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Paul Smart: “Cooking is a game”

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From the 29th floor of the Sofitel So Bangkok, Australian Paul Smart manages the kitchens of the Park Society gastronomic restaurant and of two other establishments, the Red Oven restaurant and the Chocolab café.

At the age of 34, this competitive lover of food from around the world is firing on all cylinders: devising culinary creations, managing his teams, and talking with customers. Between services, the chef hung up his apron for a few moments to share his passion with us.

For over 15 years, on every continent, your career has been dedicated to food. How did you come across this appetite?
At home, my mother used to bake, but it was at school, when I was in year 8-11, that I had my first cookery class. We learned traditional recipes that we had to make while sticking to a budget for buying the ingredients. Then we sold what we made to the teacher to earn our money back. It was very practical!

So it was almost like your first job as a chef. How did you get started in your career?
On the weekend, I used to work in a restaurant which offered all kinds of cuisine: Lebanese food, pasta, pizzas… But I was just the dishwasher! (Laughs) One day, the chef didn’t come in and the boss asked me if I could help out by taking care of the ovens. I said yes, and that was when it all clicked into place. I decided to do an apprenticeship to become a chef.

How did you learn the trade?
In 1996, I started my apprenticeship at Stamford Plaza in Adelaide. I spent four years there learning all the basics of cooking, from butchering and baking to pastry, stocks Soups & sauces. Then I spent four more years there working my way up the ranks: commis-chef, demi-chef, chef de partie.

After those eight years of work, you could have begun work as a chef in Australia, but instead you chose to carry on with your education.
Yes, I decided to go to London to carry out further studies. I rented out my flat and when I arrived I had the good fortune to get an interview with the head chef at the Ritz, John Williams. It was a great experience because I worked on all the stations: 6 months in charge of vegetables, 8 months working on meat, almost a year preparing fish, etc. It was also really international, with chefs from Italy, France, Hungary, Spain and Portugal.

And then once again you decided to move on to something else.
The head chef at the famous El Bulli restaurant (three Michelin stars and ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ award winner – Ed.), Ferran Adrià, had just closed his restaurant to come and cook in London at prestigious events. I was with him in 2007 for a few events, and I got to learn molecular cuisine with him.

It was also the start of a career path marked by a taste for competition.
Yes, I love competition! In 2007, the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, chaired by Prince Charles, organised a competition for young chefs. I reached the final, and then I won the title of commis-chef of the year and the chance to spend 10 days cooking in Mexico. I enjoy experiences like this, because you’re competing against yourself to get the best out of the ingredients you have in a limited time.

So you’d created an excellent position for yourself in London?
Yes, but I’m not the sort to rest on my laurels. So I decided to come back to Australia to start a new challenge: opening a restaurant, Room 81 on the Gold Coast in Queensland. I had to cook, but I also had to manage the staff for the first time. On the day of the grand opening, we were ready to welcome 150 guests, and the restaurant later won the gold medal at the Gold Box Restaurant Challenge for three years in a row.

Why did you interrupt this to work at Sofitel So Bangkok?
For the new challenge – it meant taking part in a new project. In 2011, I arrived in Bangkok as the deputy head chef at the Park Society gastronomic restaurant. There was still everything to do: recruit the team, train them, equip the kitchen, study what the competition was offering and create our own recipes… For a year, I worked under the direction of head chef Nicolas Vienne and I learned a lot. I also took part in a cooking competition on Iron Chef Thailand™ TV Programme Thai television, Iron Chef, which I won two years in a row, cooking four dishes for seven people in an hour.

What have you brought from your experiences elsewhere to the food at Park Society?
The most important thing I learned was to work with quality ingredients and revisit traditional recipes – modernising them, but always taking an original approach. To do this, I started from locally available products, giving priority to Thai suppliers. For example, the King’s Project in Chiang Mai provides us with magnificent vegetables, such as baby carrots, fennel and red cabbage… We also have seafood. When we can’t find a product locally, we import it, such as wagyu beef, which comes from Japan, or Canadian lobster.

How do you view your menu?
It’s a fusion of Thai and international cuisine. For example, to make a risotto, I won’t choose to flavour it with truffles, but bring in some local flavours instead: lemongrass and chillies. We also have a promotional menu which changes every month to allow people to discover new dishes. What we offer allows us to attract and keep our customers, 80% of whom are Thai, and who like to go to restaurants to taste exceptional products.

Have you had any celebrities at your table?
One of the princesses from the Thai royal family wanted to discover the restaurant right after we’d opened. That day, I was having a day off and I was at the cinema with my wife when I got a call announcing her visit. I hurried to the kitchen to be ready to welcome her to the chef’s table. She enjoyed all of our dishes, and in particular our famous lobster tortellini and our raspberry soufflé.
And today you’re no longer just a chef, but also the head of several establishments within Sofitel So Bangkok.
I’m in charge of Park Society, but also of the Red Oven restaurant, which offers a buffet service, and the Chocolab café. Sometimes I give cookery lessons to our customers. With my assistants, I manage a team of 57 people, trying to make sure that quality is always paramount. For example, at the moment we’re adapting to the new hygiene standards which use the HACCP method[1]. Nowadays, the kitchen only takes up 10% of my time, but I enjoy these responsibilities, which are like a game for me: keeping an eye on everything while maintaining excellence at all costs.

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