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Thai cooks up fresh profession
Published on Friday, 04 Dec 2009
Nateampai Sarakosass turned to cooking, which would become her primary passion, as a comforting distraction from loneliness and isolation.

Her two-pronged expertise in media communications and the culinary arts comes in handy for Nateampai Sarakosass in her latest endeavour - spearheading a local food campaign.

Aimed at encouraging local farmers to cultivate a wider range of crops and vegetables, Thailand's localism initiative is still in its infancy. Yet the versatile entrepreneur sees potential for it.

"We're still taking baby steps, but I'm hoping to build a movement," she said.

Using her experience in journalism, Nateampai, who holds a degree in mass communications from the country's prestigious Thammasat University and who once worked as a documentary filmmaker, has launched a publicity campaign to promote Thai crops and vegetables.

"It's a way to help the local economy while also combating global warming," she said, explaining that the incipient movement's core values reflect the country's Sufficiency Economy projects initiated by Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"At the back of every chef's mind is to have fresh seasonal produce and what could be fresher than ingredients grown in your own backyard?" she said. "As a chef you're constantly aware of what ingredients are in great demand at the moment and can advise farmers about what crops to focus on."

Practising what she preaches, the enterprising woman is just opening a restaurant in Bangkok. The 40-seat establishment will operate on socially conscious and environmentally friendly principles by using only locally grown ingredients produced within a 160-kilometre radius of Bangkok. "The idea is not to campaign against imports but to promote local produce," she said.

A regular media presence, Nateampai has published several cook books in Thai on Western cuisines while advocating the use of local ingredients. A buoyant, genial woman with close-cropped hair and a no-nonsense manner, Nateampai said she welcomed the challenges. "I learned from personal experience that setbacks often present new opportunities [and] that you have to be patient and persistent".

She turned to cooking, which would become her second profession and primary passion, as a comforting distraction from loneliness and isolation.

In the mid-1990s, Nateampai, an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker, quit her job as a producer at a Bangkok production company and relocated to the United States to study computer animation.

Yet in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago's teeming multi-ethnic setting, she found herself culturally and socially adrift with poor English skills. "In America, my world turned upside down," she said. "I became an alien, a low-status person." To make matters worse, in the 1997 Asian financial crisis the Thai baht crashed, wiping out her savings. The young Thai woman, from a respected Bangkok family, ended up working as a waitress by night in a Chicago restaurant, where she'd be required to perform lowly chores.

She recalled being ordered to get down on her hands and knees, the better to scrub the copper pipes under a wash sink in a local high-end Thai restaurant. "My dignity was hurt and the tears just started falling," Nateampai said. "Never in a million years did I imagine I'd end up in a situation like that."

Yet being a stranger in a strange land provided her with a formative experience and taught her invaluable lessons, she added. "My time in America opened my eyes," she said. "I realised I should not take [prestige and status] for granted but had to earn people's respect."

She also came to appreciate the value of meritocracy. "I learned that whether rich or poor, at heart people are the same" - an important realisation for someone growing up in Thailand's rigidly class-conscious society.

She also found a hobby, which soon turned into a new career. "Whenever I felt down and lonely, I started to cook," she said.

To hone her cooking skills, she began taking lessons from world-renowned French chef Jean Georges Vongerichten at his Vong restaurant in Chicago, which specialises in oriental flavours.

"I learned that it doesn't matter whether you prepare a high-end hotel dish or just a pot of stew. You have to give it your best," she said.

"Your cooking reflects who you are. A diner's first mouthful [of a new dish] should be decisive by teasing his or her taste buds with the promise of a new experience."

M Merge, which she set up with her partner in 2006 in a high-rise office building near downtown Bangkok, hints at the company's broad and varied range of services in its slogan: "Dial M for whatever". You can dial M Merge for the company's communications consultancy, which offers services in branding, marketing and public relations. You can also dial for its other line of business which ranges from classes in an in-house cooking studio to a catering service for themed private dinners.

This is the fifth of a seven-part series on influential women who are based overseas