Chef Ah-Tong

A Life in Thai Cuisine
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2018 / February

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard


Chef Ah-Tong—as Ra­pee­porn Sil­lap­kit, executive chef of the Sukho­thai restaurant in the Sheraton Grand Tai­pei Hotel is known—has made it her mission to perpetuate the flavors of “Mama’s cooking.” Having first come to Taiwan 30 years ago, she has lived here for 16 years all told, and helped to stir up a craze for Thai food. Since first arriving, she has also spent ten years in Southeast Asia and mainland China—time apart that helped her understand that Taiwan is indeed the place she loves most. “Taiwan is so beautiful,” she says in fluent Mandarin, “and people here are so cute.” To primp for the day ahead, she always rises at dawn—appropriately enough, since Sukho­thai means “blissful dawn” in Thai. For Ah-Tong, Taiwan has long since stopped being a foreign land and instead become a place of enduring joy in her heart.

 


 

Taiwan is a foodie’s paradise, a place where you can taste all manner of authentic foreign cuisines. Among these, Thai food—with its combinations of sour, sweet, bitter, hot, salty and fragrant—is particularly prominent.

Loving mama’s cooking

No matter how far your culinary wanderings take you, Mama’s cooking is likely what you dream about at night. As a gourmet chef, Ah-Tong is constantly trying to recapture the warmth and sweetness of her mother’s cooking.

Born in Bangkok, Ah-Tong was captivated by the magic of cooking from a young age. She would watch her mother take unremarkable fruits, vegetables, fish, shellfish and meat and add in various spices to conjure up all manner of decadent delights, whose aromas would fill one’s nostrils.

Her father was a naval officer, and their house was often full of visitors. Her mother always gave her father a lot of face by providing a table full of delicious dishes. Amid the guests’ exclamations of praise, little Ah-Tong also felt incomparable joy as she came to understand that making good food could bring great honor….

When her father was home, her mother spared no effort in preparing small dishes well suited to accompany drinking, thus providing comfort to her father, who had spent so many years serving the nation at sea. Drinking together, the two were the very picture of an affectionate couple. Such memories have remained in focus in her mind’s eye, reminding her that although cuisines will forever evolve, love is at food’s essence. Only when provided with warmth of feeling can food convey a sense of joy.

Before she was 20, in just one short year, Ah-Tong’s father and mother both died. The loss of her beloved parents forced Ah-Tong, still very young, to grow up fast. She was enrolled at Sao­wapa College, a culin­ary academy, but was also working part time, and she learned how to stoically persevere in her studies amid chaos.

Kitchen tasks are finely divided between the different staff members. Although she was majoring in cooking, when the diminutive Ah-Tong began an internship at the famous Thai restaurant of the Oriental Hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental) in Bangkok, she started with chopping vegetables. “Every day, I barely had an opportunity to raise my head since I was incessantly chopping.” She went about her business quickly and agilely, arriving at the restaurant early and first getting her own work done before observing ever­yone around her and lending a hand. At first the head chef was annoyed by her and would yell at her to get out of his way. But after a while, when he discovered that she could seemingly handle any job in the kitchen, he not only came to have a whole new level of respect for this “little girl” but also let her start cooking at the tender age of 18, at which point her talents began to get noticed.

An elite cosmopolitan city

Thailand has 77 top-level administrative districts, including the capital Bangkok and 76 provinces, with five major regions: north, northeast, east, central and south. Each has its own unique cuisine.

In the highly competitive market of Bangkok, restaurants struggle to survive, so it is important for chefs to constantly be learning from the masters.

Her ethos of constant self-improvement led to Ah-Tong being recruited by the Mandarina Crown hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental) in Tai­pei, thus allowing her to expand her horizons overseas. 

Interplay of heavy and light

“When I first came to Taiwan, I started by making desserts.” Those sweets that Ah-Tong made at the Mandarina Crown three decades ago were fabulously irresistible delights.

“One of the most marvelously subtle things about Thai cuisine is the great variety of flavors that can be in one’s mouth at the same time.” It’s like how when savoring fine wine, the first taste and the finish present different tasting profiles. “Sauces are the soul of Thai cooking.” As a chef, Ah-Tong is most proud of her sauces, and the flavors of her mother’s sauces have left a permanent impression on her mind.

Making best use of local ingredients is a key to raising culinary quality. For instance, the dish “crisp-fried grouper with diced fruit,” much praised by gourmands, matches fresh-caught grouper with Taiwan-grown fruit. As soon as it is placed on the table, its rich colors attract the eyes and its vibrant aromas stimulate the appetite. The hot and sour shrimp soup, another popular dish, looks thick and heavy, but goes down light and clean, without being oily in the least. Many-layered, it brings a medley of delicious flavors to the palate. This interplay between the heavy and the light is one of the most enchanting aspects of Thai food.

