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Meet Paul Kennedy, Mango Tree DC’s British chef who promises authentic Thai without compromise

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The chef selected to lead Mango Tree DC, the first U.S. location of the rapidly expanding Thai chain, is a British native who says he plans to channel the authentic flavors of Thailand's four culinary regions, with no compromises. You could say Paul Kennedy is both convert and emissary for true Thai cooking.

A native of Royal Leamington Spa, located about 90 miles outside London, Kennedy is a classically trained French cook who worked for the legendary chef and restaurateur Albert Roux in Amsterdam, London and Paris. An impressive career start, yes, but not exactly the qualifications to lead the American flagship of an ambitious multinational company specializing in Thai cooking.

But about five years ago, Kennedy began his Thai education in Dubai, of all places, where he was working for Emirates Leisure Retail. Mango Tree had just hired Kennedy to oversee their branded restaurants in the Middle East and promptly sent him on a 10-week tour of Thailand, a sort of full-immersion educational trip with colleagues who barely spoke a lick of English.

"It was a really hard first two weeks, I'll make no bones about it." Kennedy says while sitting in a subterranean dressing room at CityCenterDC. "It was like, 'Am I doing the right thing?'"

Kennedy spent a lot of time in Bangkok and even traveled to the northeast section of Thailand, the region where chef Johnny Monis draws inspiration for Little Serow. Kennedy split his time between observing local cooks and cooking Thai food himself. He always knew when his attempts didn't measure up because the Thai cooks "would just completely take over and then make the dish."

The Mango Tree DC chef also spent time in the famous Bangkok markets, although as a trained professional, Kennedy says it took time to adjust to the poor hygiene of these outdoor kitchens.

"When I first started trying the street food, I was a little bit apprehensive of it," Kennedy says. "There was one day I remember ordering some chicken satay off someone . . . As I was about to take it off them, a car drove past, and all the fumes went over there. So I was kind of like, I'm going to take that but I didn't eat it. That was a culture thing for me. I think a lot of Thais, they're just used to it now."

The 10-week trip didn't end Kennedy's education in Thai cuisine, of course. For almost five years, the chef has been learning more about the nuances and complexities of Thai cooking, which often look to balance sweet, sour, salty and spicy elements. Now, he's in charge of training the kitchen staff that he hires for Mango Tree DC., a two-story operation scheduled to open in mid-January.

His goal will be to teach his staff how to prepare authentic Thai food, without pandering to softer American palates accustomed to the sweetened dishes that often pass for Thai cooking in the United States.

"Anywhere we go, we will very, very, very rarely change the food to suit a certain palate in that area," Kennedy says. "Obviously we know what happened with Chinese food when it came over here. It just got very Americanized, and I certainly, as a chef myself, made a point to the owners that we didn't want to Americanize Thai food when it came over, and to keep it very authentic."

Which raises the question: What does authentic Thai cooking mean to Kennedy and Mango Tree?

"Authentic means for me using the authentic ingredients," the chef says. "I've been able to find a lot of ingredients in the U.S. that we use in Thailand, which have the same taste and profile as what we would be able to get in Thailand."

Kennedy moved to the D.C. area nearly a year ago, and has settled into Falls Church. He's been using the time to assist local restaurants owned by chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, who's a partner in Mango Tree DC. Kennedy has also been working with suppliers to find the ingredients needed to execute his menu.

"There's definitely been a couple of things that have been extremely hard to find and also a couple of things that we just can't find whatsoever," Kennedy says. Among those hard-to-find ingredients: pea eggplants (which add a "real nice bitterness to a curry") and fresh (not frozen) pandan leaves, which Kennedy uses to wrap around chicken for a deep-fried Thai dish.

"I've been testing dishes with the frozen stuff, but it's nowhere near the same as fresh," Kennedy says. "The frozen one when it defrosts, it just stays very wet . . . If I can't find it [fresh], then we're not going to do the dish."

That's a decision that would appear to align with Mango Tree's overall approach: to present Thai food as you would find it back in the home country.

Mango Tree DC, 929 H St. NW at CityCenterDC, www.mangotreedc.com. The restaurant is scheduled to open in mid-January.

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