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Thai chef lives the American Dream

PHUKET: What started as a promise to an American girl during a teenage romance, led to Tommy Tang becoming one of the most well known Thai chefs in the United States.

By Claire Connell

Saturday 7 April 2012, 02:22PM

American Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Michael Honnold, Tommy Tang, and Mr  Honnold’s wife Orasri, seen here at the round table discussion held at Kan Eang@Pier.

American Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Michael Honnold, Tommy Tang, and Mr Honnold’s wife Orasri, seen here at the round table discussion held at Kan Eang@Pier.

Based in Los Angeles, celebrity chef, television host and author Khun Tommy is known for his two cooking shows on the PBS network (‘Let’s Get Cooking’ and ‘Easy Thai Cooking’), plus his chain of Tommy Tang restaurants, which have made fans out of the likes of Tom Cruise, Cher and Madonna.

Khun Tommy was in Phuket last week as part of a cultural trip organised by the US Embassy, to promote Thai/American fusion food.

While on the island, he held workshops at Prince of Songkla University and Phuket Vocational College, attended a charity lunch at Baan Holland
Orphanage, and hosted a round table discussion with 30 executive chefs from the Phuket Thai Chef’s Association at Kan Eang@Pier in Chalong.

Born in Bangkok, Khun Tommy was the eldest of 12 children, leaving school at just 11 years old to help support his family. Growing up, as well as
helping his father in the family restaurant, he held a variety of odd jobs that included being a wheelbarrow maker, boxer, auto mechanic, tennis teacher, drummer, and busboy.

It was while working in the latter position, in Bangkok in his teens, that he began dating an American girl living in Bangkok. She told him about her homeland, and made him promise that one day he would visit her country. The couple later broke up, but his dream of visiting the US was still on his mind.

Several years later in 1972, at the age of 20, he moved to Los Angeles, and, drawing upon his years of experience helping his father, found work at a Thai restaurant called Chandara. At this time, Thai food was little known in America, but was slowly finding a growing and appreciative audience.

“They had never had Thai food before, so it was a great opportunity to show them. I would make a northern Thailand dish and show them on a map what the area looked like – the elephants and the jungle – so they got a visual with the flavours of the food. It was food and tourism at the same time.”

Khun Tommy, now an American citizen, is not surprised at how quickly the food gained popularity.

“People think American food is all hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas. But actually there is a huge variety in cuisine, it depends on what state you are in.

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“Americans love to experiment with all things – they are pioneers. In the late 1970s, they were tired of the old world cuisine in New York – it was getting stale. And Los Angeles and San Francisco were becoming well known for their diverse food, because so many immigrants were moving there. They were introducing herbs and spices that people had never heard of before.”

Media played a large part in helping to change attitudes and spread the word about Thai cuisine, such as when Khun Tommy featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in 1982.

He went on to open his own restaurant in the trendy Los Angeles suburb of West Hollywood, followed by two more branches in New York, serving Thai fusion. Khun Tommy says his style is “Pacific Rim”, a mixture of Eastern and Western cuisine, with Thai influences and ingredients.

In 2004 he decided to close his three restaurants in New York to spend more time with his two daughters, now aged 21 and 24, and his American wife
Sandi. These days he mostly spends his time filming and working on his two cooking shows.

Why did he close his restaurants instead of selling them? “Those restaurants were my babies. You can’t just give
them away to someone else”.

He has not ruled out a move back to Thailand eventually, if the right opportunity arose.

“Maybe one day if I got bored [in the US], I could open up a restaurant and my daughter could run it.”

For now though, Khun Tommy is content to do what he does best – introducing Thai food to the world.

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