WANPHEN MCDONALD

Chef, Pangea Kitchen

As a child growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, I never woke to an alarm clock. I woke to the smell of my nanny cooking.

Every morning, my nanny began cooking early. I vividly remember the smell of steamed rice and fried beans picked fresh from our garden wafting back to my bedroom. I would eagerly wait while she took food to the Buddhist monks who walked to our house from a nearby monastery. In Thailand, families always offer food to monks before eating themselves. It is tradition.

Food is so important where I come from. So much so that to this day I still get emotional about it. For that reason, it’s not surprising to me that I became a chef.

As a young woman, I attended the International Cuisine culinary school in Bangkok. There I learned many traditional European and Asian cooking techniques. But, when I finished, I felt like I needed something deeper. My early childhood memories of my culture’s traditional food beckoned me, and I realized that what I really wanted was to learn Thai cuisine.

And that is where this particular story begins, because that’s when I decided to apply for the most prestigious cooking program in all of Thailand — The Thai Royal Culinary Art College. It’s a highly competitive program. Hundreds apply every year and only 45 are accepted. Incredibly, I was among them.

And that’s where I cooked for the king.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, so the government is ruled by the royal family. And the Thai Royal Culinary Art College is actually the royal kitchen. Students train under, and work for, the royal family and foreign diplomats. We prepared every meal at the palace — cooking for the king, his wives and his children. We prepared banquets for special celebrations. We waited on visiting heads of state.

It was an incredible two years.

It was also a lot of work. The Thai Royal Culinary Art College is made up of 100% women. In our culture, we believe that this kind of cooking requires a great deal of patience, attention to detail, an eye for beauty, and a delicate touch — all things women possess. The food must not only be cooked and seasoned perfectly, it must also be beautiful. Each ingredient is handled in a very specific way. This begins long before it ever enters the kitchen. The rice and vegetables grown for the palace are carefully tended to maximize their flavor. Animals are also raised and slaughtered in a very particular way. Once those ingredients reach the chefs, we are trained in how to cut, cook and prepare each item. It is very detailed, down to the size and shapes that particular vegetables are cut — they must be just right to fit neatly into the mouth.

The attention to detail went beyond the food. In the palace, we were taught how to move, stand and speak with deference. Our uniforms had to be flawless. Our posture straight. Our language correct. In many ways, I imagine the training I underwent there is similar to what an army would experience!

I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity. My life looks a lot different now. After leaving the Royal Academy in 2013, I traveled all over the world before settling in the U.S.

It is my pleasure now to bring all that I know about Thai culture and cuisine to the people of Evansville.