As my cab pulls in front of The Standard East Village, I see Berlin-based Kin Dee’s chef and owner Dalad Kambhu; smiling widely walking next to her mother, who has just flown in from Bangkok to see her. That evening the young Thai chef had been honored as one of Bulgari’s Iconic Women of Design and had cooked an intimate dinner for the event. The timing is doubly important because of Kambhu’s recent one Michelin star for Kin Dee, which is just over two years old. Humbled by the recognition, Kambhu recounts her first important lesson that she learned upon moving to New York over thirteen years ago. Her first restaurant experience led her to understand that you show how you care for people through your meal. Since then, she garnered a well-rounded, non-traditional education at various kitchens, restaurants, and through artist friends around the city, and, after a decade, took a leap of faith right into Berlin’s burgeoning fine dining scene by opening a contemporary Thai restaurant with longtime friend and artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija. The common thread you will find in all of Kambhu’s experiences represents her to the core–a demonstration of genuine care and a lightness of touch, from the food to her engagement with those whom she serves.
Picking up the meat carefully and bringing it to her nose, she confirms, “U.S. meat always smells differently.”
It’s no surprise then to discover that the guest chef had decided to cook curry as her off-site staff meal of choice for the The Standard, East Village. She explains that curry is something that she likes to eat often, and this is how she plans for her own restaurant, asking herself, “what would I like to eat?” For her staff meals, the requirements are slightly different than the dishes she serves to her guests. The staff meal needs to be easier to make, but nonetheless homier (and perhaps even spicier), while not letting anything go to waste. It’s also a time for the staff and her to experiment new dishes and share feedback. She mentions that for one of last year’s staff meals, they ordered two kilos of clams to try out a new dish that involved salting them with chili paste and Thai basil–they will be adding this dish to Kin Dee’s menu next month. While some restaurants serve their staff by reheating frozen foods to save time, Kambhu stands by her position of feeding her staff with quality food twice a day. “We don’t need to make something ultra nice or luxurious, but if we are going to eat it, we have to make it good to eat,” she explains.
"I always try to remember that diversity is something you need to check yourself. I make sure that my staff isn’t all privileged people."
In Berlin, Kambhu is also an active member of the Feminist Food Club, where women in hospitality meet to discuss topics and offer support for each other. “Feminism should be intersectional,” she explains. Noting the rare Michelin star awarding to a female Asian chef in Germany, she adds, “the only thing I wish had been different was that, unfortunately, I was the only woman who received a Michelin star, and I hope there will be five of us standing there next year.” She hasn’t had time to celebrate her Michelin star, though, and instead delved straight into how to keep it for the next ten months. Her plans include giving more opportunities to women of color, refugees, and people who have just moved to the city. “I always try to remember that diversity is something you need to check yourself. I make sure that my staff isn’t all privileged people,” said Kambhu. “I think a great role model is chef Angela Dimayuga [creative director of food and culture at The Standard]. She’s so awesome and she put in her time when she was a chef [at Mission Chinese]. The girl can cook, and she isn’t just taking glamorous photos. If you want to be a good chef, you’ve got to put in the hours. What I want to tell women is; do the hard work first, put in your integrity, and own it fully. Own your accomplishments, but also your mistakes. I try to own it every day,” concludes Kambhu as her beef dissolves into warm, tender shreds in coconut milk.
Is there a soundtrack to your kitchen?
I always open hip hop. Old school ones–from Tupac to a bit of Snoop Dogg. I grew up with it. Or I put on random jazz.
If you were a food, what food what you be?
I would be a Thai dipping sauce–the one that is really spicy and with a very strong paste flavor or fish sauce. I can be dipped by fresh vegetables and eaten with rice. And not everyone can handle me.