2018 / 2月
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。
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.