Sydney, Australia, transplant Ty Bellingham has taken over the kitchen at Kittichai, one of the city’s best-reviewed upscale Thai restaurants. His pedigree is as strong as it gets this side of Bangkok — of course, with a name like Ty, what else would you expect?
What changes have you made to the menu?
The biggest thing is the curry paste. When I walked in the door, [I saw that], as I’m sure most high-end restaurants do, they bought them from Thailand. I’ve got a lot of recipes of all different curry pastes from Thailand and we make them from scratch. We’ve actually employed one guy to make curry paste all day long, every day, five days a week. We’ve got five different curries on the menu. We’ve got a jungle curry, a green curry, a citrus red curry, a spicy — and when I say spicy, I mean lots of spices, cumin and coriander seed — and a duck curry, which is very spicy.
Another thing we do now is juice our own limes. It might seem trivial, but using fresh lime juice instead of the bottled stuff … they’re worlds apart. We’re also making tamarind paste instead of using tamarind concentrate. Other changes? My attitude, I guess. I love Thai food. I’ve dedicated my whole life to it, and I think I brought my passion to this restaurant and that everyone else is starting to get passionate, as well.
How did you get into Thai food to begin with?
My name’s Ty. I know it’s a bit ridiculous that I cook Thai food. I was in my fourth year of culinary school — we do a four-year apprenticeship in Australia — and during my last year I went to work for David Thompson in one of his restaurants in Sydney. He’s a Michelin-star chef who’s considered the Western world’s authority on Thai food. I worked at Sailors Thai for 14 years. I worked my way up to executive chef. I only went there to get a reference because I wanted to go to London and do the whole European “learn from the top chefs” thing, but I ended up falling in love with Thai food so much that I stayed there. I think it’s one of the best foods in the world when it’s done properly. There are a lot of bad Thai restaurants, especially in Australia. They’re like Starbucks.
Do you get that joke a lot about your name being Ty?
Yeah, I was named after an actor named Ty Hardin, but when I was in Sydney I would ring up supplies and say, “Hi, it’s Ty from Sailors Thai,” and they’d start laughing. You’ve just got to go with it. It is pretty ridiculous that my name’s Ty and I cook Thai food. But, at the same time, what other food would I cook with my name?
What do you think of the Thai food scene in New York?
I haven’t really seen any Thai food in New York. I’m here [at the restaurant] 12 hours a day, six days a week, so I’m not getting a chance to eat out at the moment. I’m putting my effort into this kitchen. The reason I wanted to come here was I felt that Thai wasn’t well-represented here in New York, and in the U.S. in general. We’ve got a lot of good and bad Thai restaurants in Sydney and Australia, but I felt that maybe New York didn’t have really good Thai restaurants. I found Kittichai, which is actually a really good Thai restaurant. I contacted the owners and said, “This is what I can do.” But the truth is that I haven’t really made it out there. Is it Sea Thai, over in Brooklyn? I live close to there so that’ll probably be my first stop.
Any other non-Thai restaurants you’ve been to?
I’ve been to Gramercy Tavern. When I came out here in November I went to Buddakan and Spice Market. I’ve eaten a lot of gyros coming home from work. I get my coffee at Verb down in Williamsburg. They have really good coffee and blueberry muffins, so that’s where I go on my way to work.
Is there anything, restaurant-wise, that New York doesn’t do as well as Sydney or vice versa?
Something New York does that Sydney doesn’t do is the street-food thing. We don’t have any food trucks in Sydney, so I think it could actually improve in that area. We have a massive coffee culture in Australia. The new-style coffee is coming now to New York, but we’ve had that stuff in Sydney for years. I think Sydney does the café scene a lot better. Are there any foods you miss from home?
For 20 years I’ve eaten Vita Brix, a breakfast cereal. I’ve been stuck in my ways when it comes to certain things, like waking up in the morning and having cereal. I asked my mother-in-law recently when she was coming over to see my family, because my wife just had a baby girl, to bring over Vita Brix, but she actually brought over Weetabix. They look the same and taste the same, but I know the difference. One goes soggier quicker than the other one. I like the one that stays crunchier. I haven’t been able to find them yet here. I’m sure they’re here, though. I also haven’t had Vegemite since I’ve been here.
As a parent, do you encourage a lot of experimentation when it comes to food?
I’ve got a hard-and-fast rule with my children, and that’s that they must try everything. At least try it. That’s what I say to my oldest boy, Luca — he’s five. What I believe is that you’ve got to train their taste buds. He may not like it now, but once upon a time I didn’t like avocado, and now I can’t get enough of it. I never used to like olives, but now I love them. I think you’ve got to train your palate from an early age — even from breastfeeding, whatever your wife is eating. I’m constantly getting them to try new things. If they say, “I don’t like that, Dad,” then that’s not a problem, but at least they tried it.
Are you much of a health nut when it comes to the kids?
I grew up in a house where dessert was used as a weapon. If you didn’t eat all [your dinner], you didn’t get dessert. Whereas at my wife’s house, dessert was actually part of the meal. She would have pasta, then the main, then dessert. Dessert in my house was a reward. So, my wife and I have different opinions on how much sugar intake is allowed. They get to have a treat after dinner, like a lolli, a jelly bean, a gummy bear, or some cake.
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