Modesty and staying power

Although as chef she is only in charge of the kitchen, Ah-Tong is nonetheless very concerned about customer satisfaction in the dining room. She often can be found chatting with guests there, paying attention to the smallest of permutations in the dining experience. This sort of receptiveness to customers and attention to detail is greatly admired by long-time patrons.   

Although she is now running the show, Chef Ah-Tong nonetheless remains humble, continually learning and trying out new ideas. “I like to go to all kinds of restaurants to try their food.” Stealthily gathering intelligence, Ah-Tong smiles with the charm of a little girl. “With just a few bites, I can recreate a similar taste, or even surpass it.” Talent matched with experience leaves her with highly honed skills. “I guess I have something of a gift for it!”

In the culinary field, it’s necessary to keep up with the latest trends. “Cuisines don’t stop progressing.” In her rare moments off, Ah-Tong is always on the Internet, gathering culinary information and researching new dishes. “I love to read books. When I go back to Thailand on vacation, I can spend all day in a bookstore!”

Today, with the issue of food safety at the forefront, the importance placed on freshness is only growing. “I’ve always insisted on using natural products. For example, for the many-colored ingredients of bubur cha cha, she has always used natural extracts and would never consider using artificial colors or flavorings. This insistence on authenticity extends to ingredients such as lemon grass, galangal, coconut meat, green chili peppers, holy basil and lime, which she requires to be imported fresh from Thailand. “Only with authentic ingredients can one produce authentic Thai food.”

“One reason I love Taiwan is that restaurateurs can satisfy my strict demands in terms of ingredients.” She decided to return to the island after years elsewhere because Taiwan provides needed supports for outstanding restaurant cooking. It provides trustworthy safeguards in terms of assuring the quality of food ingredients.

Spreading happiness through food

“I originally planned to retire at 40.” Yet seemingly in a blink of an eye, Chef Ah-Tong has entered her fifties. “When I’m working, I’m pretty mean.” Nicknamed “Mommy” by her staff, she intentionally rolls her eyes as she says this. “I’ve trained them well by this point. Lots of them have no need for my supervision.” Ah-Tong has never put on the grand airs of some head chefs. She patiently instructs her kitchen staff with an attitude of passing down knowledge.

“Sometimes I truly feel that I lack the stamina that I used to have, but old customers always buoy me with their encouragement, making me reluctant to leave.” The satisfaction that comes from acceptance and affirmation has a tight hold on Ah-Tong’s heart. Guests’ smiles of satisfaction offer the greatest motivation to keep on going.

In recent years, many Thai restaurants have opened in Tai­pei, leading to fierce competition. Whether focusing on traditional royal banquet fare or street snacks, there has been tremendous influx and turnover, providing the public with a plethora of choices. How is one to stand out from the crowd? “Only by bringing a hospitable attitude toward cooking can you convey a joyful warmth.” There’s something subtly miraculous about cooking that sometimes can’t be put into words but rather needs to be understood intuitively through concentrated effort. 

Ah-Tong joyfully repeats a line she is famous for: “I’d rather go all my life without marrying than go one day without cooking.” As her Thai name would suggest (Rapeeporn means “warm sun”), Ah-Tong takes a lively and easygoing approach to life, no matter what obstacles she encounters.

Fair-complexioned Ah-Tong winks as she says, “I’m simply a traditional Thai!” As she walks happily and cheerfully on the streets of Tai­pei, her round figure at home amid the crowds on the bustling pavement, it’s almost hard to tell whether she’s in Taiwan or Thailand.

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不斷精進的「泰」滋味

文‧李珊瑋 圖‧莊坤儒

傳承媽媽味道的阿桐師(許雪莉,喜來登主廚),30 年前來到台灣,一待就是16年,帶動起泰國菜的風潮。之後遊歷東南亞和中國大陸十載,深刻體會到台灣才是她的最愛。「台灣好美,台灣人更是可愛。」說著一口流利國語的阿桐師笑著說。她每天在黎明中梳洗,開啟忙碌的作息,正是泰文SUKHOTHAI(幸福黎明)的寫照。台灣早已不是阿桐師的異鄉,而是她心中最幸福的天地。


