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Perseverance, discipline and self-encouragement are the keys – Chudaree “Chef Tam” Debhakam

Written by World Events

When they announced the awards, I was very shocked. We weren’t expecting anything more than really just retaining the one star that we had, and that was our goal. It was never in our minds that we’re going to strive for a second one.

Chudaree “Chef Tam” Debhakam recalled the moments leading towards the announcement, during the 2024 Michelin Guide Thailand Ceremony, when her restaurant “Baan Tepa” was awarded two Michelin stars, making her the first Thai female chef to receive two-star status.

Retaining one Michelin-star is already a challenge for any restaurant, as losing a star could indicate that the eatery has failed to maintain its standard and quality. Having already earned a star in 2023, Chudaree and her team were anxiously waiting to hear the announcement, and started to worry that their restaurant might lose their single Michelin-star status.

“They would first announce all the one-stars, then they were like “Now we’re moving on to the two-stars”. I was thinking “What about us?”, “Did we lose a star?”, “What happened?” My sister was behind me and I was looking at her wondering“Did we do something wrong?” Then everyone was thinking “Oh my god, I think you got two stars”.

Then the announcement was made, which came as a greatsurprise to herself and her team. At the same time, she also took home the Michelin Young Chef Award from the same event.

“That’s unexpected and I’m shocked,” she said. “But I’m so proud of my team because, honestly, I’ve been travelling a lot during the past year, but the fact that we were recognised in that way is really the team’s effort; everyone, front and back of house, the offices, everyone keeping the things together and making it run super smoothly. It wasn’t all me. I know that there’s so much work that they have done.”

Apart from the two-Michelin star status, Baan Tepa is also ranked 46th on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2023. Despite many prestigious recognitions, life is not about chasing awards, but it’s about creating the best experience for diners, while also challenging themselves to improve the standard of what they serve on the table.

“To be honest, we didn’t really know if what we are doing is Michelin standard or not,” she explains. “But I guess, in the process, we were hitting some of the marks. What I tell my team anyway, is just to keep doing what we’re doing, but push yourself a bit more, challenge yourself a bit more, see if we can go that extra mile to make things a little bit better, to be a little bit smoother and to have better food presentation.”

Image Courtesy: Tam Chudaree Debhakam

A tough journey

Chudaree first came to Thai people’s attention in 2017, as the winner of Top Chef Thailand. In fact, her journey as a chef came about accidentally. Although she graduated with a food science and nutrition degree from the University of Nottingham, which she says is a completely different field, her passion to become a chef began after she took a summer internship in a kitchen.

“I fell in love with the environment in the kitchen at that point. I was only 17 and I realised that I really enjoyed thepressure, the pressure on yourself to perform with the team under time constraints, and having everything as perfect as it can be. I really love working under that sort of pressure.”

Chudaree then moved to New York, for an intensive culinary course, before assuming the sous-chef position at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. She was there for a few years before returning to Thailand to pursue a catering career. She later competed in the first season of Top Chef Thailand.

As the culinary industry is still widely regarded as male-dominated, among the biggest challenges for her was navigating that “male energy” in the kitchen as a young Asian woman. This, she admitted, was a very tough experience.

“The first time I was in the kitchen, I was very shocked,” she said. “But I know that I had to adapt to my environment, to be a little bit more boisterous and be able to handle comments and things that were a bit inappropriate. So, it was tricky, and then you’re obviously not as highly regarded and people would look down on you a little bit.”

Participating in a lot of team sports during her teens has helped Chudaree in handling uncomfortable situations. One particular moment, which she can still remember, was when she confronted the head chef, asking why she was not considered for a promotion or for a move onto the next station. With a strong belief that “I can do whatever he can do and I’ll show you that I can do it better”, she has, however,proved her competence and gained respect over time.

“I think, with the right attitude and mindset, I was able to understand how to handle different situations and not to take things super personally. Just understand how things are and how to navigate in that sort of realm so I don’t completely lose myself. It was like building a suit of armour for myself to survive in that environment.”

Image Courtesy: Tam Chudaree Debhakam

Chudaree also feels that women remain underrepresented on the professional culinary scene, especially in Thailand, as there weren’t many female role models in the kitchen who she could look up, unlike in the United States, where the industry is more open for women to take the lead. The only Thai female chef that stood out to her was Duangporn “Chef Bo” Songvisava.

Although she does see a change, with more women taking up leadership roles, such as head chefs and restaurant managers, the Baan Tepa chef and owner strongly believes that there should be more opportunities for young female chefs to become leaders in the kitchen.

“There are stronger female chef personalities in the U.S., just because they’re a bit more developed in terms of their industry. Here, I think it’s still behind, it’s still male-dominated. So, I think there must be some changes and more room for young female cooks to grow into higher positions.”

Aside from gender, there another challenge – seniority, especially when communicating with male employees who are older or have more experience, which she says was also difficult to navigate as the owner and head chef of her own restaurant.

“It’s just the way of communication that bothers me a bit,” she admits. “It’s the level of respect that is not balanced; the respect that is given and what is received. So, it was challenging for me.”

Regardless, the 31-year-old chef believes that ageism or adultism should no longer exist in Thai working cultures. Although the value of respecting the elderly in Thai culture should still be there, Chudaree believes that everyone should get the same amount of respect and no one should be treated differently only because they are younger.

Image Courtesy: Tam Chudaree Debhakam

Perseverance, discipline and self-encouragement

Having achieved several milestones and successes in her career, Chudaree takes pride in representing Thai women in gastronomy. Despite that, her definitions of success are not only recognition or a list of awards, but in having a restaurant that sustains itself, which she believes is her ultimate goal.

“As a chef, I think it’s to have a successful restaurant, a successful business that also sustains itself, but helps the community around it. Whether it’s the farmers, producers, the food-and-beverage industry as a whole, young cooks that are coming through, people who come in front of house or back of house service, it’s about creating something that has an impact all around with the environment and with the people around us.”

As to what she would like to say to inspire other women and young girls today, the Baan Tepa chef and owner emphasised perseverance, discipline and telling yourself that you can do it. In other words, anything can be achieved, as long as you set your mind to it.

“As a woman in this industry, I think I face a few more challenges than men. It’s not as easy to rise above situationsand I think it takes a lot of practice and time. I also believe that everyone can do it.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World

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