Is it me or is there a Thai restaurant on every corner in Manhattan? The latter seems right: they’re as ubiquitous as ATM machines. And they’re not all that special, either (you have to go to Queens for that). Thankfully, New York City recently received one of the best Thai imports in the city’s culinary history. Ty Bellingham—who worked at the famed Sailors Thai in Sydney, Australia—has taken over Kittichai at 60 Thompson, giving it that Thai magic makeover. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s regarded as one of the world’s top Thai chefs. It took Ty a couple months to get acclimated, so we gave him some time to get down and dirty before getting the dish on his new adventure.
What are some of the changes we can expect at Kittichai? I have dedicated the last 15 years of my life specializing as a chef in authentic Thai cuisine. I have immersed myself in every aspect of it including learning about the culture, which is integral to eating the food. My passion for it has led me around the world, including running the most awarded Thai restaurant in Sydney, and traveling through Thailand many times. I guess my philosophy is, if it’s hard it’s usually worth doing. This means making our curry pastes, and lime juice coming out of fruit. No shortcuts are taken.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with your new position? I imagine getting fresh food is harder to get here than Australia. There are lots of ingredients I can’t get here that I can get in Sydney, but I’ve been surprised at the many things that I can source. There is a lot more here than I expected. I’m enjoying trying all the different types of chilies, fresh and dried. There are a lot more varieties here. The initial challenge is learning all the seafood and meat. What’s good, what’s not, and what’s a good price. But my sous chef Bryan has helped me a great deal with that. Plus I am struggling with the different measures: Fahrenheit, ounces, pints and quarts.
What are some dishes you’ve introduced to the menu? I have almost overhauled the entire menu, leaving some of the Kittichai favorites. A personal favorite is my smoked trout on shiso leaf, with a caramelized palm sugar dressing. I did this for the Food Network’s Food and Wine fair and the Taste of New York events. It seemed the customers at those events loved this dish. I also have five different curries on the menu right now: Seafood with a citrus red curry, the classic green curry with chicken and Thai eggplant, and for the more adventurous, we have the pork tenderloin in a jungle curry paste, which is the hottest item on the menu. Curries are my favorite dishes to make and eat.
How do the Kittichai diners differ from who those you served back in Australia? Well, for one thing, diners in News York eat out a whole lot later. In Sydney, service would end around 10 to 11 pm. Thai food has been fairly prevalent in Australia for a while – probably due to our proximity to Southeast Asia – and so they are more used to ordering food family-style, which is how Thai food is supposed to be eaten. A meal would typically have a spicy, salty curry, crispy caramelized pork belly, a hot and sour soup, and a salad of some kind. But all this means nothing unless it is served with rice. I have noticed that people eat less rice here in New York City. Maybe it’s the whole carbs thing after 6pm.
What is your opinion of the Thai restaurants in NYC? I really have no opinion on Thai restaurants in NYC. I haven’t had time to eat out a great deal yet. But what I have recently read is that Thai food is the new Italian. So I think it is great that I am here in the city at a time when Thai food is getting the recognition it deserves. When it is done well, Thai can compete with the great food countries of the world. In Australia, Thai has replaced the local Chinese as people’s take-out of choice, it is literally that popular. It would be great to see Thai food as prominent as this in NYC.
What are some of your favorite restaurants (Thai or not Thai) in NYC? The restaurants in our group are fantastic and show a great range of diversity of cuisines. BONDST has great sushi, Republic at Union Square is great for noodles, and Indochine is still fantastically cool.