Pim Techamuanvivit is an old-school restaurateur, a person who knows her cuisine inside out, but she has found an intriguing new way to run a non-European restaurant. Born in Bangkok in the ’70s, into a family where delicious food was cooked and showcased daily, she came to the United States in the early ’90s to study cognitive science, specifically the subject of group collaboration. The skills appear to have set her up perfectly for opening a restaurant.
Not that that was an immediate goal. As she said when I visited her at Kin Khao, her eight-month-old Thai restaurant near Union Square in San Francisco: “I always wanted to do food. I just didn’t know how.” Because she “wanted to avoid being branded as a ‘Thai’ cook,” her route to Kin Khao was circuitous. At some point during her eight years in Silicon Valley, she began her own food blog but stopped when she felt it had become too common. Five years ago, she said, “I was around such beautiful fruits, from amazing exotic citrus to gorgeous heirloom stone fruits, I thought I’d learn how to make jam.” She won both praise and Good Food Awards for the products, but the “glorified hobby,” as she calls it, made “barely enough to finance my shoe habit.”
She kept thinking about returning to Thai food, “the kind of food I grew up eating: everything made from scratch, using great ingredients, and using spices to enhance ingredients rather than masking their inferior quality. I became afraid that if I didn’t do anything, this type of food would just disappear.”
Because, Techamuanvivit told me, “I tend to geek out when I want to learn something,” she became a “better cook of Thai food than of jam.” But she then made a savvy decision: She hired an experienced, intelligent chef, worked through the dishes with him, made sure they jibed with her memories and palate — and then left him in charge. So Kin Khao is not exactly a family-run operation of self-taught cooks but rather the most exacting Thai restaurant in which I’ve ever eaten.
The chef is Mike Gaines, who cooked at the widely praised Manresa, a modernist restaurant in Los Gatos that has been closed temporarily because of a fire. (Techamuanvivit has another link to Manresa: Her boyfriend is its head chef, David Kinch.) Gaines never imagined cooking Thai food, but after a visit to Bangkok with Kinch and Techamuanvivit, he thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime project, though he now thinks of himself as more translator than chef.
So Kin Khao is neither a chef-driven restaurant nor an especially creative one, in that the food is traditional; if it’s unusual in the States, it’s because it’s largely home cooking. The reviews and word-of-mouth have been almost universally raves. And though I was late to the party, I’m happy to join the crowd. Some dishes are standardized classics, while others are from family recipes. And they’re prepared seasonally; when holy basil and cherry tomatoes go out of season next month, for example, the dishes prepared with them will do the same.