The road to Thai cuisine Chefdom for 39-year-old Morten Boejstrup Nielsen was not strewn with rose petals. Having completed training at a Copenhagen culinary school, Nielsen, originally from Nordjylland, went through the usual daily grind, earning hard-won progress in his career. Then he began dabbling with Thai cuisine, or, to be more precise – a tiny fraction of it – way back in the late 1990s.
At that time, Thai was a mere subset of the so-called ‘Asian twist’ in the fusion food movement as Nielsen recalled. It didn’t take much for a Fusion chef to churn out their culinary creations and label them as ‘Thai-style’ or ‘Thai’ish’. All it took was to add a bit of galangal or kaffir lime juice to, say, the ubiquitous French Bearnaise sauce.
Fast forward to the turn of the millennium when Thai has gone mainstream in virtually all cosmopolitan cities around the world and the cuisine firmly established as one of the most popular.
That’s how far the Thai cuisine has come and that, in a sense, also applies to Morten Boejstrup Nielsen’s rise in the hierarchy of western practitioners of traditional Thai cuisine.
The first time Nielsen got to experiment with Thai elements in Western cuisine was in a fusion kitchen in Copenhagen in 2003. The idea of manipulating a complex interplay of rich flavours of Thai so intrigued Nielsen that he jumped at the first opportunity to work for the legendary David Thompson of Nahm Thai Restaurant in London in 2004.
After six months of learning all he could from the Thai cuisine heavyweight, Nielsen decided to travel to gain first-hand experience in the Thai cooking tradition at its source. In 2005, he packed up and went to Thailand with a tentative plan to spend 6 months in quest of knowledge of Thai cuisine.
“That planned six months dragged on to two years that took me to all corners of Thailand, working as apprentice and learning from the best native Thai cooks from the humblest street-side foodstalls to celebrated eateries to some of the most obscure regional Thai restaurants,” Nielsen said.
He decided early on upon arriving in Thailand that immersing himself in the local culinary tradition and all its regional varieties was the only way to learn how to cook Thai. That means leaving the comfort zone of Western European food tradition.
“My first encounter with stir-fried frog was interesting, I have only eaten frog the French way, legs only, and was quite surprised when chewing into bones, skin and whatnots from the frog,” he said. “It goes without saying that I had never eaten bugs or crawling insects, I simply could not compare them to anything or find any reference in the range of my taste sensations while I was eating it.”
Apparently, his culinary adventure made a lasting impression, so Nielsen decided to get a tattoo that says ‘fascinated with food’ in Thai text on one forearm in addition to the Polynesian one on the other.
By the time his savings ran out, he has mastered and been putting finishing touches to his vast repertoire of Thai cooking techniques. He needed to start looking for a job again. That’s when an opportunity opened up when Henrik Yde Andersen launched Kiin Kiin molecular Thai cuisine restaurant in Copenhagen in 2007. Nielsen became the head chef at Kiin Kiin.
In 2010, Nielsen spearheaded the opening of Srabua by Kiin Kiin restaurant in Bangkok to offer the Danish restaurant’s brand of modern Thai cuisine to Thailand. Nielsen’s journey in Thai cuisine has come full circle.
Nielsen met his future Thai wife, Puntira, in 2011 and got married two years later. The happy couple is now expecting the arrival of a baby in August or September this year.
To Nielsen, life in Thailand is both personally fulfilling and professional rewarding. Like most expat Danes, he occasionally finds himself longing for Danish rye bread and cold cuts.
As the new Dusit International Group Chef of Thai Cuisine, his first mission is to update the Thailand-based hotel chain’s Benjarong Royal Thai cuisine restaurants from its deep, classic roots to give it a modern-contemporary reinterpretation.
The timing couldn’t have been better. His expertise in combining modern techniques with traditional flavour profiles to produce contemporary dishes that are distinctively Thai at heart is assured. The Thai cuisine as a global phenomenon has been so well-established that it’s now okay to move away from authentic Thai to give it a modern-contemporary twist.
“Benjarong Restaurant in Bangkok is older than I am. I find it a privilege and am thankful they give me this chance to revamp the restaurant’s Thai cuisine concept.”
Nielsen was quick to add that “We’re not creating something totally new. Nothing is new about Thai food. Infused with so much tradition and pride, Thai cuisine will remain what it has always been and it should.”
Textures and flavours are something one should not change, he stressed.
“But some people will have their own ways of making Thai food, their own interpretations of Thai food. They will enjoy new contemporary Thai coming up in Thai food scenes. At the same time, there’ll always be Thai food that stays true to its roots.”