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Using his Chicago restaurant as a culinary canvas, Arun Sampanthavivat, AM'79, crafts Thai banquets fit for the gods.

By Ted C. Fishman
Photography by Matthew Gilson


To the 100 or so pilgrims who venture nightly to Arun's, a restaurant on Chicago's Northwest Side, this shrine to the glorious foods of Southeast Asia offers a touch of heaven. Just which heaven touches them, however, depends on how they enter.

Those who come through the front door pass an entryway mural of fiery, floating gods, painted so meticulously in the classical Thai style that the jewels bedecking muscle-bound deities look as if they've been rendered with a one-bristle brush. Inside, the formal restaurant-designed top-to-bottom by head chef and proprietor Arun Sampanthavivat, AM'79-is no less majestic. Art that looks like antique paintings of scenes from Thai mythology fill every wall; yet, ask Sampanthavivat what stories the paintings depict, and he tells you he dreamed them all up, sketching them roughly for his brother, who came from Thailand ten years ago to paint for the restaurant and has been at it ever since. While the ceiling will keep his brother painting for many more years to come, his efforts will eventually allow Sampanthavivat to sit diners smack-dab in the middle of his portrait of paradise.

There is another, less conspicuous door to Arun's. It's around the side and usually locked; it's the back entrance to the kitchen. Enter there and your nose is the key to heaven. The heavy, sweet steam of coconut milk climbs up from the crowded stove, carrying coriander, cumin, and ginger in its many-fingered mist. Two families work the kitchen, headed by Sampanthavivat's 73-year-old mother, and before the evening rush they fill their own plastic plates with what an international chorus of newspapers, magazines, and guide books has hailed as the best Thai food on earth. Yet the fare, like the paintings, is Sampanthavivat's invention: part Thai, part vision, and the fruit of years of discipline and hard work.

Sampanthavivat, 51, grew up in southern Thailand in a small village, where economic life was largely ruled by his family's rubber plantation, an enormous spread that he says "couldn't be covered in two or three days." His family was culturally split, with a paternal line that was ethnically and culturally Chinese and a maternal line that was all Thai. As the oldest son among eight children, Sampanthavivat alone was privileged to join his grandfather at meals. Sampanthavivat's obsession with fresh and varied ingredients was born at his grandfather's table.

"My grandfather insisted on everything being as fresh as it possibly could be," he remembers. "And he always wanted the best food, no matter where it was from. Sometimes he would send the plantation boats all the way to Malaysia if there was something he wanted."

A pampered boy, Sampanthavivat was never allowed to consider taking over the plantation. "I wasn't even allowed to touch the tools," he says, smiling at the thought that he now cuts for a living. At age 10, he was sent away to boarding school with the strict understanding that he was beginning the path toward medical school. Scholastic life thereafter became one long struggle to escape his father's demands.

"I wasn't interested in science and all the subjects you need to be a doctor," he says. "I was interested in art and literature."

Those subjects dovetailed with his own creative impulses-even today he says writing poetry helps him relax-and he studied them at Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University, known primarily as the teaching ground for Thailand's royals and aristocrats.

As one of eight men in a class of 150, and a commoner to boot, he spent his time at college shut out emotionally. Rejecting his classmates' preferences for stable government jobs after graduation, Sampanthavivat looked for a way to escape the system he felt had thwarted him socially and creatively. "All I wanted to do was get out of Thailand," he remembers. He graduated in 1968, a year when American GIs on R & R from the Vietnam War filled Bangkok.

"You could see a lot of Americans coming in for a good time, spending lavishly," he recalls. "I saw a lot of great wealth and thought I could be part of that, not part of a future in Thailand confined to working for the government."

Sampanthavivat worked in a hotel long enough to earn passage to America. What followed was a 13-year journey through the international demimonde of itinerant students. Landing in Los Angeles, he took a job at the Frostig Center, working with children with learning disabilities and eventually entering a master's program in special education at UCLA. But family matters led him back to Thailand, where he remained until 1973. The urge to study abroad in any way he could then led him, not back to California as he had hoped, but to Germany to study at the University of Hamburg. After learning that his studies in the sociology of philosophy would require two years of German first, he took a professor up on an offer to study at Japan's Sophia University, where he graduated with a master's degree in international relations. There, a professor again pushed him on, this time to the University of Chicago to study political theory.

Arriving in Hyde Park in 1977, he found both the weather and the atmosphere chilly. He says he did not find the U of C as supportive as other foreign universities he had attended, but the experience helped to strengthen his independent spirit and management skills. And though he had yet to imagine a career as a chef, his culinary skills were already evident. David M. Yanowski, a fellow graduate student at the time, remembers dinner in Sampanthavivat's apartment. "I was struck by how fastidious the preparation and presentation were; it was very impressive," recalls Yanowski, who now runs his own restaurant-Elli's Deli, an upscale delicatessen near Baltimore that he started with Elli Lieberman, AM'87, PhD'93.

