KOH: The Thai restaurant that uses ingredients you've never heard of

Andrew Demaria, CNNUpdated 27th February 2015
Koh Samui, Thailand (CNN) — A trip to a local food market is almost a travel cliche.
The bustle of day-to-day commerce, the clash of the foreign with the familiar, smells simultaneously affronting and inviting -- this micro world far removed from a shiny, squeaky clean marble-top kitchen teases greater insight into the cultures of new and exotic destinations.
On a recent foray into the Bangrak market in the northeast corner of Koh Samui, Thailand, however, this timeless travel ritual feels different.
For one thing, the man at the center of the trip -- a Spanish chef sifting through the fish, vegetables and spices on show -- is inspiring more than just calls for business from the local vendors.
He's inspiring merriment.
A vendor wearing a knockoff Barcelona FC jersey, for example, is struggling to contain his laughter as he watches this farang chef explain the various uses of the market's mostly unrecognizable foods to his farang guest.
Bangrak market in Koh Samui.
Bangrak market in Koh Samui.
Shinsuke Matsukaw
"This is called taling pling," says the chef, Alex Gares, in a Catalan accent.
He's waving around something that looks like a cross between a cucumber and a tiny pear.
"It's pretty sour," he notes for the benefit of his guest. "Do you like it?"

Obsession pays off

Gares, 37, hails from Barcelona and is appropriately obsessed with the famed hometown football club, so maybe this is why he doesn't seem bothered by the laughing vendor in front of him.
He's worked at a string of Michelin-starred restaurants, including el Bulli, Mugaritz and Celler de Can Roca.
But he's obsessed with Thai food.
In particular, he's driven to create genuine Thai dishes with truly local ingredients, something even many local chefs shy away from.
It's this obsession that's made the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui's KOH Thai Kitchen and Bar -- the resort's flagship restaurant -- arguably the best high-end Thai restaurant on the island.
One of the first things Gares did when he arrived at the resort in 2011 to take on the role of executive chef was trawl the menus at local restaurants such as Ranong and Takho Bang Por, then bring some of their dishes to his restaurant.
But with a twist.
Taling pling is a sour experience.
Taling pling is a sour experience.
"Every place does tom sum pla -- clear fish soup," he explains. "The local places may add kaffir lime or ginger. Some use taling pling, some use green mango with turmeric.
"When I saw Ranong use taling pling that inspired my version."
Gares' choice of ingredients, such as the otherworldly taling pling, have taken even his own local kitchen staff aback.
"I turn up with items and some of my staff don't know what they are! But they're happy and proud that someone who isn't Thai loves Thai food and is doing more with it."
A reference point is Ranong, where ingredients like wasp larvae and seaweed, and dishes like octopus soup, can surprise visitors.
Gares' devotion to the element of surprise initially worried his staff.
"They say, 'Alex, we cannot use things like satong or norriang. The guests won't eat it.' But in the end our guests like it and my staff are happy to be serving a piece of their culture."
(The gallery above includes some of the more unusual ingredients Gares uses.)

Food as an adventure

Alex Gares: "Travelers are looking for a real experience."
Alex Gares: "Travelers are looking for a real experience."
Courtesy four seasons
Hang around Gares for a while, get a sense of his deep Spanish roots, and that seemingly odd trip to the Thai market begins to make sense.
"Thai food is one of the most interesting foods in the world," he says. "It's full of contrasts, which remind me a lot of Spanish food: squid stuffed with pork, dessert of steamed rice with coconut and salty, spicy prawns.
"There's no structure. Starter, main course, dessert -- everything comes at the same time. Sweet items for dinner, salty items for breakfast and the opposite.
"There are a lot of similarities."
Gares believes food needs to be an adventure.
He urges people to explore the world through local dishes and unfamiliar ingredients.
He points to restaurants on Koh Samui that have 30 items on the menu in English, but 70 in Thai.
Why the discrepancy?
Restaurateurs know -- or believe -- most tourists won't touch those truly exotic dishes.
"There are people that are scared of some foods and there are those that want an adventure," says Gares.
"Let's say you happen eat a grasshopper or worms or a cricket. You have to be open -- there are 60 million people that like this food. So maybe it is good.
"The worst that can happen is you eat it, you don't like it, so you never eat it again. And if you like it, you go for it and you've just discovered something else."

Food inspired by football?

For Gares, the discovery continues each day as he and his staff rework more local dishes.
Dusk at KOH.
Dusk at KOH.
Courtesy Four Seasons
"What I promise to tell my staff is how to improve their dishes," he says. "This is missing a bit of lime or missing a bit of sugar or maybe it's the cooking points of the prawns.
"We prepare a curry with eggplant. With the same ingredients you can have a good dish or crap. How you play with it, when to add the eggplant to have a bit of texture rather than a puree.
"These are the things I can do to help them fine tune their own food."
Ever the football fan, Gares likens his style to the exploits of former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola.
Working mostly with the roster he'd inherited, the chef recalls all it took was a few tweaks here and there for the legendary Guardiola to achieve remarkable success for the club in the late 2000s.
"My staff thought I was a little bit crazy, trying to make some of those dishes from the local restaurants with these local ingredients," Gares says. "With pretty much the same staff, I have had to work out how to motivate them, how to inspire them and let them know what I want to do with these local ingredients, that it is important to showcase the real Thai food experience.
"In doing so, I think we've got a winning team putting out great southern Thai food."
KOH Thai Kitchen and Bar, Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, 219 Moo 5, Angthong, Koh Samui, Thailand; +66 77 243 000
Open for breakfast, lunch (noon-5 p.m.), dinner (6-10 p.m.) Reservations recommended
Alex Gares' other Koh Samui restaurant recommendations
Ranong Restaurant, Moo 2, Chumchon Chaweng Yai Soi 4, Chaweng, Koh Samui
Takho Bang Por (also spelled Bangpo or Bang Po), 56/4 moo 6 Maenam, Bang Por Beach, Koh Samui