Chewing the Fat: Dalad Kambhu
Dalad Kambhu Na Ayudhya on why she became a chef, all about Kin Dee restaurant in Berlin, and the secret of Thai seafood sauce.
August 26, 2017
“To be or not to be a chef?” was the question. Chomwan Weeraworawit sat down (in multiple locations) with Dalad Kambhu Na Ayudhya to talk about why she chose to become a chef, what’s happening at Kin Dee (the “must-visit” Berlin restaurant she opened with Rirkrit Tiravanija and that city’s most beloved restaurateurs), and what’s in her special Thai seafood sauce.
For those lucky few with the height and beauty, Paris, London, and New York City beckon you to step in front of the camera as a fashion model. With both those qualifications, Dalad Kambhu na Ayudhya left home for the Big Apple to become a model the moment she turned 20. However, unlike many aspiring fashion models, she realized after she first arrived in NYC that her calling would not be living the model dream but rather working with food. In NYC, Dalad came to understand that food was not simply something you consumed for sustenance but that, “it could be fun; that having a meal can be an experience.”
Portrait by Chalermhut Tantiwongse
Portrait by Chalermhut Tantiwongse
Food as an experience, not just to fill up our stomachs. The fashion world got this right early on, and there is no denying that food and fashion have an intrinsic link. There are restaurants in the world (some more institutional than others) that have served fashion royalty over the decades. In Paris, there is one name that became synonymous with fashion royalty the moment it opened it’s doors on the Rive Gauche, that is Restaurant Thiou on the Quai D’Orsay. Thiou (or Jiew as she is referred to in Thai) is a friend of Dalad’s mother and Dalad spent a lot of time in her auntie’s kitchen at the glamorous restaurant in Paris in the mid 2000s.
And Thiou’s is no ordinary restaurant: although she has since moved on to other things, in the 2000s Thiou’s was the congregation point for fashion royalty so, particularly during each fashion week, it was Thiou who made the tigre qui plui or sua long hai (seared beef with a fresh sauce of lime, blood from the barely cooked beef, plenty of fish sauce, toasted rice, mint and shallots) a staple amongst the fashion crowd. This was Dalad’s stomping ground and her auntie taught here more than a thing or two: “She definitely inspired and ignited something in me. She is a tough, fierce lady! And she gave me great advice. But I also have been very fortunate to have my former investor/employer Doug in New York and Rirkrit as mentors, as well as my aunt Francie. Rirkrit is actually so great with tough questions and Doug can always shed a little light on the situation.”
Dalad Kambhu and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Courtesy of Dottir.
When I asked her about how she came to cooking seriously (as opposed to it remaining a childhood dream), Dalad pretty much credits all to Rirkrit, who she refers to as “big brother.” Although Rirkrit and Dalad did not meet that long ago, they formed this brother-sister bond almost instantaneously and she felt that he gave her the confidence and the trust for her to start pursuing her dream.
At the time, Dalad was running Omar’s with her friend Omar, who was Andre Balazs social director back in the days when Andre still owned the Raleigh in Miami. If you can remember the early days of Miami Art Basel, the Raleigh hotel was where Art royalty held camp. And art and food have an intrinsic bond too: just look at the relational aesthetics of Rirkrit and his Phad Thai (1990) or, more recently, the cookbook that Olafur Eliasson published. Food and art. Food and fashion. So from fashion and food, our chef would discover the intersection between food and art with her mentor co-opening a restaurant with her in Berlin.
“I visited Berlin and slowly fell in love with the city. Then Rirkrit and I wanted to do something and the opportunity to do it here came up. I had met Stephan Landwehr in the past and when he heard of me and Rirkrit wanting to do something, he was very much interested. He is a long time fan and friend of Rirkrit, so it was somewhat natural that this happened.”
