The sharp notes of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 4 — as heard on Netflix’s Chef’s Table — flit through my head while watching chef Nivit Tipvaree’s plate his modern Thai creations.
Perfect spheres of puree and bright swirls of sauces help form the foundation for the artistic dishes served by young Thai chef. Staple flavors like massaman and holy basil work to keep the restaurant’s main theme resonating, while subtle tweaks — like risotto and quinoa — lend new perspectives to consider.
Indeed, with the way he commands his Lexington restaurant, Bodhi Thai, you might be surprised that becoming a chef wasn’t near Tipvaree’s radar before coming to the United States.
Born in Thailand in a rural town near Bangkok, Tipvaree moved with his parents to moved America when he was young to find an opportunity to make a living. Over time, they would become restaurateurs, opening a few spots in the Midlands — most notably Thai Lotus on St. Andrews, which closed in 2013.
“I was completely blank when I came here,” Tipvaree says. “I was studying mechanical engineering before. I had finished three years already, and I just had one more year but I felt I couldn’t work in this industry. My parents said come here, so I came in 2008.”
Tipvaree arrived at the height of the recession, right as his parents were forced to part ways with several staff members due to slow business.
Despite having not cooked much prior — food in Thailand is cheap, Tipvaree explains, meaning he didn’t have to make food at home very often — he dove in to help. Much to his surprise, he found himself falling in love with the work. In the first year, he worked in his parents’ kitchen while taking English classes. He spent some time in other kitchens as well, including working as a hibachi chef at Yamato on Harbison.
Eventually, Tipvaree realized he wanted to take cooking seriously and told his parents he wanted to go to culinary school.
His first year at North Carolina’s Culinary School of the Art Institute of Charlotte wasn’t easy, as Tipvaree struggled with his limited English.
“They say, ‘You have to butcher chicken,’ and I would have no idea what they meant,” Tipvaree recounts. “So I would write it down and go back to YouTube and try to figure out what they were saying. I would run to Walmart and buy things to practice.”
His eagerness to learn earned him many opportunities to work at Charlotte-based restaurants, including Heirloom, where he learned from nationally recognized chef Clark Barlowe.
After completing school and spending a few years working in the Queen City, Tipvaree worked in New York. Deciding to first take a break, he went home to stay with his family for a few weeks, expecting to move up to New York permanently to pursue his dream.
His parents, however, came across an opportunity in Lexington that the young chef couldn’t refuse.
They purchased the former BB&T building downtown, spending two painstaking years transforming the location before opening Bodhi in the fall of 2018.
Unlike at other Thai restaurants, Tipvaree wanted to take the skills he learned at places like Heirloom to demonstrate how his chosen style of food can be both elegant and comforting.
Basil-crusted pork with pepper jam and Panang curry; scallops with quinoa and a tamarind gastrique; duck with roasted cauliflower, fried brussel sprouts, and holy basil sauce — these aren’t regular, everyday Thai dishes, but rather densely packed, fully developed creations that bring multiple cultures together on a plate.
While response to the food has been overwhelmingly positive, Tipvaree has occasionally gotten criticism about the price point, which trends higher than typical Thai restaurants. The chef is quick to point out that the combination of quality of ingredients and the amount of care and attention that goes into the dishes demands such costs.
“The massaman curry chicken for example,” Tipvaree explains. “It’s kind of like a roulade, but it’s not stuffed. It’s two chicken breasts together and wrapped to sous vide before finishing off in the fryer to get a crispy skin. When you come out it’s this beautiful round chicken.”
The chicken dish comes with many components beyond the meat preparation. There’s two different purees, potatoes two ways, charred pearl onions, roasted cashew nuts for texture, and the thick, creamy curry that brings the dish together.
“It’s not like mashed potatoes, sauteed broccoli, steak and a sauce,” Tipvaree offers. “We have different purees, different vegetables prepped different that takes all day to make the dish. People often don’t realize how many hours we are prepping to make a dish.”
Unlike a lot of restaurants in the area, the back of house at Bodhi only has three to four people, including Tipvaree, working at all times, which means more pressure on the chef to keep the wheels turning. A typical day for Tipvaree begins about 7 a.m. and ends at 3 a.m. — the price he pays to get the ingredients prepared for service the way he envisions it.
“I always want to show people what Thai food is,” Tipvaree says. “I want to show people I can bring it to another level. It’s not just fast food or a cheap place to eat. Thai food is No. 1 for me.”