A chef’s job is to create wonderment and fulfillment on a plate as well as curb a guest’s insatiable palate. A chef cannot just put food on a plate and expect the result to be mind-blowing, instead care and attention needs to go into everything. A chef’s personal history and dedication to food is what makes them renowned and creates something different, something meaningful.
Spice I Am executive chef and co-owner, Chef Sujet does this with everything that he puts on a plate. He cares deeply about food, produce and family, which combined makes him one of the most respected Thai chefs in Australia. Though if you ask him, he’ll tell you he never thinks of himself as a chef. Instead he says, “I only think that I would be a translator, that I can translate the cuisine from generation to generation, like a messenger”. He hopes that his food and cuisine can be passed down and shared and he hopes that he “will pass it on to someone who is really keen to know”. He shares his food through his restaurants, cooking classes and newly published cookbook (Spice I Am: Homestyle Thai Recipes by Sujet Saenkham, with photography by Rob Palmer, published by Lantern. RRP $39.99).
Chef Sujet learnt the majority of his cooking skills from his mother at a young age while living in a remote village in the province of Ratchaburi in Central Thailand. Ratchaburi meaning ‘land of the kings’ is located in South West Thailand right beside the Burma border. Ratchaburi is now known for its floating markets in the Damnoen Saduak district. It has a wide array of landscapes within the small province from mudflats to mountains which means a wide variety of produce and food. This is where he learnt the importance of good produce.
Now a Sydneysider, Chef Sujet oversees and runs the kitchens at all the Spice I Am restaurants. His focus in every restaurant is fresh quality ingredients mixed with just the right amount of spice. All of Chef Sujet’s curries and dishes are made from recipes that were his mothers or are his own creation. Every curry is completely handmade, mostly by Chef Sujet himself. He has converted his mother’s old recipes to work with Australian ingredients, which he claims can sometimes trump Thailand’s for quality.
Chef Sujet’s favourite types of curries are those made with fresh ingredients and are not oil or coconut milk based. He wants the spice from the chillis he uses. During his cooking classes he teaches people how to make these curries. He teaches the basics of curry making with a hope that the student will modify and change it to fit their tastes and their families. This continues his job as a “translator” of food, where he wants to make it available for everyone. Chef Sujet runs his monthly cooking classes that you can book but they are often sold out far in advance. He has released a cookbook internationally and was amazed when he found it in Thailand. This cookbook brings his recipes into everyone’s home.
Besides the food, he cares deeply about sustainable living. Five years ago Chef Sujet founded a farm in rural New South Wales to source the produce for the restaurants in Sydney. Currently they source their fresh ingredients for the restaurants almost a hundred percent from the farm. During the winter or incremental weather Chef Sujet picks the the produce from local farmers and only sources the best. He says “you should appreciate the land you live”. His love of food, being sustainable and environmentally conscious shine through in his restaurants. Sustainable food and living is the way to live going forward to ensure a safe earth for generations to come. Family comes above all else for Chef Sujet, who wants to see his children grow up in a world where they can be healthy and happy.
Spice I Am Darlinghurst is one of the five Spice I Am restaurants in Sydney. With dark wood and an extensive menu it is an elegant night out. New additions were recently added to the menu and there is something for everyone.
For entrees there are endless options, the signature entrée is the Bour Thod ($15.50). This is a fritter of crispy, deep fried, betel leaf and prawns. They are topped with chilli sauce, roasted cashew and coriander. They are quite spicy, as you’d expect from a place with spice in its name, but only perfectly so. The mini curry puffs ($10.50) are mild and fried perfectly. Unlike some curry puffs which can be overwhelming, these are filled with a dense mild curry.
If you are looking for a salad, the Larb ($19) contains your choice of minced beef, pork or chicken. We tried a small version of this. It is flavoured with lime and coriander. It contains fresh vegetables and is robust on the palate.
One of Spice I Am’s speciality dishes is the Red Duck Curry ($29.50) which is colourful, fun and spicy. It is roasted duck in a handmade curry filled with eggplant, tomatoes, lychee and Thai basil. Another main dish to try is the Kang Ke Ree (yellow curry, $24) which comes with tender chicken thigh. It is a traditional yellow curry that is filled with coconut milk, potatoes and onion.
The pork belly, is spicy, it is one of the signature dishes and is a deep deep red. There is a lot of chilli in this dish and it’s not for the faint of heart. This crispy pork belly is covered in chilli, red curry paste and kaffir leaves ($29.50). For a mild albeit generic Thai dish you cannot go wrong with the Cashew Nut (starting at $19 for chicken). This is filled with shallots, onions and chilli jam and packed with cashew nuts. It is sweet and tangy. You get a generous portion that goes perfectly with rice.
There is such an assortment of curries and stir fries it is hard to pick. The menu at Spice I Am Darlinghurst is vast, and it may take you a while to make a decision on what to eat. Your best bet is to order a lot and share with your friends and family.
For dessert there are so many amazing ones to choose from. Spice I Am’s signature dessert is the BTS (Better than Sex, $17) which is a toasted brioche with pandan gelato. It is smothered in Thai caramel sauce and really is BTS. The Khao Neaw Dum ($11.50) is for the rice pudding lovers out there. This black sticky rice with coconut cream is warm and topped with gelato. It is perfectly sweet, leading to a great end to the meal.
Chef Sujet prides himself on fresh wholesome ingredients that he would feed his family. He cooks breakfast and lunch for them before being too busy running numerous restaurants during the dinner rush. He believes though that family is super important and is thinking about slowing down and appreciating what he has.
Chef Sujet wants to share his love for food and the earth with everyone. He wants food to be relatable. Food is a way of sharing and caring about one another and the planet. Food is knowledge that can be passed down through generations. Sustainable, locally sourced food is the future and Spice I Am is definitely somewhere to check out in Sydney.
For more information on Spice I Am’s restaurants, cooking classes or cookbook, go to spiceiam.com