The renowned chef gives us a glimpse into her India-based formative years.
By Tom McLean
Born in Prachuap Khiri Khan province and raised in Bangkok, Chef Jutamas “Som” Theantae is a culinary powerhouse who channels her fine art background to craft profound gastronomic creations that need no introduction. Co-founder and executive chef of famed fine-dining establishment Karmakamet Conveyance, Chef Som uses the restaurant as a platform to convey experiences, letting her fare inspire the senses in order to transport guests to faraway places. A graduate of Visva-Bharati University, she discusses how her time in India significantly shaped her values as well as influenced her pioneering approach to cuisine.
What inspired you to study in India?
When I was very young, I read The Boy and His Tree by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet and philosopher, which left a lasting impression on my life. As I grew up studying art, living a comfortable life, and having fun with my friends, I reached a point where I realised I was bored. I needed somewhere to grow anew, away from loved ones and acquaintances. I always remembered that book, so I decided to attend Visva-Bharati University, which was founded by Rabindranath Tagore, to pursue a degree in lithography.
How did you find adapting to life in India?
It took me about three years to properly acclimatise. While studying, I lived in Shantiniketan, a small village in West Bengal. This was in the early 1990s and electricity was only available between 8am and 11am in the morning and from 5pm until 8pm at night. That was difficult to adjust to, but I felt I grew greatly as a person there. People have so much time in Shantiniketan. It’s a much slower pace of life.
What impact did your time in Shantiniketan have on your life?
I became a lot less materialistic. The people in that village didn’t strive to create and neither did they strive to destroy. They wake up, they cook, and they go to bed. It’s a special way of life. The trees in that village are over 100 years old. I’ve been back twice and long to return again.
Cuisine is such a substantial facet of life in India. What elements of Indian food have been an influence on your approach to cooking?
With traditional Indian cuisine, the flavours are not rounded. Each dish focuses on one particular kind of flavour or essence and there’s something very interesting to be taken from that. The approach is very different from Thai cuisine, as the flavours here are rounded. Sweet, salty, and spicy flavours often come together in one mouthful.
What are the most unique aspects of cooking Indian food as opposed to traditional Thai cuisine?
When many Indian dishes are prepared properly, things get burnt. To prepare some curries, they must be singed at the rim and caramelised. This technique is not really practiced in traditional Thai cooking. While the flavours from some of my dishes may be reminiscent of Indian cuisine, I haven’t incorporated this particular technique into my cooking yet. I may in the future, however.
How have your journeys abroad continued to influence your current approach to cooking?
When crafting dishes, I often reflect upon sensory memories, like smells and flavours from different locations. But, as I tell my guests, it’s not about my journey. It’s about theirs. People should own their experiences and interpret them individually.
What was the initial idea behind Karmakamet Conveyance and how was the restaurant formed?
It all started when my best friend and I were about 15 years old and we were studying at a vocational arts college. We were sharing a pack of cigarettes and decided that one day, we would open our own restaurant together. When we eventually came together again years later, we both still felt strongly about the idea. We wanted to build a place that provides guests with a new experience. The restaurant is called conveyance because we wanted to convey a sensation or feeling. Guests are encouraged to use their imagination to allow themselves to be transported.
Can you describe how you conceptualise your dishes?
The first thing I do is close my eyes and think about a place or time in my life, reflecting upon the smells and the flavours. Cardamom, for example, always takes me back to the Nandan Mela Santiniketan Festival at Shantiniketan. There’s a tree there that blossoms in the winter and the flowers smell almost exactly like cardamom pods. So incorporating cardamom as an ingredient would be a reflection of that memory. Then I go about crafting the dish, layer by layer. It’s a bit like an artist adding layers of paint to a canvas. I add spices to a dish, one by one.
What advice would you give to prospective fine dining chefs?
It’s okay not to follow the rules. To use an analogy, candles used to be our main source of light and people would go on inventing better and better candles. But then, one day, someone invented the lightbulb and it changed everything.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the F&B industry?
I often wonder why F&B is so far removed from art and why it has to remain that way. In art, there are different, clearly defined periods, like the Renaissance and Neoclassism. Artists are also easily distinguishable. You can always tell the difference between the work of Damien Hirst and other artists, for example. I feel like this is something we should be aiming for in fine dining.
What are your plans for the future?
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we crafted our Appreciation tasting menu. It was made to highlight that everything in life should be appreciated, and is oriented towards more comforting flavours. Once life becomes normal again, we will be releasing our next menu, Expedition. It’s going be very exciting; an adventure in search of something extraordinary.
For more information on Chef Som’s vision, visit: