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JOURNAL

The difference lies in the personality

Interview from Ole Mathiesen Magazine vol. 23

Dak Wichangoen is Denmark´s only female Michelin-star chef. Together with the chef and owner of the Thai restaurant Kiin Kiin, she has successfully held a Michelin star since 2013. She shares the secret to the success here.  

Creativity, Talent and stubbornness are all traits of Dak Wichangoen – the only female Michelin-star Chef in Denmark.

Dak Wichangoen is leafing through applications. As the head chef of the Michelin restauran Kiin Kiin, which lifts Thai food to haute cuisine, she receives countless letters from young chefs who dream of honing their craft in the kitchen: “Its all about personality”, she says as she peruses the applications:” Most people can follow a recipe. So that is where the difference lies – in the personality. It is obviously important that you can work together when you are in the tight quarters of a kitchen, but I would also say that you can taste the personality in the food”.

She is currently the only female Michelin-star chef in Denmark, and Kiin Kiin is just one of three Thai restaurants in the world to have a Michelin star – an honor it has held since 2008. So what is it about Dak´s personality that enabled her to become a Michelin-star chef? “Stubbornness,” she says continuing:” I have that from my mother.”

Daks mother came to Denmark when Dak was just a young girl. Whule her mother was figuring out whether “the grass was greener in Denmark”,  Dak lived with her grandparents in northern Thailand. At the age of seven, she came to Denmark with her younger brother to live with her mother and Danish stepfather in Western Jutland. “When my mother cooked, she made both Thai and Danish food. Danish pork sausage and papaya salad were side by side on the table, and you could mix it any way you wanted. There was never anything right or wrong. I loved rice with brown sauce!” laughs Dak. After completing school, the time had come to choose a career, and Dak thought about doing “something with hair and make-up”.

“I simply had no idea. But i had always enjoyed cooking, and at the nearby vocational school they had an international cooking program, so that ended up being the choice”. While enrolled in the program, she spent five weeks in Manchester, England learning to make Beef Wellington and other classic dishes. Then it was back home to Denmark and time to find an apprenticeship, which can be quite difficult. She applied to a wide range of restaurants, but received nothing but rejections. After a long search, she got word that Restaurant Koch in Aarhus was looking for an apprentice. She was hired for a 14-day probationary period – and that is when Dak´s talent was discovered

“It was classic french food with a touch of Southern Jutland. I found it fascinating that you could take something, as simple as a squash or celeriac and turn it into something special. All the things you can do with a vegetable! You can make purées, chips or soup, just to name a few. The more you work with an ingredient, the more you find inspiration to experiment.”

Her willingness to work 12 hours a day, six days a week also played a part in her success. As she dryly puts it:” It is a tough industry.”

Dak had of course heard about Kiin Kiin by the time she completed her training. Kiin Kiin is the Thai restaurant with a Michelin star. The restaurant earned the star two years before Dak joined the staff in 2010. Back then (as today) Danish Chef Henrik Yde put Thai food on the Michelin map. But earning a star is one thing – keeping it is the real challenge. Especially when you´re named the head chef at the young age of 25, and the boos moves to Bangkok to start a restaurant there:” We make dishes together. Henrik usually comes with an idea of the direction he wants to go in, and then we team up to work out the details,” says Dak, who was then 33 years old. The classic Thai soup Tom Yam is a signature dish, made in Kiin Kiin´s own special way. And they have also come up with surprising new techniques for the archetypical spices and ingredients in Thai food, such as sugar, which is frequently used in main courses. The yam salad at Kiin Kiin is served with a big piece of green cotton candy. “Then we pour the sauce at the table and the sugar melts into the dish,” says Dak.

Personally, Dak is captivated by bitter ingredients and flavors. In her opinion, bitter flavors are note used nearly enough. “And chili! Danes really have to learn to eat chili. There are so many different nuances in chili,” she says. There are also many nuances in the other ingredients that are shipped directly from Thailand. Lemongrass is not just lemongrass. “It is amazing how different it can taste when it arrives. The same goes for how the ingredients interact in a dish. If you made the soup at 5 p.m., that does not mean it will taste the same when guests arrive a couple of hours later. That is why I tell my staff that they have to taste all the time.” Creativity, talent and stubbornness are not just par of Dak´s personality – they are now also part of Kiin Kiin´s.