News: Ready to serve
Story by Staff Sgt. Kyle Richardson
HAU HIN, Thailand – A spoonful of butter slides down the edge of a hot pan and begins to sizzle as it hits the fire. Throughout this Thai kitchen, steam and other various aromas take to the air to combine into a motley crew of smells; those familiar smells typically associated with dinner.
A handful of kitchen staff scramble around each other in a small kitchen, moving in a precise culinary ballet, cooking and cleaning as they prepare food for several hundred U.S. Soldiers and Civilians.
This tango of ingredients come together under the instruction of long-time chef, Thirapat Yotajuk and his staff at the Krua NiYom restaurant, meaning popular restaurant in English. Yotajuk, a native of Nakhonsithamrat Province in southern Thailand, opens his family-operated restaurant six hours early to prepare meals for the Soldiers. Yotajuk works with one of the preventive medicine specialist to ensure his food is safe to eat.
Ensuring the food and water is safe to consume becomes an important job for the preventive medicine team, but it is also a vital role for the start of the second annual bilateral Army-to-Army training exercise, Hanuman Guardian.
"My main goal for this entire exercise is to make sure we go with no disease or non battle injuries," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Paolucci, a preventive medicine supervisor and a Pittsburgh native with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 65th Medical Brigade. "We try to keep Soldiers from getting sick. I like to think of myself as helping the medics have a slow day. The number one thing I look for when going into a restaurant is sanitation. Sanitation is key because that will lead to a lot of food-born illnesses especially being in the field. A soldier out of the fight is a soldier out of the fight and that's what we want to prevent."
Yotajuk is no newcomer to the heat in the kitchen; he stated that he started preparing meals at the young age of 10. As an experienced chef, he demonstrates his culinary expertise by cooking without a stove, oven or microwave. As he strives to be one of top local restaurants in Hau Hin, he prepares breakfast and dinner for the U.S. forces participating in Hanuman Guardian.
"I've been cooking a long time," said Yotajuk. "I've made many great meals and learned to adapt to what I have. I don't need a stove to cook; just big pots and I can make you just about anything. There are many great restaurants in this province, but I like to think that I'm among the best. If my guests and the soldiers like my food and come back, then I'm happy."
He said he was excited to work with and cook for the U.S. Soldiers because it will provide a challenge for him and allow him to get more creative.
"It's such an honor to cook for the soldiers," said Yotajuk. "Normally, Thai people aren't so picky. So cooking for the American soldiers, I had to increase my menu, make my dishes less spicy, and add more butter. It's a good challenge for me to break away from my normal style of cooking. I have to be able to make a dish that I would like to eat and taste just as good to the American soldiers."
Although Yotajuk was excited to prepare meals for the U.S. soldiers participating in Hanuman Guardian, the cultural differences meant that he had to make a few changes to his restaurant based on Paolucci's advisement.
"I feel great working with Mr. Yotajuk. He's made great strides from day one," said Paolucci. "I've made a lot of recommendations and he's made a lot of changes to his actual restaurant to meet our standards. Some people may not know that in Thailand, they may not have the same kitchens that we have in the U.S. They may not have hot water heaters or stoves.
Yotajuk implemented the changes to Krua NiYom because he said that the changes would only improve his restaurant.
"I didn't mind making the changes because I knew that they would only be better for my business," said Yotajuk. "What's good for the soldiers is good for Thai people."
Paolucci said before Yotajuk could begin cooking for the soldiers he had to install a hot water heater for cleaning meats, vegetables, and sanitizing dishes. He also mentioned that he had to replace the wooden cutting boards with non-porous cutting boards.
"There were a few things that he needed to purchase in order bring his kitchen up to standard and he was willing to do it," said Paolucci. "One thing that was good about working with Thirapat is that he already knew temperatures and times for cooking and storing food. It's culturally different cooking over here, but he was willing to adapt his ways to serve us. It makes me feel great to know that he's honored to serve us while we're here doing our exercise."
Yotajuk will continue to work with the preventive medicine team throughout the Hanuman Guardian exercise to make sure the food is safe to eat and handled properly. The Krua NiYom restaurant is surrounded by palm trees and tucked away from the heat. Yotajuk serves mostly everything on his menu for 60 baht that's roughly, $2.32.