On the Record with ThiNi Thai Chef Aon Krittathiranon

Aon Krittathiranon is the chef at ThiNi Thai, a Thai restaurant located at 18 Carpenter Court, right behind the Feve. Krittathiranon moved from his hometown of Chiang Mai after befriending Feve owners Matt and Jason Adelman by coincidence on their trip to Thailand. Krittathiranon and the Adelmans hit it off right away, and they later asked him to move to the United States to help start ThiNi Thai, a restaurant that would deliver authentic Northern Thai cuisine to the Oberlin community. 

What do you think makes Thai food special?

I love all the food, but Thai food is different from American food. When you take one bite of Thai food, you get all of the flavors: spicy, sour, sweet, salty; you get everything on there. Here, when you eat one dish, you have so many things, with one bite, you get this flavor, and, if you want the other flavor, you scoop another piece, and you’ll get another flavor. Thai food is one bite, all the flavor. 

What does the mural on the front of the restaurant mean?

The chicken means good luck in Thailand. So the rooster is to say: “Hey wake up! There is Thai food here. Wake up to real Thai food. It’s not only phat thai here.” So I tried to present that this is what we really eat. The words mean: “With love from Thailand.” When I work, I work with spirit. I do it because I love to do it. I do it because I want to do it. I don’t do it because of money. I don’t do it because I have to do it, I never work because I have to. I work because I love to. That is why I’m happy and enjoy working. I really want to talk with people. I want to see people, because this is the thing I love to do. And I want to share it with people. I recommend that people come in and try the food here. I don’t want people to think that ThiNi Thai is the same as other Thai restaurants, where you eat only phat thai, green curry, red curry — I mean, that is such boring food in Thailand — we have food that is more fun, more flavor, and I want to share it.

Included in the other murals on the building are a Thai angel and a Naga serpent. What do those mean, and why did you choose them for the murals?

The angel is gesturing up to the word “food,” so I tried to present that this is food from heaven. This is heaven served, so you have to try it. Naga is everywhere in my hometown. It is a symbol in Buddhism, and people believe in respecting Naga as a powerful house or temple guardian that protects. And the rice fields, this is the culture from my hometown. When I was young, people used buffalo to plow the fields. They didn’t have engines; they didn’t have anything, just buffalo and a tool behind. Rice is very important. The lanterns represent the very popular festival in Thailand, [the] Krathong festival in November, where in the sky at night you would see like a million lanterns. Here [at ThiNi Thai] we try to present to be Thai. Every utensil that we serve, cup, spoon, fork, chopsticks. We even bought the charcoal and the grill from Thailand. All our seasoning is Thai brand.

Did you always want to be a chef when you were growing up?

Actually, I really don’t know about that so much. But I feel like I’ve loved to cook ever since I was young. I feel like cooking is relaxing to me. People like to meditate, but for me, it’s cooking that makes me concentrate. Like I try to separate, this is salty, this is sweet, this is sour, how am I going to combine them together? I just enjoy thinking about how long I’m going to cook my meat to make it tender. When I look, when I touch, I can see: This is good, this is awesome. I just love to make something. How I like to explain it — there are so many differences — but I feel like the way I cook and the way a doctor works is the same. The doctor uses a knife, and the doctor has scissors. Here we also have a knife and scissors. The doctor saves your life from accidents and sickness, but I save people from starving, from being hungry. As the doctor needs to stay clean, the same is true here. I love to clean everything. If you want fancy food, that means your kitchen has to be clean, nice, and beautiful. When people see clean, nice, and beautiful, that is what I mean by fancy food. For me, I need everything nice and beautiful, then the food can be nice.

You had a cooking school in Thailand. Could you tell me more about it?

Yeah, I started a cooking school by myself in Thailand. I love to share my passion. It was for small groups, like six people at a time. I wanted to say, “This is the way I do; this is the way I love,” and I tried to share that passion through my cooking school. It’s named Red Chili Cooking School. Before moving, I gave everything to my brother. But then COVID[-19] came, so we had to close down. But I still plan, maybe in the future, if I have a house, I’ll make a cooking studio in my house. I’ll teach people, maybe online, maybe Skillshare, if people want to do that. Just one or two people, I don’t need too much, and I’ll teach them how I do everything.

What other future plans do you have?

I have a plan with some of my chef friends in New York, and we were talking about how we can present Northern Thai food to the rest of the world, because the flavors are so interesting and different. We want to make a group where one month, two or three chefs come to my restaurant and cook northern Thai food together. People can buy a seat ticket and the food will be brought out to them. The next month, I would go to their restaurant. I would travel; I could see the food, and we would make a standard of the Northern Thai food with my chef friends. Another plan is to have a studio in my house and maybe put on YouTube videos where I cook with friends from different cultures. For example, we could do Thai and Mexican food together, Thai and Italian, whatever. Another idea is a class I will call Garden on the Table. I want to have a garden where we pick up fresh ingredients, like cilantro, and I’ll teach people how to use the whole thing. I don’t pick just the leaves. We will start from the root: we are going to use that for paste. The leaves we will use for garnishing. I will teach how to use the berry and the dried seeds. Everything will be from the garden and come to the kitchen. How to prep, how to cook, how to keep, and how to get all the nutrition and flavor from them, this is how I want to share with people.