by Steven Doyle
photos by Kent Rathbun
We caught up with chef Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Blue Plate, Zea Woodfire Grill and Jaspers, after his recent vacation to Thailand to see what he may have picked up to share with his patrons. The chef seemed super well-rested as he sat back in his chair and smiled.
“Tracy and I have been planning this trip for about ten years, I’m a scuba diver so I wanted to do some diving. But mostly I just wanted to go over there and do some photography, do some diving, eat some cool food, check out the countryside and the culture and that’s what we did. This is actually the only trip that I have taken in the past ten years that wasn’t some how work related.”
Chef Rathbun is no novice when it comes to Thai cooking or the Thai culture as we soon learned.
“When I was a kid we had foreign exchange students in our home that were Thai. Both were chefs and their family owned restaurants back in Thailand. So I learned how to cook Thai and appreciate the food when I was a kid. It wasn’t uncommon to come home at night when I was young to find my dad making egg rolls a Thai beef salad, or a fried rice, and he was doing it the right way with the right products,” explained the chef.
“This is actually the fourth time I have been to Thailand, the first was back in the 90’s when I was a chef at the Melrose. I went three years in a row for two to three weeks each time learning their cuisine, and they learned ours.”
The chef ventured across the globe to relax and enjoy time with his wife and a few friends. The foursome started in Bangkok where they spent a few days, then ventured another 400 miles to the coastal waters of Phuket, Thailand.
“I said this trip wasn’t tied to work, but it’s what I do. It does come back with me and on Wednesday I am doing a cooking class at Duo and another one for the Dirty Dozen classes at Abacus on Sunday that will be all Thai. We will also put some of the new things I discovered on the menu at Abacus to reflect these new tastes,” continued Rathbun.
What sort of dishes does a chef try in Thailand?
“A lot of people get excited about eating street food when they are in a foreign country. But really this is the best food there is. It’s what the people eat there every day, but I know what to look for so I am checking out the sanitation and they got to have ice. This was really important to me because most of the Thai do not have kitchens. They eat on the street and they eat whenever. There is no set meal time in Thailand.”
“So you get up in the morning and you look around and see people cooking, and it goes on all day and all night. We ate some great street food in Bangkok and had the cab driver take us to the noodle place. It was pretty interesting how they made the noodles. We also went to some city markets and the floating markets. Where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Plus they are cooking right on the boats,” continued Rathbun.
So the chef has this amazing background with Thai cookery, but it had been a while since he had been back to Thailand. We wondered how well his interpretation had held up over the years.
“Ten years later I go back to see how well I had done, and you know, I did pretty well. I made some adjustments here and there. It mostly has to do with the products available,” said Rathbun.
What are some products that Thailand has that you don’t see much in Dallas?
“I have to emphasize the fruits we saw on the trip. I have never seen a rose apple before, it is sweet like a pear crossed with an apple but so much smoother. You won’t see fresh mangos here like they had there, and the durian. I am not a fan of the durian, it’s the stinky fruit and its banned at the hotels. Everywhere you go there are signs banning the fruit. But one of the coolest fruits there was the pineapple and they way they prepare it. It’s a special cut that makes the pineapple so easy to eat.”
“One of the interesting dishes was a watermelon rice. We will do this at the classes this weekend, but will probably use mango. I have been experimenting with this and its good. Another one of my favorite dishes was the glass noodles made with different meats like duck. Real acidic with lime, kefir lime and scallions. It’s pretty spicy but really good,” said the chef.
What other dishes might the classes be expected to see this week?
“We will be doing a prawn with a black pepper sauce. This is sort of like au poivre but with giant prawns. Its very good but simple,” said Rathbun.
What is Kent’s favorite meal now that he is freshly returned from an exotic country?
“I think about some of the most wonderful meals we have had, and I am talking like a romantic dinner in an Italian villa with the beautiful sunsets. Maybe a simple pasta dish with a little cheese. You come home and try to duplicate that and its not quite the same. It really has more to do with the experience and the people you are with that makes a meal really special,” smiled Rathbun.
Kent shared with us some beautiful photos he captured on his vacation, some we show here, and others later in the week in a slide show for Crave. There are still a few reservations for the Duo class today, however the Abacus classes are sold out.