Remembering Kamol Phutlek, unsung pioneer of Thai-French cuisine who shaped Philly food history
Phutlek came to Philadelphia in the late 1960s from Northern Thailand with ambitions to become an architect. He fell in love with restaurant work instead.
The seeds of a culinary revolution were planted at the staff meals. And they had little to do with the fine French cuisine being served to the customers at La Panetière, which in 1971 was the height of dining sophistication in Philadelphia.
The aromatic curries of Southeast Asia cooked for La Panetière’s employees by immigrant Thai chefs like Kamol Phutlek sparked the imagination of young Steve Poses. Then a young busboy-turned-prep cook, Poses had plans percolating for a restaurant of his own. That place would become the Frog, and Phutlek would be its first chef. And when it opened in 1973 at 16th and Spruce with mismatched chairs and an eclectic menu that included dishes like Siamese chicken curry, “Oriental” noodles, and stir-fried shrimp with ginger, soy, and garlic, Philly’s Restaurant Renaissance had officially begun.
A town once known for its stodgy American fish houses and private clubs was awakening to a wave of global flavors that helped inspire an era of DIY storefront restaurants — places like Friday, Saturday, Sunday; Astral Plane; and Knave of Hearts, among many others.
“We were trying to figure out who we were at Frog, and Kamol was an important part of that,” said Poses, who opened other restaurants with Phutlek at the helm, including the Commissary, which eventually morphed with Frog into a catering company by the same name. “Kamol was also emblematic of many of the [international] chefs behind the scenes who have had great influence on food in Philadelphia, but never quite got the recognition they deserve.”
Phutlek, who died in August at 75, was a mentor to many and earned three bells from The Inquirer for his West Philadelphia restaurant, Nan, which he opened after a decade-plus-long run at Alouette, his restaurant in Queen Village, and a previous tenure as chef at La Terrasse. He likely would not have thought of himself in such grand terms, said longtime friend and former employee Peter Jolly: “He was a very, very modest man, and while I think deep down he probably knew [of his contributions], he’d never have taken any of that credit. It was just how he was made.”
True to form, Phutlek did not even inform his daughter, Amara Ryder, that he had advanced cancer until the week before he died of what she said was an unrelated bleeding in the brain.
“He didn’t want to be a bother and worry them,” Jolly said.
Phutlek came to Philadelphia in the late 1960s from Phitsanulok in Northern Thailand with ambitions to become an architect, said Ryder: “He loved the buildings and history here, and just everything about Philly, including the Eagles and Phillies.”
He fell in love with restaurant work instead, she said, rising quickly from dishwasher to cook, where his creative contributions went toward building the city’s new culinary identity at a pivotal moment. With the Vietnam War still raging, the Restaurant Renaissance became a counterculture reply to the stuffy establishment places, Poses said. And its culinary spirit melded Julia Child’s dawning French influence on American kitchens with an openness to the exotic flavors of newly arrived immigrants and a spirit of DIY self-discovery that still defines Philly’s many small restaurants today.
“Kamol Phutlek, a gentle, unassuming, almost Yoda-like mentor and chef, was a key behind-the-scenes architect of it,” wrote the columnist Rick Nichols in a 1998 Inquirer Magazine feature.
In the beginning, the culinary collaborations at the Frog reflected the most rudimentary glimmers of fusion cuisine. Phutlek, who never learned to cook before working in Philly’s French restaurants, borrowed his native Thai flavors for instinctual combinations rather than classic ones, adding Thai curries to béchamel or heavy cream, for example, instead of the traditional coconut milk.
“I grew up sort of as an assimilated Jew in Yonkers,” Poses said. “I didn’t know what flavors worked together or didn’t. All I knew was: These Thai flavors are amazing!”
The city’s Asian-fusion trend continued to blossom with the work of pioneers like Phutlek and Susanna Foo eventually leading to the showtime splash of Buddakan and others. The movement began to fade in the late-2000s in favor of concepts inspired more directly by authentic flavors from the country of origin. But Phutlek, who never returned to Thailand, did not seem particularly interested in cooking strictly traditional Thai food.
“He really loved French cooking,” said Jolly, recalling that Phutlek avidly acquired cookbooks. “Because that’s what he saw here.”
At Nan, the miso-ginger sauce for black bass was infused into a classic French butter emulsion. The lemongrass-crusted salmon came with red curried cream. And while he could roast a perfect duck with tamarind glaze or a lovely chicken saté, he was equally at home making rack of lamb with a bread crumb-mustard crust, or tucking escargots into puff pastry baskets — often lovingly decorated with flowers by Amara when she was still a little girl.
Whether or not Phutlek’s brand of fusion fare remained in fashion, it was undeniably delicious. And he influenced many younger cooks, who went on to open Havertown’s Nais Cuisine, Alisa Café in Upper Darby, and Gourmet Restaurant in Mayfair. His ex-wife, Wallapa Suksapa, owned Amara Cafe on 22nd Street for many years.
“He was a big man in the Thai restaurant community,” said Akasak “Mac” Kaewvichien, 49, who owns Tamarind on South Street. “But he was an elder to look up to who also cared about you. People called him up for tips and pointers all the time, and I talked to him every day. But he was more than a friend — I called him ‘uncle.’ And I’m sure a lot of people miss him.”
Phutlek’s cooking was also remarkably consistent, though his need for perfection hindered him from cultivating an enduring support staff.
“He felt that nobody could do it the way he wanted it done and he was very fussy when a sous chef was careless,” said Flo Mayes, Phutlek’s longtime companion and pastry chef at Nan. “He just couldn’t stand it. He wanted to do it himself — and that was a flaw."
The relatively low operating costs of Philly’s BYOB movement, which he helped pioneer at Nan in the late ’90s, bought him time. But for a chef who toiled through a litany of injuries, from a broken ankle to a perpetually sore back, a hernia, and other ailments, the physical toll finally forced him to close Nan in 2012 following a stroke.
He spent his time subsequently focusing on being a doting grandpa to Blake and Derek Ryder, the two young sons that Amara, 31, has raised with her husband, James Ryder Jr., in Clarksboro, N.J.
“He’d love to find fun, new kid-friendly places and take us out to a bookstore and restaurants,” said Ryder. Their final meal together, at T-Swirl Crêpe in Haddonfield, stoked ambitions in the one-time French chef to make crêpes for the boys at home.
Once a cook, always a cook. But perhaps Phutlek was contemplating something even bigger?
“The very last time I saw him,” Jolly said, “we actually went to look at a couple locations. He had heart issues. Then he had cancer. But he always said, ‘I’m going to open a new restaurant.’ He was a tremendous procrastinator until the end.”
Phutlek’s last act, however, is a Philly restaurant legacy that endures.