台灣是美食天堂,在這裡可以品嚐到多樣性的道地異國料理。其中,集酸、甜、苦、辣、鹹、香之大成的泰式料理,更是獨樹一幟,成為饕客們不可遺漏的口袋名單。

愛上媽媽的味道

縱使吃遍大江南北,午夜夢迴時,最難割捨的,依舊是媽媽的味道。阿桐師就是在不斷的回味中,重現慈母的甘甜,也緊緊抓住美食家的胃。

出生在泰國曼谷的阿桐師,自幼就迷戀上料理的神秘。看著母親把平凡無奇的蔬果魚蝦肉品,用各式香料醃漬攪拌,如同魔幻般,立即化腐朽為神奇,開胃的香氣,瞬間撲鼻而來。

父親是海軍軍官,家中經常高朋滿座,母親總能讓父親面子十足,端出滿桌的佳餚。在賓客的驚嘆和讚美聲中,小小的心靈,也感受到無比的喜悅。原來做出好吃的菜,可以得到這麼大的榮耀。

父親在家的日子,母親更是挖空心思,做些下酒小菜,慰勞長年在海上服役的父親。把酒對飲,鶼鰈情深,這個溫馨的畫面,永遠停格在阿桐師的腦海中。更讓她體悟到,料理雖然千變萬化,但是「愛」才是精髓。唯有放進感情的溫度,料理才能傳遞幸福。

還不到20歲,短短一年間,阿桐師的父母相繼過世。痛失親長的照拂,讓小小年紀的她,更加早熟。當時尚在泰國料理學校「Saowapa College」就讀的阿桐師,已經開啟了半工半讀的生涯,也學會在紛亂的環境中,沉靜的吞忍修煉。

餐廳後台的分工十分細膩,當年還是小不點兒的阿桐師,雖然主修烹飪,但是到文華酒店最著名的泰國菜餐廳實習時,卻是從切水果開始。「每天就是頭都不抬地不停的切切切……」,做起事來手腳俐落的她,總是早早的到廚房報到,先把自己份內的工作完成,然後就四處觀察,動手幫忙。剛開始時,大廚總嫌她礙手礙腳,喝斥她走開點兒。但是時間一久,發現她樣樣都會,不禁對這個小丫頭刮目相看,18歲就讓她掌廚,嶄露頭角。

集各府精華之大成

泰國有77個一級行政區,包括直轄市的首都曼谷和76個府,劃分為北部、東北部、東部、中部與南部5個主要地區。自北部的清邁到中部的芭達雅、曼谷,到南部的普吉島、暹邏灣,隨著地形和氣候的差異,各有其獨特的料理口味。長久以來相互融合,不斷激盪出新的火花。再加上泰式宮廷精緻細膩的擺盤和雕飾,形成泰國菜多變的風情,也讓廚師有了寬廣的揮灑空間。

要在強敵環伺的曼谷一級戰區屹立不搖,真不是一件簡單的事。接受正統泰國餐飲教育的阿桐師,除了再到「Suan Sananta College」攻讀兩年的食品營養學外,更重要的是不斷虛心向師傅們學習。

「以前老師對我們的訓練是很嚴格的,如果沒有做好,是會被處罰的喲!」但是嚴師才能出高徒。即使已經成為大廚,阿桐師對老師仍然是恭敬有加。遇到不懂的地方,還特別敦請老師來指導,虛心受教。就是這種不斷精進的態度,讓阿桐師被台灣的中泰賓館羅致,開啟她到海外拓展事業的機會。

濃淡相間,引人入勝

「剛到台灣來的時候,我是由甜點起家。」回憶起半甲子前在中泰賓館工作時,阿桐師的甜點,是不可不吃的經典。除了傳承姨媽的手藝,更以宮廷技法,精雕細琢,把甜點做的像藝術品一樣,優雅精緻,讓人驚艷。多年之後,老顧客仍然津津樂道。

料理最迷人的地方,就是用相同的食材,經由不同的烹調技法,或是清蒸,或是紅燒,或是炙烤,或是涼拌,可以變化出千萬種滋味。再加上各式調味料的推波助瀾,就如同數學的N次方一樣,永無窮盡。泰國菜能夠廣受國人喜愛,屹立長青,就在於它多變的醬料,以及南洋特有的香料加乘,征服了無數張挑剔的嘴。

「泰國菜最微妙的地方,是你可以一口吃到好多種不同的味道。」就像品嚐葡萄酒時,會有前中後不同的韻味。「醬料是泰國菜的靈魂」,身為主廚,阿桐師最自豪的就是醬料。她的腦海中,永遠印烙著媽媽製作醬料的滋味。像是咖哩的運用,紅黃綠各具特色。「每一種菜色,都有它專屬的搭配。」或是清爽,或是濃郁,都令人忍不住食指大動。色彩斑斕的精緻擺盤,再加上五星級餐廳,饒富泰式風情的氛圍,讓用餐者的眼、耳、鼻、舌、身、意,均能陶醉其中。

善於利用在地食材,也是讓料理加分的關鍵。例如一道饕客稱頌的脆炸果香石斑魚,是運用當日配送的新鮮石斑,搭配寶島四季水果,一上桌,就被它繽紛的色彩吸引住目光,濃郁香氣瞬間點燃食慾。椰糖和魚露熬煮的溫潤醬汁,將食材緊密包覆,讓酸、辣、甘、鮮在口中爆裂,最後柔和的勾引出食材樸實原味,作為終結。深受老饕欣賞的酸辣蝦湯,看似濃郁飽滿,但喝起來卻清爽解膩,多層次蔓延的口感,讓美味在舌尖不斷加分。濃淡相間,引人入勝,就是泰國菜最迷人的精華。

虛懷若谷,才能長青

雖然主導內場,但是阿桐師卻十分注重顧客滿意度。「這道菜為什麼剩下那麼多?是不合口味嗎?有什麼需要改進的地方?」她經常在餐廳內親切的和顧客們寒暄,掌握細微的變化。這份虛懷若谷的用心,深獲老顧客的激賞。

如今早已坐擁龍頭之席的阿桐師,仍然謙卑地不斷學習創新。「我喜歡到各家餐廳去吃吃看。」默默收集情報的阿桐師,露出小女孩般俏皮的笑容。「只要吃上幾口,我就可以做出相同的味道,甚至可以超越。」天賦加上經驗,造就了她的敏銳。

飲食也講究流行,必須要與時俱進。「料理是沒有止境的。」能夠讓顧客一吃成癮的功力,絕對需要長年不斷的磨練。難得空閒時,阿桐師總是上網,多方蒐羅美食資料,研發新菜色。「我很喜歡看書,回到泰國休假時,我可以一整天都窩在書店裡喔!」

以食安為前提的今日,益發顯現食材的重要。「我一向堅持要用天然的。」例如摩摩喳喳中五顏六色的配料,無一不是用天然食材去萃取,絕對不摻人工色素和香料。這份堅持,也顯現在香料上,舉凡香茅、南薑、椰肉、綠辣椒、打拋葉、青檸等原料,指定要由泰國新鮮進口,「我堅持要原汁原味,才能做出正統的泰國菜。」

「我愛台灣的原因之一,是因為老闆可以滿足我對食材的嚴格要求。」周遊列國後,再次選擇落腳寶島,實在是台灣具有優越的烹飪後援,在食材的把關上,也值得信賴。

用料理傳遞幸福

「我原來預訂40歲就要退休的。」但是轉眼間,阿桐師已是坐5望6之齡。「進了廚房,就不能怕熱。」營業時間裡,廚房就像戰場,每個人都繃緊神經,不能有絲毫差錯。身為主廚,更是要一肩扛下所有責任。「工作的時候,我是很兇的。」員工私下膩稱「媽咪」的阿桐師,故意睜著圓滾滾的眼睛說。「現在我已經把他們訓練的很好了,好幾位都可以獨當一面。」從來不擺大廚架子的阿桐師,用傳承的心,耐心指導著工作夥伴。

「有時候真的覺得體力大不如前,但是老顧客總是給我鼓勵,讓我捨不得離開。」一種獲得肯定與接納的滿足,緊緊繫住阿桐師的心。「有一次老客人在我們餐廳裡,談起中泰賓館,懷念起我做的菜。」相隔十年,重返台灣的阿桐師,剛好走過來。「我們互相對望,同時怔住了,然後好像如夢初醒一般,高興的拉著手,一直笑。」顧客滿足的笑容,就是支撐她走下去的最大動能。

近些年來,泰式料理如雨後春筍般湧現,競爭激烈。從傳統宮廷料理到街頭家常小菜,不斷推陳出新,讓民眾大飽口福。如何在超級戰區中,拔得頭籌?「用款待的心意做料理,才能傳遞出幸福的溫度。」做菜是很微妙的,有時候不能用言語來解釋,而是要用心去體會揣摩。

阿桐師神采奕奕的說出她的名言:「寧可終身不嫁,但不能一日不做菜。」誠如阿桐師泰文名字Rapeeporn(溫暖的太陽),無論遇到什麼挫折,她總是活潑開朗的面對生活。

皮膚白皙的阿桐師眨著眼睛說,「我可是正統的泰國人喲!」望著她圓潤的身形,自在快活的走在台北街頭,融入在熙熙攘攘的人群中,已分不出是在台灣,還是泰國。

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