From Iron Chef to S.Ken’s Bistro: Chef Ken’s culinary journey to Hua Hin

0
1163

Stand back: this man and his knife are both sharp

Kantapat Agechaosuan is much better known to the Western expat community of Hua Hin as Chef Ken from S.Ken’s bistro in Khao Tao.  Although I have eaten at the bistro on numerous occasions, I admit I was perplexed at the “S” in front of the name, despite having been personally introduced to Khun Ken in 2019.

Knowing that “Khun” is often abbreviated to a simple “K” in writing, I was wondering if, with Chef Ken’s European culinary history, the “S” might be an abbreviation of Signor.  But I was wrong, something I am not fond of being.  More about that mysterious “S” in a little while.

Like every other Thai I have interviewed for my articles, Ken was born elsewhere, and came to live in Hua Hin later in life. It seems even the Thai people in Hua Hin are not all locals, born and bred. Ken began his life in Bangkok, the middle of three brothers in the family, one of whom also works in the hospitality industry. As a child, Ken’s family moved around a fair bit, as his father was in the Navy.  He completed his schooling and University studies in Bangkok as well, except for a year after completing Year 6 when he travelled to live in the United Kingdom for a year.

His aunt had married an English husband, and Ken was fortunate to have a rather early “gap year” living with them at the hotel his uncle owned.  This was how his career in the culinary arts began, but I suspect there was a whole lot of dishwashing involved.  The surname of Ken’s uncle and aunt is Stuart, and the “S” at the start of S.Ken’s could be thought of as a “wai of respect” to these highly-valued family members.  Indeed, given the chance to sit and have a gin and tonic with anyone, dead or alive, Ken would go no further than his 80-year-old uncle, the man he regards as his godfather and mentor, who has supported and sponsored his whole career and encouraged all his dreams.

Ken admits his school grades were average.  His favourite things at school were the sport and the socialising.  To this day, Ken remains a sporty type, and loves to participate in football, snooker, golf, scuba diving and skiing when he gets the chance.  Of course, being the proprietor and chef at a very well-reputed local restaurant means that he has a solid mental and physical load to carry and less free time than he would like.

At this point, I am happy to let readers in on a few little lesser-known facts about the life and career of this high achiever.  At only 42 years of age, this man has already packed in a more experiences and achievements than the average person fits into a lifetime. As well as living and working in both the UK and Thailand, Ken has also spent time working in Vitznau in Switzerland, the Maldives, Doha in Qatar and Penang in Malaysia. He has cooked a wide variety of European cuisines, as well as food in Asian Fusion and Nyonya styles and since January 2016 has been the owner and head chef of his own establishment, which to all chefs is the pinnacle of their culinary career. Unless they are interested in moving into hotel management, which Ken is most definitely not.  In fact, a little birdie told me recently Ken had politely declined the offer of a job as Executive Chef at a newly opened hotel quite close to his restaurant.  Knowing the hours such a job would entail, I can’t say I blame Ken.

Although at the age of 15, Ken “didn’t know how to fry an egg”, he now does a fabulous job in the kitchen.  While still in College in the UK doing an Advanced Diploma in European Culinary Management, Ken cooked for Queen Elizabeth II and during the Covid pandemic when S.Ken’s was shut, he cooked for Minister of the Thai Government in a local private villa.  Locals are certainly lucky they too can taste the work of a master chef.

RELATED: Read more of the Humans of Hua Hin series by Felicitee Lawrie

Shall I continue with some more snippets of information? In February 2018, Ken competed at a very creditable level in Iron Chef Thailand raising his profile in the community even more. I can completely understand why Ken would choose his chef’s knife as the first material possession he would choose to save in the event of a fire. 

Because of his training and working in foreign lands, Ken missed out on joining the monkhood after graduation, a tradition among young Thai men that is akin to a rite of passage.  Ken still yearns to do this, as it would allow him to cast off his responsibilities and worries for a month or more, and focus on tranquillity, serenity and his personal spirituality.

Although Ken told me his favourite ingredients to cook with are rosemary and garlic because they work so well together, (music to my ears, as a lover of lamb in all its forms), his personal favourite meal contains neither of these.  In fact, it is lasagne, which was his first ever meal in the UK.  It is a marvellous thing how we can instantly recall all our “firsts”.

Ken is not finished yet, not by a long shot.  He has a burning passion to innovate, and it is not merely a dream since he has a plan, and he has already taken steps to see this plan to fruition.  He would like to bring the concept of brunch into his restaurant, but this will require educating his regular patrons about its delights. Ken is on the cusp between being a Gen X and a millennial, but irrespective of this, he has a solid appreciation of smashed avocado on toast, particularly if it is accompanied by smoked salmon, kelp and spicy crumbled dry fish.  

Innovation is also apparent in Ken’s ambition to create his own farm to fork dining establishment at some time in the future. The land is already purchased and Ken has tested the waters by growing and selling edible flowers. Ken also places great importance on remaining healthy as he acknowledges working in the kitchen can take a toll on your body.  He has had a niggling tendonitis in his right forearm that on a number of occasions has stopped him from lifting pans, and has required treatment with steroid injections.  So, this aim of an occasional Chef’s Table event on his farm is definitely a contingency plan.

Ken values smiles, laughter and happiness, and our discussion circled around this theme in a number of ways. Ken is generally positive about the future, and sees great benefit in the technological and communications advances of the last few decades, while at the same time remaining aware of the dangers of misinformation and disinformation this carries for the unwary youth. 

Never happier that when he is with friends, Ken has a very insightful take on what is needed to make other people happy.  He understands that your first priority is to your personal happiness because you can’t share the happiness around unless you are experiencing it yourself.  He also told me about the strategies he employs to keep his seven staff members happy and to make sure they know they are valued.  Keeping them all on the books throughout the Covid shutdowns went a long way towards that, I would imagine. It seems the only person he is hard on is himself.  Ken gets very annoyed when he makes the same mistake more than once: he expects to learn better, and quickly! 

Ken attributes the continual good reviews for S.Ken’s to the way his team all pull together to create a great customer experience, from the moment they are greeted at the door. Not bad, for a restaurant that opened with four tables, and Ken doing front of house, bar service, cooking and clean up all by himself for the first three months.

Everyone who has eaten at S.Ken’s owes a debt of gratitude to Ken’s tight-knit family.  Not only did his aunt and uncle sponsor Ken’s culinary training, they are also responsible for bringing him to Hua Hin, as they retired here from Bangkok and he followed, true family man he is. He is a devoted son to his parents and is keen to ensure they have a good quality of life as they age. Ken does wish he had paid more attention to his grandmother’s cooking skills when he was younger, as it wasn’t till much later that he realised he had wasted a golden opportunity there.

Ken chose the restaurant’s location by the reservoir in Khao Tao because it reminds him of his beloved Switzerland, where the hotel he worked in overlooked Lake Lucerne, with mountains behind. The only element Khao Tao can’t provide is the snow.

When I asked Ken about his greatest achievement, he told me it was actually achieving beyond his own expectations.  I suspect this will continue for many years to come, as Ken finds working preferable to relaxing; “Relaxing is boring”.

comments