where do you like to eat on your days off?
Piccino, I go to Rintaro, but also Yoshi Zumi sushi down in San Mateo. Nopa for late-night burgers and cocktails. Those are my current haunts.