CHANTILLY, Va. (Metromix) -- Nothing makes for good television like an old-fashioned rags-to-riches, Cinderella story. Literally.
Nongaran Daks, the executive chef and owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, was only 7-years-old when she started preparing and cooking food, but it wasn't under fairy tale conditions. After her parents separated, Daks was forced to live with a relative in Bangkok who put her young fingers to work, tirelessly preparing curry for her catering business daily. Tears went in to her first curries and, fittingly, her new nickname at school became Cinderella.
Despite her early start in the culinary arts, one would think Daks would be soured on the thought of making a career in the kitchen. However, from cooking for her schoolmates to get out of class in grade school to teaching her craft across the globe as the wife of a U.S. diplomat, this chef managed to spend her entire life practicing and perfecting her skills. When the couple retired to Virginia in the mid 1990s, Daks knew exactly how she wanted to spend her golden years. Thai Basil was opened in 1999 with Daks in the kitchen.
Cut to nearly a decade later with a loyal following in the Metro area, and a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Food Network in New York, where word of Daks' acclaimed skills had reached. The popular channel and trendsetter of tastes across the nation wanted the local chef to send in a cooking demo. After some skeptical research that proved the call authentic, Daks struggled to get a professional videographer to shoot her pad thai segment in time for the network... only to be told afterward that her tape would go "in to the archives" for possible future use. Little did she know she was soon to be part of an elaborate ruse known to fans of the Food Network as "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay."
"Thowdown!" pits the world renowned Iron Chef against expert cooks, challenging Flay to leave his American culinary comfort zone to cook the other's signature dish for a one-on-one blind taste test. The catch is the non-Iron chefs do not know they're appearing on the show. In Daks' case, she was told she would be hosting a segment for a new Food Network show called "New American Cuisine." (And yes, she realizes the irony of making pad thai for a show about food in the U.S., even if the dish has become a mainstay of the American business lunch.)
With a smile, Daks can vouch for the starling nature of the show's impromptu competition. As a "Throwdown!" fan, when the chef noticed that two tables had been set up on the day of the shoot, she suspected that some classic Bobby Flay trickery was afoot. But when Daks questioned the necessity of the second table and it was taken away, her hopes of meeting the Iron Chef were dashed. Minutes later, she came face to face with the star, who offered her the Throwdown challenge.
"He was very nice, very tall and very handsome," proclaims Daks. "So handsome." (Flay is currently married to "Law and Order" star Stephanie March. Sorry, Nongkran.)
Aside from a few teasing jabs at Flay's wardrobe, Daks took her cooking on the show very seriously. The chef still prepares her dishes the same way she did as a child, taking to heart an important lesson from her mother: stick to tradition and don't cut corners. Many local Thai restaurants cook pad thai like they would any other Asian noodle dish, with some even using [gulp] ketchup to add flavor and color. However, Daks still makes hers the same authentic way she learned from watching expert street vendors make their dish, even importing coconut sugar from Thailand and making her own tamarind juice from scratch, a process that can take up to two hours each day.
Daks was also nice enough to let Metromix try some of the signature noodles that could potentially dethrone Iron Chef Flay. The flavor of the pad thai was rich, the mixture of spices instantly obvious, but not overpowering (and thankfully not too reliant on salt or pepper). The layered textures added to taste by the peanuts, bean sprouts and chicken helped to set the dish apart from other similar noodles. And the fresh squeezed lime juice gave a nice underlying bite to the dish, while asking for medium spiciness was still enough of a kick to satisfy this spice-loving reporter. Altogether, it's easy to see why Bobby Flay had to come to Thai Basil to challenge the best.
And while Daks can't reveal the winner of the televised match just yet, she does offer some friendly criticism of Flay's trademark unique take on tradition. "He used mint!" says the Thai food expert, laughing. "You don't do that. We might use cilantro as a garnish but...no." Sounds like Flay had his work cut out for him. Flay's assistant on Throwdown, Miriam, also told Daks that they learned so much from the local chef about Thai cooking secrets, such as soaking the rice noodles in cold water as opposed to the blanching Flay is used to with American cooking.
The best part about Daks and her Thai Basil fame? The sure to be famous chef is still willing to share these secrets to her success. Daks has five cookbooks for sale at her restaurant, but given her background as a cooking teacher from Taiwan to Laos to Hawaii, she also offers culinary classes year round in which average joes can learn how to make lemongrass shrimp soup, steamed dumplings and even her famous pad thai. For more information, visit their website.
And be sure to watch Daks take on Bobby Flay Wednesday March 4 at 9 p.m. on the Food Network!
Written by Jason Adams