My Thai

By Cuisine6 Minutes
April 30, 2023By Cuisine

Punchy Thai flavours and Kiwi ingredients come together in these fresh, zesty recipes by Pim Techamuanvivit of Michelin-starred Kin Khao restaurant in San Francisco.

For most of us, work-life balance is about carving out enough time to switch off from the demands of paid work to do other things that we enjoy. While Pim Techamuanvivit wholeheartedly endorses this for her teams, her version also includes the demands of juggling a life spread between three different continents.

Pim is a chef and restaurateur, owner of Nari and Kin Khao, both Thai restaurants in San Francisco, and executive chef at Nahm, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bangkok. For the past few years she has also spent three months of each year in Auckland, catching up with family.

In many ways she sees similarities between the food scene of the San Francisco Bay Area and Auckland, with an interest in sourcing fresh, seasonal produce and supporting local growers. “Here I spend about half my time ‘foraging’,” she says, laughing. Not searching the paddocks and riverbanks for edible greens or mushrooms, but criss-crossing the city to the Avondale markets, the fish market or the Clevedon or Grey Lynn farmers’ markets and fossicking through shops and stalls across town to get what she wants. But as well as searching for favourite ingredients, often she’s inspired to cook with what she has found at the markets. “I’m used to cooking Thai food in different places, so often I think, ‘What have I found locally that is interesting and how can I use it?’ – it adds a different dimension to a dish. Cooking Thai food in Auckland is really fun. It’s amazing how easily accessible some ingredients are, even things I find hard to get in San Francisco. I’ve clued into a lot of great ingredients – such as white turmeric from Fiji – through talking to stallholders at the markets.”

Pim’s restaurant, Nari, hints at the origins of her taste obsession. The name Nari is from the Sanskrit-derived Thai word for ‘women’ and it is Pim’s tribute to generations of Thai women who laid the foundation for Thai cuisine, and a personal homage to the women in her life who taught her to cook and, more importantly, to eat.

Kin Khao, which she opened in 2014, earned a Michelin star after just 18 months and is the only Thai restaurant with a Michelin star in the US. She is rankled, however, by claims that she serves ‘elevated’ Thai cuisine. “Thai food doesn’t need elevating,” she insists. “I am using great ingredients that do the cuisine justice.” She is puzzled that in, say, Italian or French restaurants it’s accepted that diners want to know the provenance of the meat or fish on their plate, but that the same rigour is not applied to Thai, and many other Asian, restaurants which get stickered with the ‘cheap and cheerful’ label, food to grab on the way home. “I opened Kin Khao because no-one was cooking the dishes I wanted to eat, using the ingredients that I expected. I want to cook my food with the same respect as a great French or Italian dish.” To this end she has nurtured close relationships with growers and suppliers both in San Francisco and Bangkok, ensuring she can source tip-top quality produce.

Gaining that coveted Michelin star came as a complete surprise. “Kin Khao is not really what you think of when you imagine a Michelin star. It’s very small, it’s a busy Thai bistro, loud and crowded,” says Pim. The Michelin organisation says that a Michelin star is awarded for the food on the plate – nothing else. The style of a restaurant and its degree of formality or informality have no bearing whatsoever on the award, it says. “Well,” says Pim, “with Kin Khao they weren’t joking.”

It’s also different from other Thai restaurants as Pim doesn’t feel compelled to offer the expected dishes such as pad Thai (fried noodles) or tom yum soup, instead offering dishes that most restaurants don’t serve. “Kin Khao is very small and I’ve been able to do things my way. Ultimately, I cook for myself and do things the way I like them. Luckily in San Francisco there are people who understood what we wanted to do and were ready to give it a try.” And what about in Auckland? “I think there are enough people here, too, that understand quality and who care what goes into crafting these dishes.” Oooh, so is that a hint that an Auckland restaurant might be in her plans? Well, for now Pim is working on a book and has another US restaurant project on the go, but it feels like an Auckland venture is a definite maybe. TRACY WHITMEY