In Berlin, there is a restaurant called the Grill Royal founded by Stephane and Boris: it is one of the city’s most famous restaurants and has grown to include (within the Grill Royal Group) Pauly Saul, Café Einstein (Und der Linden), Dottir, and now Kin Dee, headed up by the original partners, along with a new partner, Moritz Estermann. Stephane is also an avid collector of art and one of Rirkrit’s old friends. From a couple of experiments cooking together, Rirkrit and Dalad hit the kitchen and did a pop-up at the then-new restaurant of the group, called Dottir, run by the chef/sister of Olafur Eliasson at the time. The pop-up was a great success. Fast forward one year and the trio of Rirkrit, Dalad, and Grill Royal officially opened Kin Dee.
Dalad Kambhu and Moritz Estermann. Courtesy of Kin Dee.
Upon visiting Kin Dee for the first time, I entered the kitchen to say hello to the chef just as she was frying an egg (hip hop blaring, hot and steamy in the kitchen, Dalad in her Nikes while tending to a wok full of sizzling oil). I was surprised to see the fried egg and wondered what it was for; she said it was for VIP’s only (i.e. art royalty and friends and fam) so we fit into the latter category. Along with one of her signature creations came the perfectly fried egg. The signature creation? A polpo krapao. Imagine, a perfectly cooked octopus tail with krapao sauce, a dehydrated kohlrabi leaf, and a perfect fried egg.
Dalad, her crew and her Nikes
How she came to this dish was rather pragmatic, “I thought about making a krapao dish and I didn’t want to make the typical sautéd one because it takes more time and we already have three sauté dishes on the menu. If we have 50 people that night, that means sauté for 150 dishes. So I thought about making some kind of sauce. Then I told the team and we thought of the sauces together. And, at a very last minute, on the second shift of this dish, I decided to add one ingredient that changed everything and made it what it is. For the fried egg, I grew up eating fried egg with kraprao. It is one of those things only the Thai would do this way. Yes, the egg yolk goes so well, but it has to be the Thai fried egg otherwise it is not Thai to me.”
The menu at Kin Dee is a fixed menu. It seems perhaps intimidating, but the way Dalad does it, intimidating it is not; if anything, our experience was like eating at home. Food cooked by a friend who knows her stuff is amazing with the sauces and other ingredients that she is so particular about. Rather than purport to make “authentic” Thai food however, Dalad and Rirkrit have created a version of Thai food that is theirs: it is Thai food the way they know how to cook it, with ingredients that are available. “At Kin Dee I start with two things: what I want to make and what is available in the market. Somehow, in between the two processes and thinking of what I ate when I was very young, I come up with dishes.” Perhaps it could be called “fine home cooking.”
Polpo Krapao and a Fried Egg
Fried Fish with Seafood sauce by Robert Rieger c/o FvF, Starter Trilogy and Salad courtesy of Kin Dee
Now Kindee is in its first summer. The way that Thiou catered for fashion royalty in a city filled with artists, intelligentsia, and visiting guests, Dalad has created with her friends and big bro, a safe haven of Thai home-cooking. In Thai “kin dee” means “eat well”; it was once a Thai restaurant in an area that was once the red light district, run by a man called P’Ed called Edd, which was the go-to Thai restaurant in Berlin. The Kin Dee partners bought P’Ed’s restaurant and continued the tradition of eating Thai food well by opening their own restaurant on the site.
When I asked Dalad what she would be if she were a food, her answer was: “I had said I would be a fried egg once but now I think I would be some Thai-numprig. They are so delicious and fewer and fewer people in my generation know how to make them. Dalad-numprig I would be: how would it taste like? I am not too sure. But spicy definitely!”
The last time I saw Dalad was for a BBQ at my house during which she volunteered to make her famous seafood sauce and Korakrit Arunanondchai wrapped some fish in salt and bbq’ed it. The conversation was over how Krit should descale the fish: in the end he didn’t and it worked. As for her seafood sauce, it was epic but different: not the usual green sauce as it had more complexity and was really spicy.
The next time I see Dalad I expect the discussion will be about that sauce and an upcoming seafood sauce competition (between her Korakrit and maybe her mentor Rirkrit?). I imagine if I ask Dalad she would say, ‘it’ll be fun, let’s invite all our friends, I’ll cook...’ Of that, I have no doubt: Dalad cooks for the party, makes the party, and still manages to take off her apron and become belle of the ball.