Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms, on his James Beard Dinner nightmare
This is part one of my interview with Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace. Part two of my interview with Bates will run tomorrow.
The definition of culture shock? Spending your youth in a big city in Thailand, and then, when you're thirteen, moving thousands of miles away, to the land of livestock and cowboys. "You have absolutely no idea how weird that was," says Thanawat Bates, the exec chef of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace, who left his homeland as a teenager to move to Wyoming with his mother and stepfather. "I remember seeing snow for the first time, and talk about shock. I just stopped and stared in bewilderment," recalls the 32-year-old chef.
He might have left Thailand behind, but he didn't lose the love of cooking he'd gotten from his grandmother. "Growing up in Thailand was amazing, and my grandmother, who was an incredible cook, would let me play with food in her kitchen -- and I always got to try everything," he reminisces. "But it was the way she made people smile, the way that she was able to bring food and people together -- the warmth behind that -- that made me want to do the same thing."
Bates's mother opened a restaurant in Wyoming, paving the way for him to follow in his grandmother's footsteps. "As part of my chores, I'd go to my mom's restaurant after school and help her in the kitchen, and I'd do pretty much everything else, too," remembers Bates. He eventually moved to Colorado to attend culinary school at Colorado Mountain College in Vail, where he worked as an intern at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa for six months before getting a paying gig working the line -- and teaching the tricks of the trade to first-year culinary students.
After graduating and cementing his own chops, Bates bolted for Los Angeles, where he'd secured a stint as a sous chef at the St. Regis, a position that exposed him to high volume, a sophisticated, well-heeled clientele, and celebrity chefs including Michael Mina, with whom Bates occasionally worked. It was a memorable experience, but L.A. wore him down: "It was too hectic and overwhelming, and my mom wasn't doing well," he says. So he returned to Colorado and the familiar stamping ground of the Vail Cascade, where he was brought on as a banquet chef. He stuck around the world of snow bunnies and snowstorms for a few years, until "I got a fantastic offer to work at the Ritz-Carlton in D.C., and while I was there, I also got to stage for some great chefs, including José Andrés and Michel Richard, and I learned a ton about working in corporate kitchens, not to mention a lot about politics," he says.