How Dalad Kambhu is changing star cuisine.
Clichés can be either a straitjacket or a hurdle on a racetrack: you can let them constrain you, or you can strive to rise above them. Dalad Kambhu has charted the latter course and is clearly setting out her stall. You won’t find any chopsticks at Kin Dee, her Thai restaurant in Berlin. Certainly not the ubiquitous Tom Ka Gai soup. Even the obligatory kitschy statues are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the restaurant has simple wooden furniture combined with timeless works of art.
Another preconception Dalad firmly debunks is that Thai food belongs only at the snack stall and is almost always a curry. The 33-year-old celebrates the cuisine of her home city, Bangkok, by melding her childhood memories with complex flavours. “If I started listing off my favourite dishes from then, we would be here for at least an hour,” she says with a smile. Maybe that’s why this gourmet genius instead combines all kinds of ingredients for her menus, fusing octopus with hot kaprao sauce, combining fjord trout, scallops and Thai herb dressing with a refreshing ceviche – and doing it with such skill and aplomb that she was awarded a Michelin star at the beginning of the year.
To receive Germany’s highest gastronomic award with Thai food caused something of a sensation in the culinary world. Then consider that Dalad is one of only ten women in this country to have been awarded a star amongst 299 men. On top of that, when word got around that Dalad has never had any training as a chef, it caused something of a dent in the soft egos of many of her colleagues.
Dalad is driven by the fact that men have achieved such a hold over gastronomy that they now dictate the rules. Women are still not equal to men in professional gastronomy, and Dalad has experienced some male employees who failed to respect her as a boss, dismissing her beautifully and delicately arranged dishes with clichéd sound bites. “Many of my colleagues, especially my female colleagues, are amazed that my kitchen is as calm as it is,” says Dalad. She wants to change the industry with her new approach to empower women. “We need to be nice to each other, talk to each other and address our grievances openly,” she says. “That’s not to say there’s no place for anger, but this energy should be used to support each other.”
In general, women from her homeland are strong and take care of business. This is particularly true with the women in Dalad’s family. “I grew up in a family with drive. My great-grandmother showed us the way – she was an incredibly successful entrepreneur. She published almost every textbook I ever used.” Another great-grandmother had worked for the Thai government; a grandmother, although having no career of her own, was the matriarch of the family; and a close friend of Dalad’s mother now runs three restaurants in Paris, despite never having completed any formal gastronomy training. “All these women have profoundly influenced me. Especially the latter. I thought: If she can do it, maybe I can too.” Dalad went to France to work for her and draw inspiration.
How did Dalad learn her trade, if not in school? “I cook from the heart and by memory. I am also not afraid to fail. I don’t see failure as a mistake, but as part of succeeding,” she says. “I am always amazed that others often try to lecture me on the cuisine of my homeland. They think they know how it should taste, or they say the ingredients should be as cheap as possible. I think my culture deserves a little more respect. Outstanding ingredients are the basis of good Thai food.”
Dalad had bumped up against prejudices of all kinds long before she started in gastronomy. She did not match the beauty ideal in her homeland because of her dark skin and slim figure. At the age of 20, she moved to New York to study international trade and marketing, where she was suddenly discovered as a model.
When someone told her she needed to eat less to stay slim, she decided to give up modelling and began instead working in restaurants. She wanted to work in the kitchen, but because of her good looks found herself serving front of house in the restaurant. So Dalad decided to move on to where she could follow her dream and work in the kitchen. After all, she has never let compromises or clichés stand in the way of her reaching a goal.
The renowned Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija helped her make Kin Dee a reality. The two met each other in New York and he urged her to leave that saturated metropolis and restart in a city that is in the midst of reinventing itself, and still hungry for the unconventional: Berlin. He was also the one who introduced Dalad to the restaurateurs Moritz Estermann and Stephan Landwehr (Grill Royal), who were already well known in the capital. When these two tried her wonderful creations, they instantly knew that they had to work with Dalad. This idea evolved into a restaurant in a mere six months. “I lived for ten years in the city that never sleeps,” says the chef. “That’s why I like to work fast and furious.”
Dalad at last opened her own restaurant on 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day. A crystal-clear statement.