“When I first arrived in Australia,” says Ethan Chaikijkosi, “there was no authentic Thai food. None. At all.”
He knows what he’s talking about – as the man who opened Thai street-food institution Pok Pok and took on the challenge of resurrecting pioneering Fitzroy restaurant Thai Thani, Chaikijkosi has played an important role in introducing Australia to the joys of Thai cuisine.
Happily, he says that in the 25 years since his arrival here (first in Sydney, with his mother who was pursuing a PHD) Australia’s understanding of Thai food has come along in leaps and bounds. “Today it’s much easier; [you can] find proper ingredients. The Thai population [in Australia] has increased, which means that demand for authentic Thai food has increased. And also, Australians actually know more about Thai food. A lot more people travel to Thailand, and they understand more about [both] Thai culture and Thai cuisine.”
Chaikijkosi was one of the first restaurateurs to venture into the redeveloped Victoria Harbour, bringing Thai street food to the city’s besuited masses with Pok Pok. It’s hard to remember now, when there are hawker-style restaurants everywhere, but street food’s popularity in Melbourne is a relatively recent phenomenon, and Pok Pok – which Chaikijkosi has since sold – was one of the first restaurants to popularise it.
“Back in 2011, nobody did street food,” Chaikijkosi says. “Not actual street food. So I really wanted to do it to be a point of difference. Street food is about everyday cooking. It’s everyday food that people in [a] country actually eat. Bangkok is a very busy city, so the focus is on speed. Australia has become like that, too. In a corporate environment, people are looking for fresh food cooked fast.”
Now he’s returning to the area with a Thai Thani sister restaurant, and says that this time he’s aiming to provide serenity in the midst of the area’s hustle and bustle.
“It’s almost like a beach club,” he says. “I want it to seem relaxed so people don’t feel hectic when they come in at lunchtime.” Sustainability is another big focus: “The menu is focused on the particular season, and what’s growing locally. We focus on local ingredients – whatever’s available for us. We want to make sure we’re creating a new menu regularly.”
Interestingly, Chaikijkosi says that the focus on sustainability and locally sourced ingredients is also reflective of trends in his homeland. “Even in Thailand itself we’re looking for more [ideas]. Thai cuisine itself has changed. In Thailand, we use a lot of [non-traditional] techniques. This is what we call ‘modern Thai cuisine’, and it’s growing more popular, both here and in Thailand.”
He explains, “[Chefs] use ingredients that they can source locally, but [they] use modern techniques in pursuit of perfection and palate profile.” The new cuisine has yielded innovative fusion dishes but also encompasses more traditional fare. “It can be traditional food, too. [The point is] improving flavour. You [aim to] maximise the flavour of the food.”
Of course, he says, it’s important to also retain the unique spirit of Thai cuisine. “You’re not going to go and do completely different things; they [have to] remain actual dishes that people know of.” In this respect, he explains, it’s not so different to running a Thai restaurant locally. “You don’t want customers having no idea what a dish is,” he says, laughing. “There is such a variety of food in Thailand, but when we open a Thai restaurant [here], one thing we have to do is pad thai!”
You can find more information on Thai Thani in Victoria Harbour here.
This article was produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Lendlease.