2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee of Cake Thai Kitchen

2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee of Cake Thai Kitchen
April 2016

Growing up in the hotel business on the resort island for which he was named, Phuket “Cake” Thongsodchareondee frequently found himself in the kitchen, eager to learn from the chef. After leaving southern Thailand for Perth, Australia, Thongsodchareondee went against his parents’ wishes and pursued a career in food. He took over a failing restaurant, learning first-hand the life of a restaurateur.

In 2008, Thongsodchareondee moved to Miami and started out as many immigrants do: cooking here and there for a living. When he was introduced to Japanese cuisine, Thongsodchareondee found direction and landed a position under 2006 StarChefs Rising Star Makoto Okuwa. He worked at Makoto for four years, with a year-long interlude in San Francisco at Amphawa and Full Moon Thai. In 2014, Thongsodcharoendee ventured out on his own, opening Cake Thai Kitchen in Miami’s emerging MiMo neighborhood. Dishes like fried rice with fermented salami, rustic red shoo shee curry, and funky, spicy duck salad were an instant hit with the city’s industry crowd—and soon drew attention from investors. Cake Thai Kitchen 2.0 is scheduled to open in Wynwood in late spring, giving Thongsodchareondee a bigger platform to share a singular vision of his native cuisine.

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee of Cake Thai Kitchen

Korakot Suriya-arporn: How did you get your start?
Phuket Thongsodchareondee:
I started cooking when I was 7. My family owned a hotel business in Phuket named Andaman Orchid Hotel. It closed in 1997. I loved to hang out in the kitchen because I really love eating, and I was really into food back then. The hotel chef taught me a lot of basic cooking techniques. I was taught Western cuisine at first—making pizza dough, steak, burgers, and French onion soup. I knew all along that I wanted to be a successful chef. So I went to Australia to study hotel management, but didn’t graduate. My parents wanted me to run the hotel, but I want to work in a restaurant instead. 

KS: Who influenced you to make Thai food?
My dad taught me a lot in the sense of how flavors work. He loves to eat, and he is my biggest food critic. Also, my mom is the most adventurous eater, and she always took me to try new things. She really opened my eyes and palate when it came to Thai cuisine. I moved to the United States in 2008. I was all alone and was looking for a job. I intended to come to Miami because I saw Miami on television and thought it seemed like a cool place to be. I was working in real estate before I moved here. At first, I got a job as a cook at a Vietnamese-Japanese restaurant [Sushi Saigon], got introduced to the sushi world, and started working at this sushi restaurant. Then, I applied for a position at Makoto and ended up working there as a sushi chef for four years.

KS: What was working at Makoto like?
I was extremely excited, and I was up to the challenge. I was so inspired by the techniques I learned there that I felt pumped to go back and work every day. I always went back home and sharpened my knife to get ready for the next day. The biggest thing working there was maintaining cleanliness and precision. That was the utmost priority at Makoto.

KS: What did you learn from Makoto?
I learned what it is like to fully understand ingredients. I always had this impression that the more seasoning the better, like how Thais season our food. But, in fact, subtlety goes a long way. You don’t have to dump ingredients onto each other that would eventually overshadow each other. He always taught me that. I got a lot of presentation techniques from him, as well as preservation and tips and tricks to work faster.

KS: How does that influence how you cook at Cake Thai Kitchen?
In a sense, I learned how important it is to make things from scratch in the kitchen and not rely on store-bought products. I make my own chile pastes, preserved ingredients, naem [fermented pork sausage], khao kua [toasted rice], and toasted chiles. I try not to buy anything if I can make it in my own kitchen. Another thing I got from him is the way he cherishes ingredients. As a chef, not only do we need to know what ingredients we use, but also where they are from. I love going out to see how my purveyors raise or grow things. I like using new ingredients too, just to experiment. At CTK, flavor is my top priority. The presentation isn’t anything near what Makoto is. Makoto is very technique-driven, but my restaurant is a lot more about flavor.

KS: How would you describe CTK?
It is the fruit of my labor. When I first started it, I was definitely blank about Thai cuisine. It is all about trial and error. I tested food countless times before I put it on the menu. I grew up with Thai food, so I have this salient memory of what certain things taste like. Right now, we have only four people working in the kitchen, and I am always in the back of the house. Everything on the menu is what I personally like to eat, but I am planning to change things up, too. We have only 15 seats. My favorite thing on the menu is kuay tiew rua [boat noodle]. I always taste every dish before it leaves the kitchen. I tend to not pander to what the guests want. I want them to eat my food, the way I would eat, so no pad Thai with chicken. Some people get angry because I don’t make things that they request. A lot of Thai restaurants in Miami are like that, which essentially bastardizes Thai food. But a lot of people are very understanding and totally get where I’m coming from.

KS: What does the future hold for Cake?
Right now, my restaurant is what we actually cook in Thailand, but I plan to do a lot more fine dining with the essence of home cooking. Probably using better and more expensive ingredients with more emphasis on seasonal products.