Kea Liden is the chef-owner of Thai On High, a popular neighborhood restaurant in Sai Ying Pun. She tells Adele Wong what makes a green curry green, and how some nice customers show a different side when they’ve had one too many drinks.
A little background
Kea Liden was born and raised in Chiang Rai, Thailand. She moved to Switzerland with her then-boyfriend at the age of 19, to help out in the kitchen of the Berghotel Leiterli doing everything from cleaning the equipment to washing the dishes. She eventually moved back to Chiang Rai and met her future husband Roger, with whom she relocated to Hong Kong in 2009.
Liden’s first venture here was a private kitchen in the couple’s old Wan Chai flat. When Liden was expecting her third child, the family decided to build their own boat by the Aberdeen marina and live on the water permanently — resulting in Liden’s next private kitchen operation, Kea’s Kitchen. Nowadays, Liden focuses her energies on Thai On High. She’s also set to conquer Wan Chai with a Thai food stall called Thai on Nine in March.
Everybody loved Kea’s Kitchen. Why don’t you run it anymore?
My husband Roger, he never complains, but I knew he wasn’t happy sometimes while I was running the private kitchen. We don’t have a helper and he used to have to come home very early in the evening and help me take care of the kids while I worked.
He had to eat dinner downstairs in the room. And then my youngest daughter Kimmy started to go to school and she couldn’t sleep on time, but when you have guests over you can’t tell them, “My kids have to sleep, you have to leave now.”
So I thought maybe it was time to shut down Kea’s Kitchen, to give my family more space, to give the kids enough sleep, and to feed Roger enough food. But I do miss it.
Sounds like your family was very supportive throughout the whole thing.
Yes. Sometimes on the weekends, I would tell my son, “If you want extra cash, you have to help me work.” He helped me every weekend.
But in the end, he was like, “This isn’t very nice.” I think some people, my guests when they come, they’re very nice — but after they’re drunk they turn into someone else. They would call us over [with rude gesturing motions]. And my son was like, “Why do they do that?”
Ouch. Any other customer burns?
Some people booked a table for six this one time, so in the morning I went to buy the ingredients, and then at around 3pm that day they called me up and they said the weather was not very nice, they didn’t think they could come — but it wasn’t raining or typhoon 8 or anything.
I said “Okay, but the food is prepared already, so if you’re not coming then I have to take your deposit.” And they were like, “Why? We’re not even coming.” In the end I was like, “What the fuck? You know, it’s only $1,200, I’ll transfer it back to you.” I transferred the money back, but I thought it was very disrespectful of them.
Besides those negative experiences, you’ve still gathered a pretty loyal following since your private kitchen days.
Most of my customers were very nice, like repeat customers. Oh you have to see my booking calendar — when customers paid the bill at Kea’s Kitchen, I used to write down “best customer” or “worst customer” beside their names so I would know whether I wanted them [to come back or not].
How is running a restaurant different from hosting people in your home?
At Thai On High you have same menu every day, but at Kea’s Kitchen I changed the menu whenever I wanted to change it and cooked whatever I wanted to cook. Here, it’s more business-like.
You and Roger have to take care of two children while both working full-time, without external help or family support. What is your formula?
What I do now is I get up early in the morning, I make breakfast, and then I send the kids to school, and after that I would be running around doing my work, and then at 3pm I would pick up the kids, get groceries for dinner, go home with the kids, cook dinner, then at 6pm I would come out again and by then Roger is on the way home.
What sets Thai cuisine apart from other foods in the region?
The curry. You can’t really compare Thai curries to other curries like Vietnamese or even Malaysian. For example, I think only the Thais have green curry.
What makes green curry is: you have to have green chilies and kaffir lime, to make it green. And then to make it all hold together is the shrimp paste. In every Thai curry they have shrimp paste. That is the main ingredient.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.