This is part one of my interview with Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace. Part two of my interview with Bates will run tomorrow.
The definition of culture shock? Spending your youth in a big city in Thailand, and then, when you're thirteen, moving thousands of miles away, to the land of livestock and cowboys. "You have absolutely no idea how weird that was," says Thanawat Bates, the exec chef of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace, who left his homeland as a teenager to move to Wyoming with his mother and stepfather. "I remember seeing snow for the first time, and talk about shock. I just stopped and stared in bewilderment," recalls the 32-year-old chef.
He might have left Thailand behind, but he didn't lose the love of cooking he'd gotten from his grandmother. "Growing up in Thailand was amazing, and my grandmother, who was an incredible cook, would let me play with food in her kitchen -- and I always got to try everything," he reminisces. "But it was the way she made people smile, the way that she was able to bring food and people together -- the warmth behind that -- that made me want to do the same thing."
Bates's mother opened a restaurant in Wyoming, paving the way for him to follow in his grandmother's footsteps. "As part of my chores, I'd go to my mom's restaurant after school and help her in the kitchen, and I'd do pretty much everything else, too," remembers Bates. He eventually moved to Colorado to attend culinary school at Colorado Mountain College in Vail, where he worked as an intern at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa for six months before getting a paying gig working the line -- and teaching the tricks of the trade to first-year culinary students.
After graduating and cementing his own chops, Bates bolted for Los Angeles, where he'd secured a stint as a sous chef at the St. Regis, a position that exposed him to high volume, a sophisticated, well-heeled clientele, and celebrity chefs including Michael Mina, with whom Bates occasionally worked. It was a memorable experience, but L.A. wore him down: "It was too hectic and overwhelming, and my mom wasn't doing well," he says. So he returned to Colorado and the familiar stamping ground of the Vail Cascade, where he was brought on as a banquet chef. He stuck around the world of snow bunnies and snowstorms for a few years, until "I got a fantastic offer to work at the Ritz-Carlton in D.C., and while I was there, I also got to stage for some great chefs, including José Andrés and Michel Richard, and I learned a ton about working in corporate kitchens, not to mention a lot about politics," he says.
But while Bates was happy in D.C., he missed Colorado, and when the former executive chef of the Vail Cascade let Bates know that he was now the exec chef of the Brown Palace, Bates booked a seat on the next flight home. He was hired as the Brown's banquet chef but was soon promoted to the exec chef of the Palace Arms. "They figured that if I could handle doing banquets for 600 people, then I could handle a boutique fine-dining restaurant," says Bates, who was just 26 at the time. "It was intimidating at first, but I wanted it bad, I worked hard for it, and I like to stay ahead of what I expect from myself."
He notes, too, that the regal restaurant, steeped in history, has come a long way in the last decade. "It used to be really old-school, but now, while we still respect the classics, we're definitely progressing the food by modernizing and updating recipes, flavor profiles and plate presentations," he says, adding that his new fall menu -- which he's calling "foods close to our hearts" -- will be a compilation of dishes that represent the cultural backgrounds of the kitchen staff. "The new menu will be Thai, Latin, Spanish and Italian, because those are the cuisines that represent our heritages, and I love my staff and want to make them feel involved."
And, of course, he and his crew cater to some of the world's most recognizable celebrities. "I really don't have any horrific celebrity stories to tell, but one woman -- she's a big, big, big name -- stayed here during the Democratic National Convention and bought Dom Pérignon for everyone in the restaurant and lobby," he reveals.
In the following interview, Bates also reveals the details of his James Beard dinner "nightmare," the attributes of owning a monkey peeler, and the couple who refused to eat anything from above -- or below -- ground.
Six words to describe your food: Creative, balanced, unique, artistic, playful and memorable.
Ten words to describe you: Gregarious, passionate, hardworking, driven, down-to-earth, crazy, thoughtful, funny, shy and conservative.
Favorite ingredient: Any fat. Fats are so great, because they impart a ton of flavor into everything they're cooked with.
Best recent food find: I just discovered dry-aged Colorado lamb, and I've been incorporating it into as many new dishes as I can.
Most overrated ingredient: I think Kobe beef is overrated. I feel like everywhere I go, there's Kobe included in every other item on the menu, and to add insult to injury, it seems to always be covered up with a sauce or something else, with no chance to truly taste the meat. It's definitely past its prime.
Most underrated ingredient: Natural ingredients are underrated. People tend to take vegetables or proteins and either over-season them or cover them up, when, in fact, they're delicious -- and can stand -- on their own.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Palisade peaches; they're just so fresh and wonderful to work with. I also love Fruition Farm's sheep's-milk ricotta cheese, which we order through Italco. I love cooking with it, but it's also a customer favorite.
Favorite spice: I'd have to say salt. It makes food taste better, and it helps bring cohesiveness to everything.
One food you detest: Goat cheese. There's something about the tartness of the flavor that I'm not a fan of...at all.
One food you can't live without: Pork -- all pork. I love to cook with pork, eat pork and experiment with pork in new dishes. I could never live without it.
Favorite music to cook by: My favorite music is no music at all. I'm one of those chefs who has to have complete silence in the kitchen. It helps me focus and lets me really enjoy everything that's happening around me.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: As long as everything is organized in my kitchen, I'm happy. Organization plays such a huge role in the harmony and flow of how things are prepared and served. In fact, it's my one and only rule.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I call it my James Beard Dinner Nightmare, although I think it would be every chef's nightmare, actually. Everything I had shipped from Denver to New York -- all my product -- never showed up. Instead, it was sent back to Denver. The amount of anxiety I had while tracking it down and making sure it finally got back to New York for the second time around almost killed me. It was the closest call I've ever had, and definitely not the way a chef wants to prepare for a dinner at the James Beard House.
What's never in your kitchen? A bad staff. Everything in the kitchen needs to be harmonious in order to achieve the best results, and if there's anyone in there who's not a team player or not holding his or her own weight, it's simply not going to work.
What's always in your kitchen? I always have European butter and Kewpie mayonnaise on hand.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I very rarely cook a full meal at home -- or even eat at home -- but when I do get the chance, I keep it simple. My go-to meals for myself are a simple roasted chicken or just a fried egg. I like to eat them plain, or sometimes I use anything else I might have and make sandwiches. But when I do cook a full meal or barbecue for a group of my friends, it's a whole different story.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love the crab cake with braised baby vegetables, basil, coconut and lemongrass froth. It's my favorite dish for a couple of reasons: I love that it has a little bit of Thai influence in it, and it's also the hotel manager's favorite.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I guess I'm a lucky chef, because so far, everything I've dreamt up, I've been able to put on the menu. The Brown has been very generous in giving me a lot of freedom to change things up and try new dishes.
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What's next for you? That's a great question, but to be honest, I have no idea. I'm enjoying myself and where I'm at right now, but I'll always be open to new opportunities that may come along. In the meantime, I'll continue to explore foods and stay creative, and at some point in the future, I'd love to open my own place.
Your last supper: My grandma's cooking.