The first time Chef Amornrat Aksaranan tried to cook was when she was seven years old. She was making a batch of chili paste at her grandmother’s house but she was having a little bit of trouble.
“I was all teary-eyed while crushing the chilies and shallots!” Chef Amornrat recalled of the memory. The Thai cook has come a long way from her days of grinding chilies and shallots in her grandmother’s kitchen.
As co-owner and executive chef at Bushwick’s Dock Asian Eatery, she is the mastermind behind the delectable Thai dishes that make up part of the restaurant’s eclectic Asian menu. The restaurant’s uniqueness lies in the three types of menus that it carries, each run by a specialized chef.
Before she ended up co-running her own successful Asian restaurant in Brooklyn, Chef Amornrat learned to cook from the matriarchs of her family: her mother and her grandmother.
Young Amornrat spent every school break at her grandmother’s house in Petchaburi which is located in the area of central Thailand bordering Myanmar.
“Each time there would always be a feast with my aunts helping in the kitchen, and everything tasted so good, “ Chef Amornrat reminisced. Seeing the joy that their cooking sparked ignited a flame of passion inside her younger self. She eventually gained enough cooking skills and confidence to set her sights on becoming a professional chef.
Armed with her family’s Thai recipes, Chef Amornrat moved to New York City to pursue a formal culinary education at the elite Art Institute Culinary School. The first job she landed after graduating was the position of line cook at the prestigious The Mercer Kitchen in Soho.
But the culinary scene, especially back at that time, was a challenging place to be, particularly for women. There was a lot of heat in the kitchen – both temperature-wise and through flaring tensions among stressed kitchen staff. As an immigrant and as a woman of color, the pressure was three times more intense for the budding chef, and only pushed Chef Amornrat to work even harder to prove herself in the male-dominated field.
“Most of the kitchen staff were men, and the job was physically demanding. I had to lift heavy pottery myself and also had to put up with my co-workers’ tempers! The men probably thought I would ask for their help,” she recalled. “But I had to prove that I was tough enough, and I had to be even better.”
She was, and quickly earned enough credentials to open her first restaurant in Brooklyn called Chai Thai Home Kitchen which later expanded to Midtown in Manhattan. Now, her latest creation, Dock Asian, is an extension of her quest to share the wonderful dishes of Thai cuisine.
Since the eatery opened last year, Dock Asian’s Thai menu continues to evolve through fresh recipes from Chef Amornrat. The Thai menu features classic dishes like tom yum goong, pad thai, and green papaya salad alongside authentic plates rooted in her northern Thai heritage. A must-try dish is the Thai home-style peanut dumplings which can be made with chicken or vegetables – both very tasty. But chef’s recommendation is the Chiang Mai noodles, a delicious chicken curry broth dish with egg noodles.
While she’s enjoyed much success as a chef and business owner, she does have one regret. “I never really had a chance to cook for my grandma,” Chef Amonrat lamented, “because she passed away before I became a chef.” Nevertheless, the chef — who loves traveling the world and sampling local cuisine – enjoys the work that she gets to do.
“I enjoy preparing each dish and seeing people’s reaction when they get to taste my food,” she said. “I think that’s the challenge – to make sure they like it!”
Starting this fall, Dock Asian will be adding a seasonal menu including more dishes with beef and lamb, such as short ribs hungley (a northern Thai-style curry) and lamb massaman, both of which will “keep you nice and warm on chilly days.”
Dock Asian Eatery
22 Wyckoff Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237 (off the Jefferson St stop in the L train)
Photos courtesy of José Alvarado for Bushwick Daily unless otherwise specified.
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