Slow Food Columbia is one of 200+ Slow Food USA chapters, located in Columbia, South Carolina. Our mission is to support the movement behind GOOD, CLEAN and FAIR foodways in the Midlands and beyond. Our convivium hosts workshops, potlucks and other events throughout the year to celebrate local + seasonal flavors; to showcase the culinary talents of our region's chefs, farmers, + artisan producers; to strengthen connections between members of our local food community; and to educate the public about the importance of knowing where your food comes from.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How this Thai-Carolinian Chef Keeps it Lean and Green

Our latest guest blog was contributed by Executive Chef Alex Suaudom du Monde, who runs the well-loved Baan Sawan Thai Bistro with his erudite, oenotherapist brother Sam and their parents on Devine St. in the Five Points district of Columbia, SC. It's a well-known fact that his green curry ahi tuna is a thing of beauty, but we didn't realize that the restaurant has a private, boutique herb and chile pepper garden that is grown just for them, or that they use melted bar well ice and rain barrels to water their plants. Read below for more Slow thoughts from this Thai-Carolinian restaurateur. Thanks, Chef Alex!

It's a challenge to run an ethnic niche restaurant on the other side of the planet from the ecosystem where the recipes were first developed. Sourcing ingredients is always an exercise in creativity.

But in our tiny, family run bistro, the volume is not so overwhelming that we can't still use many of the same techniques that we used at home when I was growing up.

We try to grow as many of our own ingredients as possible, with the same philosophy that guides our menu. In terms of m├ęthode, we deconstruct traditional recipes, then execute them with classical and modern techniques.

In terms of gardening, we grow lemon grass, kaffir lime (for the leaves), a variety of peppers, basil and so forth, all while adhering to FDA & DHEC guidelines.

But with some things, it does seem everything old is new again. In the old country, I remember the huge, clay cisterns my uncle had spaced along the corners of the house, used to capture and store rainwater for household use.

Here, we use modern rain catchment techniques to help water our garden. Inside the restaurant, we re-use the melted, leftover ice at the end of the night to water plants in the dining room.

It may not be much, but it adds up, and it's water that would otherwise go down the drain. It's just the way we did things, growing up, and nowadays people call it using gray water, reducing your carbon footprint, etc.

(The pic is from when my wife Raiessa & I attended a rain-barrel making workshop put on by the Clemson extension. There's another one 11 Dec; Build-a-Rain Barrel Workshop, Clemson Sandhills REC. The kid, by the way, is helping us tighten the spigot in the barrel.)

I'm a purist when it comes to certain things. I like my bourbon neat, my beers dark, my calibers .45 and I'm not a fan of kitchen gadgets. It's like when I first learned to shoot; I asked one of the old salts at the range what he thought about laser sights. "Learn to shoot!" he said. I'll never forget the twinkle in his eye or the harrumph in his voice, when he said that.

I'm the same way in the kitchen, now. I'd much, much rather use a knife than a food processor. (And incidentally, it's that much less electricity that I use. Again, every little bit helps, right?)

A couple of times a week I have to shred a counter full of heads of cabbage for spring rolls, and it's so much more of a pure experience to use a knife rather than a processor. I have much more control, and I feel so much more in tune with my ingredients. I like to hear and feel the crunch as the knife makes the cut. It's just so...satisfying.

But it's a busy world full of work and not much time in which to do it, so I will, regretfully, sometimes use a mandoline or a machine. I still don't own a laser sight, though. And if someone were to ask me what I thought of, say, a VeggieChop Vegetable Chopper, I'll tell them to learn to cut.

Here we have a mortar & pestle. I've used the same one for years and years, now, just like my dad did, and I use it to make ingredients for many of my dishes.

It grinds and macerates peppercorns, garlic, coriander etc together in such a way that the flavors blend and layer, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A processor would create a paste, which is alright, I guess, or a lot of little bits like the garlic you can buy in fat, glass jars, which is not alright. The mortar & pestle creates an effect I think of as similar to when you make a nice stew, and it's better the next day. Why is that? I think it's because the flavors have time to mature together, which is an effect the mortar & pestle facilitates especially well.

I was born in Washington DC, but I've lived here in Columbia, South Carolina since I was three. That makes it thirty-six years, now. And as an asian growing up in the deep south, I can tell you whole-heartedly that right here, right now is an exciting time to be living here.

The last few years have seen Columbia moving forward in ways I could not seriously have imagined in the previous thirty.

There are so many dedicated, talented people doing fascinating, creative things in Columbia, like Ben at City Roots farm, in the pic at right.

It's not that these people weren't here before, I don't think. It's more that there's a growing community that seeks to bring them together and put them to work in ways that move Columbia in the direction we want it to go.

It's something I believe that South Carolina desperately needs, and I'm proud to be a part of it, in my own quirky little way.

--Alex Suaudom du Monde, exec chef baan sawan thai bistro


Tracie Broom said...

I love this post so much, Chef Alex! Thank you for your wit, wisdom and perspective. (And for those spring rolls. Yum.)

Jonathan said...

I like the idea of a mortar and pestle rather than a melting pot. Well said!

Tracie Broom said...

Right on!