A story about spicy food, tomato juice and strength found in adversity.
Headphones on, but totally focused on what he's doing, Monster Chef's jogging routine unfolds in the summery Herastrau Park. Once a week, on his day off from the Thai restaurant in Bucharest where he works as Executive Chef, he runs for about 8 or 9 km.
Born in Ko Samui, the second largest island in Thailand, he has always loved water sports, but now he just wanted to lose some weight. Like in many other moments of his life, he used his willpower and in three months he went from 88 to 71 kilos.
He was jokingly called by his colleagues the Monster Chef because he tried to impose the tough Thai work standards when he started his job at Kunai in Bucharest, about one and a half years ago.
"Actually I'm quite a friendly guy but when it comes to work, this has to be done like this and this- I am very strict and hardworking," he tells me laughing. He learned to relax after a while, and now, he says, working here is almost like a holiday for him. "In Thailand, if you want a better life, you have to work hard. If you only do one job, you're gonna survive, but if you want something better, you need to work more." He once had five jobs at a time, but he doesn't complain about it.
People actually call him by TJ, which is not his real name. But in Thailand, most people go by their nicknames. He originally had a more complicated nickname, which means rocks, but nobody could ever pronounce it right. So he asked his friends to give him a different name, that was easy for them, and they came up with TJ. "My favourite juice is Tomato Juice, so they thought TJ could match me."
He learned to cook from his mother. The Thai cuisine is very traditional, he says, and it is being passed from mother to child. But he also went to a culinary school, in order to become a professional. After graduating he started working as Demi Chef in Phuket, Thailand's biggest island, where he moved when he was 15.
"My parents passed away when I was 14, in a car accident. So I have been living alone ever since. Everything I did - studying, going to university, working - was on my own. I had to take on different jobs to pay for my school, selling newspapers, working in gas stations, cleaning the dish in a Thai shop, helper in the kitchen, until I graduated."
Then he adds: "I did a lot of things. I had to do that to survive. Hard life, but it’s fine. When I have problems, I know they are going to pass."
“My parents always told me they wanted me to be a good person. So after they passed away I’ve tried to keep the promise I made to them, and this has always stayed behind my determination not to go for the bad things. I knew I had to study and get money for my studies.”
As we are talking at a table in the restaurant, one of the waiters tells him something about an order, so TJ goes to the kitchen to prepare the dish. As I accompany him, I am first struck by the higher temperature and the noise there, in comparison to the silence in the restaurant. Then I watch him cooking. At least I try to do so, because the Monster Chef moves too fast, and seems to be absorbed in some perfect kind of concentration. The fresh vegetables get lost in the huge wok, a round-bottomed vessel originating from China. No more than a few minutes and the food is ready to be delivered to the customer. The Thai cuisine uses fresh vegetables, the ones you can get from the backyard, and not dried herbs.
But food customs are different in Thailand. "The eating life never stops there. There are always some noodles, some Chinese or Japanese dish, 24 hours." He doesn't miss Thailand, he says, but he does miss the food there. "There are things that I cannot cook for my kitchen here. The ingredients are quite a problem."
He likes living in another country. "Maybe I was a foreigner in my last life, maybe I was born in the wrong place," he says laughing. "Actually I don't like spicy food. Shhhh..don't tell anyone. When my mother was cooking, she always made for me something else besides spicy food."
After working in the hotel industry in Thailand for about 12 years, he started getting bored. "Even if you move from one hotel to another one, the system is the same." So TJ started looking for over-sea jobs. First he went to France for a few years, then to the United States for another four years, then moved back to Thailand to work on an oil platform, in the middle of the ocean. His responsibility was similar to the one of a hotel manager, taking care of the rooms and the food there. Then he got the offer from Anne, the owner of the restaurant in Bucharest, and he moved here.
"I saw the opportunity. If you are the first Thai restaurant, you have the potential to grow really quickly." What surprised him when he got here was that people were more flexible and everything was more relaxed.
"I feel that my home is where I'm working," TJ says. What if you get bored again? I ask him. "I won't, it's different here." He even loves the cold weather, or better said, especially the winter. "When the wind blows really hard in winter, they start saying, ohhhh, I cannot stand outside, it's freezing. But I'm standing there, and I'm thinking…this is sooo good." When you live in a hot place for a long time, you're really gonna love cold weather, he says. Last winter he even went to Predeal and Brasov to do some snowboarding and some skiing.
When it comes to relaxing, going to clubs or drinking is not his thing. "I didn't drink at all for a long time. But after I met Anne, she said, ok bro, sit here with me, a glass of Prosecco for you. She always tells me, bro you need to relax because you work in the kitchen, standing all day long." And indeed, ‘kitchen is hard work’, he confirms. "We always have to do something, even when we don't have customers." But in the morning he doesn't feel like he's going to work. "It's something I love to do. We make jokes all the time, they are like my brothers and sisters, not only colleagues. We take care of each other, just like a family."
But what TJ really loves is coffee - he drinks 20 espressos a day. "I always fill my cup with 4 or 5 shots of coffee and I refill it 4 or 5 times a day." I don't believe you, I tell him, it's not possible! "When I go see the doctor, he also says this is unbelievable, because it hasn't affected my body at all. The doctor tells me I'm too healthy. I never get sick, I never get the cold, I never have a flu."
There is as story behind the coffee, TJ says, "I started drinking coffee when I was 5 or 6. When I was a kid, before I went to school, my responsibility was to prepare the breakfast for my parents- coffee with some snacks, some desert, some bread for the morning. I always drank hot chocolate. But then one morning the hot chocolate was finished and I was too lazy to go to the shop to buy new one, so I poured some coffee for me too. And I discovered that…. wow, this is better than chocolate. From that time I started drinking coffee more and more."
By Diana Mesesan, features writer, firstname.lastname@example.org