With his affable charm and deft cooking skills, it is difficult to imagine Thai celebrity chef Phol Tantasathien doing anything else but whipping up a storm in front of the cameras.
However, the strapping 46-year- old cooking-show host discovered cooking only later in his career.
After chasing the limelight as an actor-host-singer for five years, the multi-hyphenate found himself at the crossroads of his career in 2002. With mounting competition from younger actors and rigorous working hours, he was uncertain how he could keep up.
In a telephone interview with The Straits Times from Bangkok, where he is based, he says: "Being in show business is tough and physically demanding. Sometimes, we had to work till 6am for a drama shoot. I wondered how long I could continue doing this."
But an idea struck when he chanced upon a cooking show on television. It planted the idea of carving out a niche as a television chef. "People are already familiar with me from my dramas, so it is easier to branch out into something new," he adds.
Serious about his career switch, he started writing food reviews in Thai magazines and attended cooking classes at Yingcharoen Home Science School and, later, at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit culinary school. He was part of the renowned Bangkok school's pioneer batch of graduates in 2007.
He says: "The more I learnt, the more interested I was in cooking as it enables me to express my creativity."
This spurred him to helm popular TV cooking series over the past eight years in Thailand. They include the twice-weekly Phol Phak Nak Prung and the weekly Good Food Good Mood series, where he demonstrates a smorgasbord of recipes from Thai to Western cuisine. His latest cooking show is At Home With Phol, which premieres on Thursday at 9pm on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub TV Channel 435).
On the six-episode series, he shares fuss-free recipes for traditional and modern-fusion Thai dishes, from appetisers and snacks to mains and desserts. Old-school dishes include laa tieng (pork and prawn egg wraps), believed to have originated from the reign of King Rama II; goong ob woonsen (spicy glass noodles with prawns); and khanom tuay (steamed coconut milk custard), which is one of Tantasathien's favourite desserts.
Thai cuisine is also given a modern twist through dishes such a de-constructed som tum tod (deep- fried green papaya salad) and tom yum goong fried rice.
All the recipes will be available on asianfoodchannel.com after each weekly episode airs.
Besides hosting food shows, Tantasathien has been running his food website, PholFoodMafia.com, for 13 years, which is a rich repository of hundreds of videos on Asian and Western recipes.
A former marketing manager with a major Thai retail chain, the enterprising Tantasathien has built up a culinary empire over the years. Besides his cooking shows, he has published cookbooks and opened a string of restaurants, including the popular modern Thai cafe, Wicked, in Bangkok.
The youngest of nine children, he grew up cooking with his ThaiChinese mother.
He points out that the days when big families, like his, could "divide and conquer" cooking tasks are over. These days, smaller families are hard-pressed for time to cook at home.
This is where kitchen short-cuts come in handy in his recipes on At Home With Phol. To cut down on cooking time, he uses ingredients such as curry and chilli pastes and sriracha sauce, and tweaks cooking steps such as chopping onions and garlic into smaller bits so that they can be fried together.
The bachelor says: "I want to encourage more people to cook by showing them that you do not need to start from scratch in order to achieve the authentic flavours of Thai food."
1 What is your favourite Thai dish?
Coconut vermicelli (mee kati). This dish showcases a clever twist on cooking techniques. Vermicelli is typically deep-fried and served as an appetiser.
For this dish, it is stir-fried with a rich range of ingredients, from vegetables to omelette to toufu. I also like the coconut cream that is fried with the noodles, which adds texture to the dish.
2 What are your favourite ingredients in Thai cooking?
One thing that I cannot miss in Thai cooking is chilli paste. It is a very flavourful addition to all sorts of dishes, from stir-fries to soups. I like adding the paste to my tom yum soup. It is my secret cooking weapon.
I also like fish sauce as it can make the flavours of a dish pop. With a good fish sauce, frying it with rice and some herbs is good enough.
3 What do you think is the toughest Thai dish to cook?
Khao chae - a royal Thai dish served with many side dishes. The rice needs to be soaked in jasmine- scented water and the dish is served with many condiments that each involve a different cooking technique.
The sides include deep-fried shallots stuffed with meat and ball- shaped fried chilli paste. You can spend an entire day preparing each side dish.
4 You have been a restaurateur for more than 10 years. What is the biggest challenge you face?
It is having to deal with daily operations, such as manpower problems when staff do not show up for work.
I also hate to cook the same food repeatedly and rather spend more time creating new recipes.
5 What do you think of the recent plans by the Thai authorities to ban food vendors from the streets in Bangkok ?
This clean-up will ensure that our streets are more organised and neat. The food from vendors can be prepared in a more hygienic environment. I don't think being organised will compromise the authentic flavours of street food.
6 You have to come up with 10 recipes every week for your cooking shows. Do you get tired of doing them?
I enjoy the process of coming up with new recipes. I like adapting and adjusting recipes. Take carbonara pasta, for example, I have done more than 10 variations of the dish, including turning it into a pizza.
For Thai food, I have made fried rice and pasta that are inspired by tom yum soup.
7 Where do you get ideas for new dishes?
I subscribe to many food magazines and go online to see what ingredients are on-trend.
I also read online recipes to find out more about new cooking techniques and adapt them using local ingredients. Sometimes, I adjust the recipes from my restaurants to make them home-friendly.
8 How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be known as a household chef that viewers can relate to. I do not want to use fanciful cooking equipment and complicated techniques that can be a barrier to stepping into the kitchen.
• At Home With Phol premieres on Thursday at 9pm on Asian Food Channel (StarHub TV Channel 435).