Thai one on in Vail
August 11, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – Michael Pukas has designs on your kitchen. The architect and self-taught chef has built kitchens from scratch, redesigned and retrofitted existing spaces, and stocked pantries from the ground up. But perhaps the best way to experience Pukas’ food-fed passion is by spending an evening moving around the cutting boards and stove, listening to his advice and learning some of the basic techniques that can turn a meal into a feast.
“I love food, just being around it or cooking for people who enjoy it,” Pukas says. “And once you learn a few techniques it’s easy. It’s like jazz: Once you get a basic repertoire of skills you’re free to dance around all over the place when it’s your turn.”
Life in the kitchen
Pukas’ architecture career has had him design high-end spec homes for builders, custom creations for individuals and extensive remodels for others. But his culinary leanings started in childhood, eating out of summertime gardens and cornfields. One thing led to another and now he’s likely to show up at a dinner party with one or two courses tucked into his bags. I recently watched him single-handedly save a cocktail party that had spun out of control by ransacking the refrigerator and grilling an endless parade of pizzas on the deck as the hosts relaxed on the couch. And I’ve participated in one of his intimate cooking-class parties, a Thai theme, where I learned how to make an intricate, silky hot and sour soup, fresh spring rolls and a seductive Pad Thai. (The dipping sauce was the coup de gras.)
He’s drawn to the creative aspect of both architecture and cooking.
“I have a strong need and desire to make things,” he says. “As an architect it’s very fulfilling to get a design built, but it can take a long time. With food, I can make something creative and in 30 minutes it’s done. That’s the great thing about food – I can do it myself.”
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And he can teach others.
His cooking classes unfold a bit like his kitchen designs do.
“When I design a kitchen, I like to have different spaces,” he says. “I like a work area for whoever’s cooking, and I like a place where people want to congregate.”
His parties aren’t one size fits all, but are tailored for the guests. Some groups want all hands-on instruction on something like semi-raw soups, easy desserts or succulent braises. Others simply want to watch him cook (and absorb a trick or two), while catching up with their friends.
Cooking classes max out with six people, as the focus gets lost with more than that. Cooking demos can grow to a dozen or so people.
“I’ve always said dinner parties top out with 12 to 14 guests. Any more than that and it changes the dynamics,” he says.
In early July, Pukas hosted a Thai cooking class in an East Vail home belonging to John and Joan Morris and Don and Pat Welsh – clients who became friends through a remodeling process a couple years ago. What was once a flat-roofed, straightforward affair became a dynamic space with personality, barn-wood floors and a wide network of windows that capture 360 degrees of Gore Range views. But best of all is the kitchen, which Pukas moved upstairs from the first floor.
He spent the better part of four hours standing at the triangular granite slab, walking us through the intricacies of Thai cuisine.
“Spicy and sweet and hot and tangy – all these flavors have to be in balance,” he says, speaking about Asian food in general.
A plate of Thai basil and palm sugar goes around.
“This would make a great martini,” says Fraidy Aber, pinching up a taste.
Knife sliding through mounds of herbs, Pukas tosses out interesting tidbits – palm sugar is made from the sap of palm trees, if you don’t have kaffir lime leaves substitute lemon and lime zest, which knives are designed to rock and which simply slice.
“You’ve got to feel your food,” Pukas says as the piles of ginger, jalapenos, garlic, mint and cilantro grow.
We begin with spring rolls, attacking the piles of shredded veggies and herbs before us. He helps us roll our own. We begin by creating lopsided shapes. A few spring rolls in and we’re all pros.
Bubbling with aromatics, he has us taste a broth that’s been simmering for an hour. It’s bright and poppy. He adds a little palm sugar, which sweetens it while smoothing out the zing.
“It’s milder. It doesn’t go…” Cassie Pence searches for the right word, circling her hand in the air. “Mwah.”
After another round of fish sauce and palm sugar, we try it again. Suddenly, it’s got a backbone. The intricacies of the broth work in tandem. It feels like a small miracle. After adding shrimp, mushrooms, chiles and herbs, we suddenly have a fragrant bowl of Tom Yum soup.
“It’s one of the two most popular soups from Thailand,” Pukas says. And we can see why.
We then move on to Pad Thai. By this time, the “class” has become a party, and we’re happy to sit and chat with each other while Pukas builds the sauce and preps the tofu and chicken.
“One catchphrase I can’t stand is ‘seal in the juices,'” he says, flipping the chicken breasts in an enormous wok from one side to another. “You don’t seal in the juices, you create flavor and texture.”
We nod wisely, kick back with more drinks and watch. When the Pad Thai is ready, we attack our steaming plates with chopsticks and forks. The sauce is unlike any restaurant version we’ve experienced – not cloying, but tangy and almost sweet. The fresh herbs and veggies make it glow. We go back for seconds.
“I think it’s important for people to cook at home,” Pukas says. “It’s good for your health and the strength of the family. It’s better for the planet and for society. And I believe that if you have a basic set of tools, ingredients and skills you can make almost everything.”
And he’s doing what he can to make that a reality.