I’m standing in the long, dark corridor of a student hall somewhere in the east of Amsterdam. The floor is sticky and it smells like stale beer and cigarettes. A broken light bulb flickers above me and the walls are papered with ripped flyers promoting club nights. Somewhere in the distance, someone is violently strumming an electric guitar.
Undeterred, I walk towards dorm room 984. The word “Ephemeral” scribbled in chalk across the door is the only sign that I’m in the right place. This is one of Amsterdam’s most unique dining experiences: an “underground” restaurant offering a sophisticated 15-course Japanese meal, cooked and served by one student in his bedroom.
Weeks before, I got in contact with Kitsanin Thanyakulsajja, the mastermind behind the dorm room dining experience. Thanyakulsajja, who has been running the restaurant for about three years, is in his final term of university and hosting a few final meals before stopping to focus on his thesis. The wait list for a table is long but I, along with five other guests, am one of a lucky handful that gets to take part in what Thanyakulsajja calls “Ephemeral: Project Omakase.”
Three years ago, when he first moved from his home country of Thailand to study humanities in Amsterdam, Thanyakulsajja was broke. “I knew I needed a part-time job so I thought about the culinary industry just because it’s cool,” he tells me. But he also knew that going into the business with no experience meant peeling a mountain of potatoes and getting very little money in return.
So, at the age of 18 and with no experience in the kitchen, Thanyakulsajja decided to go solo.
“I just came up with the idea of having my own restaurant. I don’t have to wait. I can just be head chef straight away. But I had to do something different.”
Different came in the form of choosing to prepare a traditional Japanese omakase meal. Omakase, which roughly translates into “I will leave it to you,” is the name given to a high-end sushi meal in which the chef has the freedom to choose your order for you. These meals can have up to 20 minimalistic dishes, all assembled with exotic and seasonal ingredients.
“I chose to do omakase because I grew up watching a lot of documentaries on the topic and because it’s a very personal cuisine,” says Thanyakulsajja. “It’s the type of cooking where you can just run with it without having too many people.”
At the beginning of his experiment, Thanyakulsajja’s guests were mostly students, paying roughly 15 Euros for a four-course meal that mainly consisted of boiled eggs and salmon. Tonight, it is five times more expensive and Thanyakulsajja’s guests are not students, but a family of three and a young couple that drove 45 minutes to Amsterdam for the evening. The family tells me they read about Ephemeral in a newspaper and the couple were recommended it by a colleague.
When I enter Thanyakulsajja’s one-bedroom dorm, there is no sign of an unmade bed, an Xbox, or a messy desk. Instead, I am greeted by a real dining room set-up: six chairs assembled by a Tokyo-style counter, set with traditional Japanese tableware. There’s a small kitchen in the entrance and to the side, hidden behind a curtain, is the single bed where the chef sleeps.
Thanyakulsajja stands behind the counter preparing, sharpening a long knife and shredding a thick green stem of fresh wasabi. Then the performance begins. Over the course of four hours, guests and I receive a combination of different dishes: a tuna medley, grilled scallops, squid three ways, marinated salmon caviar with lime zest, pickled mackerel with ginger buds, and torched, butter-infused langoustine. Each of the 15 courses is made with precision and craft, sometimes placed directly into your hands by the chef, who explains exactly how it has to be eaten for the best tasting experience.
All the while, Thanyakulsajja entertains, spouting culinary knowledge and intricately describing every detail of a dish and how it was made.
“This tuna has been blanched in hot water in a complex process, it’s aged for two to three days and then dehydrated slightly,” he says confidently. “And this sesame tofu dish is inspired by Buddhism and temple cuisine.”
The taste is unlike any Japanese restaurant I have been to before. Every detail of an ingredient is designed to be savoured, from the texture to the sauce and the seasoning.
This 21-year-old clearly knows his stuff. But how did he learn it all?
“It’s all pretty much self-taught. I grew up with an interest in food, never thinking that I would do it myself but I just read books and watched documentaries. I’ve always had this analytical eye.”
In between answering questions and meticulously carving into different seafood, Thanyakulsajja yells instructions into the kitchen. His two assistants, who are also students, quietly help him to prepare the next dish. Although it all started as a one-man show, Ephemeral has become so popular that Thanyakulsajja can’t run it alone. Teams of three take turns in helping with the preparation and cleaning. It is a true feat, and if it weren’t for the occasional wafts of weed and loud noises in the hallway, you wouldn’t believe you had been in student halls all this time.
Clearly, I’m not the only one impressed by Thanyakulsajja’s professional performance. Within the last year, Ephemeral has been visited by some of Amsterdam’s most popular food critics, all of whom gave rave reviews. Local Michelin-starred chefs have also eaten here, many of whom expressed an interest in working with with the young student-stroke-chef in the future.
For Thanyakulsajja, his experience at university has resulted in more than a diploma. After his completing his thesis, he plans to collaborate with other restaurants and introduce Project Omakase to the wider Amsterdam food scene.
“I already have an idea for a concept of a restaurant that I want to open at the end of 2019,” he says. “I even came up with a name.”