Thais’ propensity to eat at any time of the day has led to a growing number of culinary schools, with some aimed at ensuring the authenticity of Thai cuisine abroad.
Thais love to eat and snack at almost any time of the day, a habit that has proven a boon to the food service industry, particularly restaurants.
Sizeable cities such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai are known for their food stalls lining the streets all night long, serving insomniacs and tourists alike.
Restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries are therefore popular choices among new entrepreneurs, and the number of such operations rises each year.
A Business Development Department survey counted 64,113 restaurants operating nationwide in 2008, up from some 55,000 registered in 2002.
Last year alone, more than 7,100 restaurants, from casual eateries to fine dining experiences, were registered with the department, representing a combined investment of 50 billion baht.
The new additions often spring up in areas of tourist demand such as Chon Buri, Surat Thani, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
The value of the food service industry has also been on the rise in recent years in line with the improving economy.
From 2005-08, the combined value of restaurants alone expanded significantly from 60.7 billion baht to 91 billion, dipping slightly to 84.6 billion in 2009.
That does not include the large number of street food vendors and small hole-in-the-wall places, which the Kasikorn Research Center estimates would boost the number to as high as 200 billion baht.
The new entrepreneurs come from all walks of life _ from former office staff and laid-off workers to celebrities such as actors and actresses who want to parlay their popularity into a successful business.
As well, growth in the industry has had a knock-on effect for culinary schools, with many new ones opening in recent years.
Cooking has become trendy, and more people are opting for careers as in the field thanks partly to hit soap operas such as 2009’s Soot Saneha (Recipe for Love), which featured popular actor Theeradej “Ken” Wongpuapan as a professional chef.
In 2007, France’s Le Cordon Bleu, the world’s leading hospitality education institute, teamed up with the Dusit Thani Group to open Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School in Bangkok to try and exploit the strong demand in the market.
To complete the three levels leading up to just the basic Le Cordon Bleu diploma in cuisine and patisserie costs Thai students 495,000 baht, although this is much lower than similar courses in Europe or the US. And boasting credentials from this 100-year-old-plus institute can prove invaluable for a career.
Local chefs who have trained at Le Cordon Blue and gone on to enjoy hugely successful careers include actor Phol Tantasathien, the owner of Spring & Summer Restaurant, and Anotai Gongvatana, who runs the Anotai organic food restaurant.
But for those who cannot afford such high tuition, the more economical Suan Dusit International Culinary School could be just the ticket.
“Our international culinary school features experts in the areas of cuisines, patisseries and Thai sweets. We use the same modern kitchen utensils found in Le Cordon Bleu for hands-on practice,” said Pitauk Chancharoen, the vice-president for business affairs at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University.
He said the university’s long history and expertise in food sciences and food service are advantages.
The 77-year-old state-run university originally featured Thailand’s first home economics school for women. It has since branched out, establishing the Suan Dusit International Culinary School in 2003 to allow non-degree students to take short courses in food services and hospitality.
“Many people take our cooking classes to pursue their dreams _ running a restaurant or some other food service career,” said Asst Prof Dr Pitauk. “However, some just want a certificate for no other reason than to get hired by employers abroad. For those people, we turn down their applications but still encourage them to join a cooking class for fun and creativity.”
However, the international culinary school does support the government’s food export programme by training and certifying Thai-food chefs to work in foreign countries.
The programme, a collaboration between the Department of Export Promotion (DEP) and the Skills Development Department, is aimed at assuring the authenticity of Thai cuisine abroad.
Last week, a new agreement was signed between Suan Dusit, the DEP and the Thai Education and Culture Centre to train enough chefs to staff an estimated 3,000 new Thai-food restaurants to be opened in Japan over the next 3-5 years.
Asst Prof Dr Pitauk said Suan Dusit has also sent experts to organise cooking classes in many countries including the US, the UK, Japan, Denmark and Australia.
The institute’s cooking classes cover Western and Thai cuisine and bakery operations and have been the start of many a successful career.
“When dining at restaurants in foreign countries, I am always delighted to learn the owner’s one of our former students,” said Asst Prof Dr Pitauk.