After graduating in 1979 with his second master's degree, Sampanthavivat took a job with a California management consulting firm. Then a call came from two other Thai U of C graduate students who wanted to open a Thai restaurant in Chicago. While today Thai restaurants dot nearly every business district in the city, in the early 1980s they were still a rarity. The few that were in business served what Sampanthavivat characterizes as a kind of "make-do" cuisine, whipped up using local ingredients and imported canned goods to create close-to-authentic Thai dishes while still serving diners on a budget. Sampanthavivat agreed to his friends' venture on the condition that he would have free reign to create innovative fare without regard to cost. "I thought it was a good idea to have Thai food on an international level, and my condition was that it be an upscale restaurant," he recalls. They agreed, but then backed out. "My friends thought my plan was too ambitious, which to me meant they weren't ready," he conjectures. Yet, he was convinced it could work and proceeded to launch his own, namesake restaurant.

Sampanthavivat's planning began in his sketchbook, where he designed how each dish would look. "I wasn't concerned at first with taste, but with presentation, texture and form," he says. And what about taste, then? "It just came," says Sampanthavivat, noting that in his first two months of operation in 1985 the restaurant received rave notices in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine. Now his résumé lists 15 pages of glowing reviews and awards. In April, the New York Times featured Sampanthavivat in an article entitled "Great Chefs Go to Him to Be Dazzled." One of Arun's biggest boosters is Charlie Trotter, arguably Chicago's most famous culinary star, who consistently cites Arun's among his favorite places in the city to dine. And he is a perennial nominee for the James Beard Awards, which recognize the nation's best chefs.

Over the years, Sampanthavivat's emphasis has changed, placing flavor first without slighting presentation. Nevertheless, he says, there is no overriding philosophy behind his cooking. "I am often asked about it," he complains, "but for me it is just like writing poetry or painting. You start with a focal point-flavor-then the way the piece ends up can be totally different from anything else. I hate copying." Ironically, Arun's has come to be regarded as a model Thai restaurant, even though, as Sampanthavivat says, his interpretations of the dishes "are not anywhere in Thailand or anywhere else."

To allow the kitchen creative freedom, every dinner is structured as a $75 per person prix fixe menu, tailored to the tastes of the party at each table. Clearly striving for a world-class atmosphere, the dining room-full on a week night-carries an almost meditative aura. The extremely attentive service gives the impression of a house full of servants-each dish seems to arrive in the hands of a different person.

From the kitchen's encyclopedic pantry emerges a banquet beginning with 12 appetizers: one dinner may be launched with an elaborate plate of dumplings-some shrimp, some tapioca-surrounding still more, tiny purple dumplings in the shape of small blossoms not unlike cornflowers, sculpted from rice flour and dried anchun flowers. Another might begin with "golden baskets" of savory shrimp nestled in tiny baskets woven of small threads fashioned from a paper-thin omelet. The table is soon crowded-like a jeweler's display counter as he brings out case after case of finely crafted wares-with curries and noodles and stir-fried entrees, each made to order according to the customers' tastes.

Ask the kitchen for pad thai, and Sampanthavivat's interpretation, with its perfectly springy noodles, will swear you off your neighborhood joint's version for good. Sweet and sour dance gingerly together; the ginger dances sweetly. The prawns loom big enough to inspire a Peter Benchley novel. "The right prawns," Sampanthavivat muses, "capture people's attention." When the steamed striped bass hits the table, it is firm and fresh, and, unlike the traditional fried Thai style, bears not a hint of oil or chili paste. "I am trying now to create a more subtle cuisine than people expect from Thai food," he says. "People have the misconception that Thai food has to be killer hot in order to taste the flavor." The closing citrusy lemongrass ice cream cleans the palate and proves to be a lighter, more satisfying choice than the heavier Thai custards.

For Sampanthavivat, this feast is the culmination of a lifetime of study and striving, requiring not just culinary skills learned in the kitchen but also management skills learned in political-science classes. Recently Sampanthavivat has been featured on the covers of two large-circulation magazines in Thailand, and when he traveled there recently he was already a celebrity. In February, at the behest of the Thai government-seeking to rekindle tourism in the wake of the country's economic troubles-Sampanthavivat will take a VIP group of U.S. chefs and journalists to Bangkok, where the government has offered to host an official reception. While the desire to express himself artistically may have led him to leave his native country in the first place, it is that same expression that is now drawing him back. "Food," he says, "is not difficult for me. To be creative comes easily." Ted C. Fishman contributes regularly to Harper's, GQ, Worth, Playboy, and USA Today's editorial page.

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