One-on-One with Koh Thai Kitchen’s Chef de Cuisine Sumalee Khunpet
Sumalee Khunpet, or “Chef Jeab” as she is fondly known, is a household name at Koh Thai Kitchen at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui. Bringing her flair and edge in southern Thai cuisine, Jeab focuses on authentic dishes from the island and further afield, incorporating typical local ingredients that make the cuisine as flavourful and authentic as it can possibly be. In this chat, she lets us in on her trade truths and more.
Take us through your journey of becoming a chef. Did someone or something inspire you to become a chef?
I was inspired by my first supervisor in Koh Samui, Patcharee Smith. She taught me everything - from Thai fusion to French cooking - and guided me with one-on-one cooking sessions. Most importantly, she made me feel proud of myself and that translated into confidence in my cooking.
Did travel play a role in your journey? If so, how?
For me, travelling means the distance travelled in life; of course, every journey always teaches us something, and the thing that teaches us best is the mistakes. Fix it and good things will always follow, whether at work or in life.
Tell us a little more about Koh Thai Kitchen and the concept.
The restaurant offers a setting and ambiance like nowhere else on the island - set on a palm-fringed hilltop overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Koh’s kitchen is a creative workhouse for authentic southern Thai cuisine, offering flavours that speak for themselves. Going back to the roots of some of the island’s favourite dishes, we feature a menu that is at once authentic and straight forward, but also introduces less-familiar Thai recipes and flavours. Our professional service makes guests feel like eating at the home of your close friends or relatives.
Are all ingredients used at Koh Thai Kitchen sourced locally? If so, do you find this challenging?
We source all ingredients locally produced in Thailand. Most of our ingredients are procured from the island but there are occasions when we have to order from elsewhere within Thailand. The country is so rich in fresh produce that there isn’t usually a challenge creating seasonal menus.
How does Koh Samui influence your cooking style?
When one thinks about Koh Samui, they associate it with being a beautiful tourist attraction - white sandy beaches, swaying palms, mindful travel. For someone like me, who is practically a local having lived here for more than 25 years, it’s the food and the people that have kept me going. While I was born in the south of Thailand, there’s always something new to discover for me on the island – whether cultural or cuisine – which is reflected in my menus.
What are the most common cooking techniques used in the restaurant?
There are several cooking techniques used in our kitchen but the common thread is happiness. When the food is cooked with love and happiness, it translates to not just the taste but also the mood of the guest.
Do you have a signature dish or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I have many favourites – some of which are also available at the restaurant such as kung pad kapi (stir-fried prawn with shrimp paste), kaeng som, and gaeng massaman nua (massaman curry with beef). My favourite dish that I enjoy cooking is khao soi gai, which is influenced by northern Thailand.
Working in a kitchen can get stressful at times, what’s the one thing you do to stay calm?
While I am working in the kitchen, I am not stressed – I enjoy the environment in the kitchen and try to keep it light for my colleagues. Yes, there are some days when there’s a lot to manage within a short timeframe and such occasions, I plug in Thai instrumental music, especially Thai flute, which helps me relax.
Is there another chef that you most admire and would like to collaborate with?
Chef Pongtawat "Ian" Chalermkittichai, known as Ian Kittichai, is a Thai chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer. He is smart and has a good sense of humour. We’ve met once and I would love to collaborate with him again.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I would be a farmer!
Any restaurant recommendations in Koh Samui?
There are plenty of restaurants on the island that I go to regularly - I would suggest trying Baan Saun Lang Sard Restaurant, which is located in Ang Thong, near the Nathon Town. It is a local restaurant where the owner is also the chef. She chooses the ingredients herself and has a kitchen garden for organic produce. I also frequent Krua Khun Ying Restaurant, serving southern Thai cuisine inspired by family recipes. The restaurant is located in the heart of Choengmon with a breath-taking sea view. Kai palo (five-spice egg and pork belly stew served as a stovetop instant pot) and the crab egg chili paste with fresh Thai mixed vegetables side dish are the must-try here. Another of my favourites is Khao Hom Restaurant – a local restaurant in Bo Phut – close to the airport, which serves fresh seafood and authentic Samui cuisine.