DUBAI – The chef at the official residence of Japanese Consul General Hiroyasu Kobayashi, 53, in Jumeirah, an exclusive neighborhood in Dubai, counts himself among the ranks of “taste diplomats” for Japan — but he’s Thai.
On a large table in the residence’s dining room are set cooked aroid and squash, grilled salmon, egg apples fried with fermented soybean paste and mushrooms in a clear broth served in an earthenware teapot.
“Because ‘matsutake’ mushrooms were not available, we prepared (another type),” Kobayashi said.
They were cooked by Mana Kaynonsung, 36, from Thailand. He lives in the residence with his wife, Nanthiporn, 34, who, unlike him, speaks Japanese.
Cooks at the residences of Japanese ambassadors and consuls mainly prepare Japanese food for dinners and parties for local dignitaries and foreign diplomats.
Mana, who was born in a farming family in northeastern Thailand, started working at a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok at age 15. “I love cooking. Although I had never eaten Japanese food, I wanted to do what others weren’t doing,” he said.
Day after day, he washed dishes and was often scolded for not making them spotless. He also paid for dishes that broke and occasionally wanted to return home, but he endured the hardship for three years. He later became a trainee cook and was promoted to full chef at age 20.
When he was in his late 20s, with a recommendation from the Japanese manager of his restaurant, he became a cook at the official residence of a Japanese diplomat.
He returned to the restaurant a few years later but moved on again, serving as a chef for a Japanese consul in Laos, one in Istanbul and now one in Dubai.
His wife and the consul’s wife choose the meals, and Mana purchases the ingredients. He has never been to Japan but decorates food with the shapes of Mount Fuji and cranes made with salt and dyed radish.
“There are three to four parties a week with Japanese food served. There is also a buffet party for 130 people, and he works through the night to prepare,” Kobayashi said in praising Mana. “He is a great help.”
There are about 170 cooks at the official residences of Japanese ambassadors and consuls general, and while most are Japanese, 26 were Thai as of November.
Thai cooks are sent to Africa and the Middle East, places Japanese are reluctant to go due to poor security, religious restrictions or severe weather. A Foreign Ministry-affiliated organization started training Thai cooks in 1993 to attain the high level found at Japanese restaurants in Thailand.
“Place a ‘landscape’ on a serving dish. Make the back higher and the front side lower. Never make a dent,” Masahiro Yamamoto, 40, a lecturer at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, told eight male Thai trainees through a female interpreter at an apartment in Bangkok.
A three-month training lesson is given in Bangkok annually with a lecturer invited from the institute. Thai trainees learn how to cook about 200 Japanese dishes. Mana also attended the training.
The eight trainees have more than five years of experience working at Japanese restaurants and are attending the lessons at the recommendation of their Japanese managers. The lessons start at 5 p.m. each weekday.
“They have the spirit of hunger that the Japanese people had 20 to 30 years ago, and they are quick to remember,” Yamamoto said. “But because they eat super-hot Thai food after work, the problem is how to make them learn delicate seasoning.”
“I want to go to an official residence as soon as possible. The salary is good,” said trainee Uthai Namkham, 25. Mana felt likewise.
A Thai chef and his wife normally receive about ¥160,000 a month. If Mana returns to the restaurant, his salary would be about ¥60,000.
Thai cooks are supporting Japanese diplomacy behind the scenes and introducing Japanese food to leading officials in developing countries.
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