Executive Chef Junnajet "Jett" Hurapan of the new Blu Restaurant and Lounge (2248 Texas Dr; www.blusugarland.com) in Sugar Land's Town Square, couldn't stop smiling when I was taking pictures of him in the kitchen. "In New York, the photographers didn't want me to smile," he says, but for me he smiled anyway.
If the ready smile is disarming, you'll be as surprised as I was to hear about his life outside the culinary world. On the one hand, he makes easy work out of the exciting, Thai-influenced global Asian cuisine that is being served at Blu, turning out what would seem like complicated dishes in three minutes flat. On the other hand, he is a typical guy's guy.
We caught up with him for a chat on Monday, when the kitchen was closed in the just-one-month-old Blu.
EOW: You're Thai by descent right?
JH: Born in Bangkok, Thailand, raised in New York City. Age of 6, came over, age of 11, went back to Thailand, age of 12 came back to New York. All of my education was in New York City.
EOW: Are you chef by trade, did you go to school?
JH: My father was chef, my brother's a chef. My father was a restaurant chef, he had Thai restaurants, Greek restaurants, diners. My brother also worked for my father for a while, but me, I split up. After culinary school, BR Guest, Steve Hansen Group, picked me up, and I worked for him for 12 years as Corporate Executive Chef. We opened up Blue Water Grill, Isabella's, Coconut Grill, Ocean Grill, Dos Caminos, Ruby Foo's, Buddhakan. I opened up all those restaurants.
EOW: What made you decide to leave after 12 years?
JH: Race car driving.
EOW: [incredulous] You became a race car driver?
JH: For two years. Because all my teenage life, I spent time opening restaurants. It was every boy, every man's dream to become a race car driver.
EOW: So you were Corporate Executive Chef, you opened up all these restaurants, and one day you decided I'm sick of this, I'm done, I'm going to go race car driving?
JH: Not quite. I asked him for a two-month vacation. We had opened up Ruby Foo's on Columbus, and we had a four-month gap before we planned to open up Ruby Foo's Time Square. I'm a Corporate Chef, so he had all the chefs in the restaurants already, he didn't really need me every day. So I told him, "I worked for you 12 years, I want two months off." He got pissed off, he said it was a dumb move, but he eventually said, "If you want to do it, go ahead."
EOW: So he let you go for two months, and you went to become a race car driver, how does that work?
JH: I had been underground racing for a long time. Six years. I owned a Volkswagen shop in New York City, called R.A.P., Racing Auto Performance. I was a chef and a shop owner at the same time. It's like a double major kind of thing. Volkswagen of America came to me and said, "Listen, I see you racing all the time. Why don't you get out of the ghetto scene, and come out to the real world. Let's race in the track instead of the street."
EOW: Tell me what the underground scene is like.
JH: Two o'clock in the morning. Have you ever seen the Fast and the Furious? It's just like that. But I don't race for money. I race for bragging rights for my shop. And I won all the time. I was in my twenties, we would go to this place called Fountain View. It used to be an old factory, and it was just a straight road. So we would all meet there. I raced all the "rice burners," -- Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi -- I'm a German guy, my shop had Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsches.
EOW: So two months became two years, why'd you get out?
JH: Too many crashes. I was a crasher. My job was to make sure I took out as many cars as I can. I crashed so my teammate could make the finish line.
EOW: Okay, so what brought you to Houston?
JH: I was doing consulting for Gigi Huang, for Gigi's Asian Bistro. After racing, my dad told me to come back to the scene. I looked for a job but didn't see anything I liked, so I wanted to get back to my Thai roots, and went to work for my father. He owned a Thai restaurant called Rain at the time. I wanted to get my Thai roots down, get all the recipes from my father.
EOW: So when you went to culinary school and worked as executive chef, did you have these Thai roots? Did you already know how to cook it or is it something you learned?
JH: Thai food, it's in my blood. I eat, I race with it, I grew up with the food, so it's nothing to know about. My father just fine-tuned it. You know how Americans have five mother sauces, my father showed me the Asian five mother sauces.
EOW: What are the five Asian mother sauces?
JH: Okay! Tamarind juice, is a big thing in Thai cooking. Coconut base, in all peanut sauces, all curries. And basic stir fries. A lot of Chinese use oyster sauce, but we use mushroom soy and sea salt. Then we got garlic and oil, that can go with anything, when you make dumplings, any marinade -- that's our fourth. And the last one is pickled plum sauce.
EOW: What about the herbs and spices?
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JH: That comes later. So for example, our crispy whole fish. The main sauce is tamarind, and then we add garlic, ground chili, basil -- that becomes a three flavor sauce. So for chicken cashew, we use again, a tamarind as a base, and we add roasted chili on top of that, and oyster sauce.
Check back with us tomorrow when Jett tells us about Blu and working with his wife Jira, a trained pastry chef.