Pim Techamuanvivit on Kin Khao, Starting with What You Don’t Know + Breaking the Mold for Thai Cuisine

Pim Techamuanvivit grew up in Bangkok and has been an internationally renowned tastemaker with stints as a food blogger, author, and jam maker. But her greatest achievement to date may be as an award-winning restaurateur in San Francisco at Kin Khao. Opening its doors in 2014, Kin Khao (which literally means “eat rice”) quickly earned a well-deserved Michelin star. Here, she speaks with contributor Amy Sherman about her journey into the hospitality industry, her much-lauded, flavorful fare, and future plans for her acclaimed eatery. 

Pim Techamuanvivit

What prepared you most for being a restaurateur?

Everything prepared me! I’m not self taught; I learned from everybody and stole from everybody. Cooking Thai food is just cooking. What gave me the confidence was jam making. I was cooking for friends and family, and they loved it. And then when I made jam, it was so well received. So I thought, “Maybe I can try this.” It gave me the confidence to go professional. I’m a much better Thai cook than I am a jam maker. Also, I have something to contribute. I really feel like I have something to contribute to the conversation. It’s not just me; I’m a link in a very long chain. I don’t want the flavors I grew up on to disappear.

When I decided to get serious about it, I sat down and started a list of things I didn’t know — that was probably the smartest thing. There were things I knew nothing about, like running a professional kitchen, then I just worked my way through it. So it became like my road map.

It’s easy to look at a restaurant and think it’s so easy. People think it’s like having a dinner party every day when really it’s about putting trash bags into cans into every day.

Was finding the food you want to eat the motivation behind the restaurant?

Yes! You know, a lot of chefs, they are motivated by wanting to feed people. I like cooking for friends, but it’s more about wanting to feed me! I want the food to be available to me and others. I’m from Bangkok so I was exposed to food from everywhere. The menu is not really all Eastern or Southern Thai. I don’t understand why people aren’t making the food I want to eat.

Are there particular things that you find to be the most frustrating about being a restaurateur?

Having people think of it as not valued. For instance, why is my rabbit curry $32? It is because it’s almost an entire rabbit in a bowl; where else can you get that? At Saison, maybe. It feeds several people. There’s a lot of work going into it. The quality compares to any of the best restaurants. So, it’s disheartening. There are 29 ingredients in the Massaman curry paste — made from scratch. That’s the part that I struggle with. At the same time, I am sticking to my guns. This is how I’m going to do it. Our average check average is $40 or so per person. That includes drinks and food! Because we’re Thai, people don’t value it. I have to make peace with that.

Pim Techamuanvivit

What dishes are you most proud of on your menu?

It changes, but right now, all of the curries, because it’s so hard to get them right. I remember before we opened, I talked to distributors for things like fish sauce with lists with curry pastes. I told them I was making my curry pastes from scratch. They were shocked because it’s difficult and hard to get consistent. Thai ingredients are not standardized, such as chiles and lemongrass. If you ask my kitchen, they will say the curry station is the beast. It’s hard to get right. Everything we do is something we want to get right.

Why do you think so many Thai restaurants follow a formula of serving the same dishes?

A lot of Thai restaurants are not opened by people with culinary training in the cuisine; they are immigrants who want to open businesses. They are constrained by what they think people want. They think the “American taste” is going to keep them in business. Another constraint is what people value in ethnic cuisine. People think ethnic food has to be cheap. So they are constrained by that. You can’t do things from scratch, you can’t buy good ingredients if you are trying to be cheap. So they buy cheap prepped food. But you see it changing with some restaurants using good ingredients and better techniques. We are breaking the mold. I wanted to see if I could make it economically viable.

You sometimes post photos of dishes you’re working on. What’s your process for developing recipes for the restaurant?

It starts when I’m bored with a dish. Then there are seasonal changes; there’s a citrus salad, but it’s leaving soon. With the way that we’re structured and how busy we are, we can’t throw new things into the menu all the time. Sometimes I’m bored with an ingredient or brainstorm, reaching back to my childhood. What haven’t I made in a while? What can I use to make something Thai? I talk to our chef about ingredients and ways things are made traditionally and how they can be adapted for a restaurant. I play with recipes. If I really want to make a dish or I haven’t made it but I really miss it, I reverse engineer it. The serious discussion is — can we do this? Can I source the ingredients? Can we make it and can we sell it? It’s a lot more than just I make it and think it’s delicious.

How much do you have to adapt recipes to local high-quality ingredients?

Sometimes I adapt because I want to do something different. For example, I do nam pok beans. It’s traditionally an Issan Northeast dish with protein with a dressing. But I already had a lot of meat dishes and wanted something vegan but “meaty,” so I thought of Rancho Gordo beans. We take his beans and cook them and then toss them in the same dressing. You tell a Thai person that and they might be confused, but when they see it they get it.  So the intention and flavor of the dish are the same.

We don’t really cook with rabbit in Thailand but, rather, lean chickens or gamier meats. So rabbit would remind you of a farm chicken — it’s more muscular and we had a good producer up in Marshall. So it’s made how it would be traditionally made it but we use a different type of meat. The dish is driven by the ingredient. Since we are already using parts of the rabbit, it was a good way to use the other little bits of meat. It’s not made like an Italian meatball, so it fits in the dish.

Pim Techamuanvivit

How do you train your chefs?

I find it easier to work with people without any preconceptions of Thai food. I’m a little bit opinionated about my food so that way I don’t have to break down bad habits. We cook together and talk about the final goal and the intention. Each particular curry has its own profile; for example, green is spicy and salty but not very sweet or sour. It’s not just how you cook but what the intention of the dish and how it should be balanced. It can’t just be delicious. It’s easier if they are starting from scratch. I’ve been really lucky to find people who are really well trained in cooking. If they know how to cook, it’s not that hard to teach them how to cook Thai food.

Where do you see the restaurant going in the future?

We will keep cooking delicious food and keep making people happy and employees happy. We have other projects we are thinking about. We’re staying in San Francisco. I love being here! Even with it changing there’s still so much I love about it. I have gotten the bug. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s also so much fun. Seeing people loving the food is really good. It made me happy to see that’s it a good place to work. People don’t leave, and a lot of people have come back. A lot of chefs, while they were also working at their own restaurants, have helped out here, from Brandon Jew from Mister Jiu and Shannon Waters at Aatxe to Rupert Blease at Lord Stanley and Gavin Schmidt who’s opening The Morris. It’s how we’ve kept ourselves staffed. It’s a nice community.

Finally, where do you like to eat on your days off?

Piccino. I go to Rintaro, but also Sushi Yoshizumi down in San Mateo. And nopa for late-night burgers and cocktails. Those are my current haunts.

Make a reservation at Kin Khao to sample Pim and her team’s authentic Thai dishes, and then share your experiences with us here or over FacebookG+InstagramPinterest, or Twitter.

Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.