Not long after opening in 2013, Chachawan quickly earned a loyal following thanks to its cool interiors and spicy Isaan food. Then 26 years old, chef Adam Cliff had already racked up nearly 10 years of experience in the kitchen. Cliff left the restaurant earlier this year to work on his own Thai project, Samsen. He tells The Loop about dropping out of high school to wash dishes and how he found his way to Hong Kong — where he was named one of The Loop’s 30 under 30 in 2015.
A little background
Just 17 when he started, Cliff dropped out of school to work in a kitchen. It happened suddenly: Cliff passed a restaurant with a “Chefs Wanted” advertisement and walked in. His first job was washing dishes but luckily the salad chef quit, so Cliff jumped into the kitchen.
Since then, Cliff’s culinary training has predominantly focused on Thai food, which he has been cooking for 10 to 12 years. He worked in London at Nahm and later moved over to Bangkok for about five years before making his way to Hong Kong to open Chachawan. He now runs Samsen, a Thai noodle restaurant in Wan Chai.
You seem to have an aversion for green curry.
Thai food has come into the western market I would say for 15 to 20 years now. [Nahm founder] David Thompson brought it to Australia when I was still a baby and, at that stage, green curries and pad Thais were really exciting. Over time, though, I feel that people have gotten a little bit bored.
I wanted something that people aren’t yet familiar with, but isn’t too confrontational. There’s Thai food that you might find revolting, so I wanted to find something in the middle.
You specialized in Isaan food back in Chachawan, before moving on to noodle-centric Samsen. What attracted you to Isaan food?
Isaan is the most rural area of Thailand and the main income comes from agriculture, especially rice farming. Money is scarce up there and it’s one of the poorest communities in Thailand so the food has to go a long way.
The food is spicier, punchier and saltier than any other region of Thailand because it’s designed to be eaten with rice and meant to be eaten as an accompaniment. Isaan food also doesn’t contain coconut or palm sugar, which are prevalent in other Thai foods.
The most difficult thing about the food is that you have no hiding spots. I have cooked western food in the past, and you can hide things on your plate with some sauce.
But Isaan food is so simple, that if you screw up, it is easy to tell. So the simplicity is a double-edged sword. If the dishes are slightly over- or slightly undercooked then it’s not the same experience for the customer.
Are there any customer quirks that annoy you?
At a lot of restaurants, your entire party has to be here before we will seat you at the table. It doesn’t matter how many times you explain it to the same person. Every time they come back, they insist on getting their table right away.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.
[Updated Aug 2016]