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.
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.
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.
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."
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
interested in science and all the subjects you need to be a doctor,"
he says. "I was interested in art and literature."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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'
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.
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