Theptikone Keosavang is a Hawaiian Chef, broadly known as Chef TK. He started working at 16 years of age in the United States and today TK owns three restaurants in Hawaii namely Lemongrass Express Waikoloa, TK Noodle House Kona and TK Shabu Shabu House Kona. His fusion of many flavours and spices from the Pacific and Hawaiian Islands has triggered the tastebuds of the locals.
Ankita Jain of B360 connected with Chef TK who is a visiting chef at the beautiful Royal Singi Hotel located in the heart of the city for a tasting series. We spoke to the chef on his food philosophy, perception of Nepali cuisine and what drives his interest. Excerpts from the interview:
What is your first impression of Nepal?
I have not had much time to go around Kathmandu due to the preparations of the tasting series. But one thing I can definitely say is that Nepali people are really warm and hospitable. They are ready to help in every way either at the vegetable and fruit markets or on the streets. I am overwhelmed by their friendliness.
Have you had the opportunity of trying Nepali cuisine? What do you think of it and how do you think it could be promoted globally?
I did try Nepali cuisine. The very first meal I had at the hotel was a local Nepali thali and I loved how the chicken curry was mild and subtle in comparison to Indian food. Similarly, the presentation of the thali was unique with individual bowls. I also tried momos along with the tomato achaar and it was indeed very flavourful. Nepali cuisine has its own DNA and in order to promote it globally, one should position Nepali cuisine whether it be traditional or with a modern approach, singularly. It should not be mixed up with Indian and Western menus as I have seen with restaurants in the US. There is so much culture and diversity here that really allows chefs to expand the menu besides rice and curry.
Can you tell us about what brings you to the Royal Singi Hotel and what has the experience been like?
Over 12 years ago, Tshering Ghale, Managing Director of Royal Singi Hotel and I worked together in Hawaii and we have been more like brothers ever since. We spoke about the tasting series back in 2016 and I am glad it has finally happened. It is great to see likeminded and passionate industry professionals who want to give their guests memorable dining experiences. The team I worked with here at Royal Singi are passionate, hard working and I am glad they could learn something new from this event.
The Pacific Rim 5 course menu: tell us about it and why did you decide on this one for Nepal?
Pacific Rim is an immersion of flavours from all the countries that are in and around the Pacific Ocean like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Philippines, etc. We wanted to keep the menu simple, flavourful and restrained so that the guests would be able to enjoy it and not have second thoughts while seeing and tasting unfamiliar ingredients or flavours.
What is the key to your success as a chef?
I believe it is humility and hard work combined with passion. First, learning in the kitchen never stops and there is always a new recipe, technique, flavour, ingredient, management, etc that you learn every day. One must be humble and willing to learn. Second, hard work combined with passion is an uncompromising combination that needs both elements. One cannot say I am a passionate chef but not work the reigns of the kitchen or vice versa.
What is the one thing you would never compromise on in your kitchen?
It is definitely the recipes. We have a lot of loyal and repeat customers and they know what my food tastes like. If the recipe is compromised, then they will immediately know there is something wrong.
What influences your work?
I would say my upbringing and journey of life. As an immigrant myself since the age of eight in the States, I have personally witnessed how hard life can be when basic necessities like three meals a day and proper sleep under a roof are unaffordable. I do not take anything for granted in life and I am thankful to my mum and God for everything we have as a family. Hence, this drives me to give my 100% every single day.
How do you take ownership over customer experience of your restaurants?
Between owning three restaurants, I make sure I am doing the procurement to ensure the right products with the right quality are being sourced. I also try to be in at least two places between lunch and dinner. And most important of all, I like to speak to my customers. I not only find out what they like or dislike about their meal but I also get to know them in person. Living in Hawaii especially on an island, we build relationships with customers who then go on to become friends and Ohana (family in Hawaiian).
With whatever you have seen during your visit to Nepal, what are your impressions of the food business in Kathmandu?
I personally have not seen much but having spoken to the guests who dined with us over the last three nights, the dining scene in Kathmandu has progressed significantly over the last few years and you have a diverse offering of cuisine available. I also observed that there are many well-travelled people who know their food and appreciate quality dining and hence an opportunity for quality food establishments. Quality comes down to recipe, precision, consistency and having the right team. I am made aware that employee turnover and migration are two huge issues that the capital is facing.