One of the highlights in my recent memories has to be the friendly lunch with Chef Belle, a Masterchef Thailand Season 5 alumnus and a neighbor of Rajchakru, a delightful conversation full of inspiration and surprises.
It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m at Kenny’s, a brand new hotspot on Phaholyothin soi 5, just across the street from Feast Rajchakru. With its bright orange decor, exposed red brick finish, and indie pop music, it’s not hard to guess what kind of food the restaurant/bar has to offer: comfort food, namely pizza and a nice selection of craft beer to savor until 3 am (if you secure the booking in advance). Kenny’s has been tirelessly catering hungry customers for two months, with seats fully booked almost throughout the business hours.
There, I made an appointment to talk to Chef Belle, the guest chef of Kenny’s for this month. Kenny’s has this thing called “Kenny’s & Friends,” which is a planned collaboration, inviting different chefs & artists to contribute something new and shiny to the restaurant each month, and Chef Belle was the first-ever on this project. She has created five menus including various pizza toppings, ceviche, and Sai Oua, the traditional northern sausage, and more, using ingredients and flavors inspired by the northern taste of Northern part of Thailand.
Belle is one of the alumni from a brutal TV reality show called Masterchef Thailand, in which she amassed a large number of fans. I was so excited when I learned that she is one of our neighbors in Ari.
The Grandma & TV Champion
“It was my grandma who taught me how to light up a stove and pick vegetable leaves. I grew up with her because my mom and dad had to work during the day. My grandma was such an excellent cook. Her Pla Tod Kamin (Turmeric Fried Fish) was to die for. I took on the wheel as the family’s cook after my grandmother was sadly bedridden and passed away. I had to prepare dinner when my mom and dad came back from work, and I experimented in the kitchen and cooked lunch for my brother during the school break. I was only in elementary school!”
TV Champion was a popular Japanese TV show where contestants competed to be the best in their expertise. Ask any Thais who grew up in the late ’90s with a TV, and it’ll send them on a memory trip. Belle learned about Tempura and Tonkatsu from the show. What did she do that sets her apart from all of us? She actually attempted to make those Japanese dishes she saw on TV. Yes, alone in her family’s kitchen in Parkkred as a 12-year-old. The girl proceeded to bake her own bread with stuffing and sell them to neighbors.
“It was a moment of pride for a child when I made 200 baht from selling my onion bread to the neighborhood kids and when my parents came back from work and ate my food. I know they’d say it’s delicious no matter what I make, but yeah, anyway.”
I swear if only you had been there to see the way she told the story, you could tell she was having so much fun.
The Road Not Taken
When Belle became a teenager, her skill and talent in cooking were obvious to everyone around her, but she’d rather call herself “a home cook kind of girl,” cooking only for family and friends. The road as a chef was not chosen.
“I have conservative parents who advocate for making conservative life choices. They are both government officers who worked in one job all the way to their retirement. Being a chef for them (and for me too at the time) meant working in a kitchen or opening a restaurant which I didn’t big investment to open a restaurant as well . I didn’t see it as my future career. I still cook for my family every weekend though. I remember baking pies and cake, trying recipes from housewife magazines as a pastime.”
Belle proceeded to study and have a career in finance and marketing and got herself the first job as a data analyst, during which she cried every day for a short period.
“I saw an ad for the Asian Food Network looking for a TV presenter. It was a big moment for me because, as a TV-addict kid, I was a fan of the channel, and I never saw anyone who makes Thai food and speaks English there. So I left that job and took a leap. I made it to the top 5 from applicants all over Asia!
In the end, I have my own show of 12 episodes called Home-cooked Thailand but I did not end up becoming one of their final presenters. At that time, I didn’t feel confident enough. I was intimidated by other applicants. I was worried that I couldn’t speak English like a native speaker. I was worried that I didn’t have enough connection, experience, or knowledge like others.”
“After not getting to the final round, I swore to myself that next time I have a chance like this again, I will be myself 100% and be confident no matter what.”
And then the chance came along: Masterchef Thailand
Several years later, Masterchef Thailand Season 5 held the audition, looking specifically for people without formal experience in the culinary world. Anyone with experience from cooking school or working in the kitchen before were not ineligible to apply. Of course, this was like a door of heaven swinging open with glittering golden light pouring down for Belle. Her time to shine!
“If anything, the competition taught me to be blunt and competitive. It was not scripted, but we were all told to be ourselves and never compromise with another contestant. It’s quite refreshing actually. You get to say what you don’t normally say in real life to bring out the best dish.”
Belle did really well in her season, advancing to top 7 before getting eliminated. Because of her appearance and personality, I’m not surprised she has gained a large number of followers from the show. Her social media grew with fans who love her big smile and her dexterous cooking skills.
“After Masterchef Thailand, I quit my job and started spending more time in the food business. Last year, I set up some part of my boyfriend’s house in Ratchakru as my cooking studio. I became friends with neighbors like Jorm and Pao, the lovely couple who own Mae Yui restaurant, which is very near where I live. I had a Thai dessert workshop stand in the Ari Weekend Market at Yellow Lane once. It was fun!”
A Friend of Kenny’s
Kenny’s is a new restaurant opened in May 2023. Word of mouth spreads fast in Ari, mostly about how this new neighborhood hotspot stays open until 3 AM every night. Yoo, the restaurant owner with 20 years of experience and undying passion for food, the owner of the legendary 25 Degrees Burger joint, was here with us that day, chiming in every once in a while.
“I love the kind of food that is comforting. You put it in the middle of the table, and all the friends come fighting for a piece. For Kenny’s, I want it to be a neighborhood restaurant with the price point somewhere between comfort food and fine dining. I’m not saying that our food is cheap, but we make sure it tastes more expensive than the actual price.”
Yoo adds about his latest project in Ari while Belle starts digging into the food she created for the restaurant.
“Kenny’s is just around the corner from my house. My boyfriend and I were curious about what kind of food this new restaurant would offer. “Looks kind of like a fried chicken and root beer watching a football kind of bar.” I liked the vibe there, and we felt we could go back there again. One night, we stayed late because there was a Liverpool match (Kenny’s closes at 3 AM), and a customer introduced us to Khun Yu, the owner. We share the same food philosophy.”
Belle giggles as she admits a little bit drunk she was when she said yes to join this project.
“We both appreciate real, comforting food, rather than a luxurious spectacle, and we both love quality ingredients that can connect us with the customer on a personal level. He plans to collaborate with different guest chefs every month, and he invited me to be the first. I was kind of drunk, but I knew I made the right call to accept. So, I recently designed five dishes that were inspired by local ingredients from when I lived in the north. I experimented to see how these ingredients can complement the pizzas and other menus at Kenny’s.”
Call me skeptical, but the title chef, as I understood, is the highest ranking in the culinary career path, which takes a lot of experience to be called one. Before coming to the interview, I wondered what it takes to be a real chef. Would competing in a popular cooking TV show be enough to be called a chef?
Turns out Belle has been contemplating this very same question herself too.
“I have been home-cooking since I was a kid, but honestly, I never had the courage to call myself a chef until now. These days, I come up with dishes out of my passion for food that deeply connects with me. I take everyday and local ingredients, and then a fun twist. I create simple menus that make people ponder social issues. I hit up the fish market and source my own ingredients and connect my food with customers. That’s what being a chef is to me. I feel proud. It’s incredibly fulfilling.”