Before he was Pete, he called himself Pom Pom or Barry. And before that, his Thai mother named him Pibul. “I’m a man of many names,” he says. He’s also a man who learned to subsist on less than a dollar a day, to persist in climbing his way up the restaurant ranks and, on occasion, outlast immigration searches by altering his name. “I learned how to survive,” he says.
At 4 years old, Pibul Pratumwon learned to carefully harvest vegetables from a community garden. He understood how to gently pick basil leaves, bringing them back to his mother, who would cook for her six children and husband, all living in a two-bedroom duplex on a military compound where his parents worked in Saraburi, Thailand.
His father left when Pratumwon was 7 years old, and his mother took him and two of his sisters to live on his maternal grandmother’s farm, where Pratumwon’s desire to cook began to evolve. He eventually attended college in Bangkok, but money was tight. Pratumwon worked as a restaurant dishwasher, crouching on the ground in front of five or six water buckets to earn 45 cents a night—enough to pay for the next day’s lunch.
The days in school and the nights spent working took a toll. “It was a waste of my money,” Pratumwon says. He returned to his mother, telling her, “My life isn’t like Prince Charming with a white horse,” he recalls saying. “What am I going to do?” Her response was to give him airfare to London, where he studied English and cooking for 10 years, eight of those years working illegally at the five-star Grosvenor House Hotel. In between his three daily shifts, Pratumwon lingered in the kitchen, watching and ingratiating himself to the chefs, who eventually allowed the young server to test his hand at the stove. “You start to realize that cooking isn’t so hard,” he says. “It’s chemistry.” He began mixing béarnaise and hollandaise sauces and soups. “You learn from there,” he explains.
He moved to a Thai restaurant in northern London, where his luck ran out. Immigration officials discovered him and presented an option—jail or deportation back to Thailand. Sometimes finding the right path doesn’t require moving forward. Retracing one’s steps can lead to some of life’s most fulfilling moments. It was during Partumwon’s return to Bangkok that he met and married his wife, Karen Oerter, a Peace Corps volunteer.
The couple eventually moved to Lincoln, Neb., an unexpected landing pad for a London-trained Thai cook. Ever the optimist, Pratumwon hit the Lincoln country club circuit and made his talents known enough to be asked to open a Thai restaurant. But only a short time later, the couple moved to Iowa, where Pratumwon worked in a Thai restaurant at Iowa State University in Ames, and received a bachelor’s degree in hotel/restaurant management from ISU in 1997.
Another work transfer for Oerter arrived, this time back to Thailand. Now an American citizen, Pratumwon didn’t have a Thai work permit, so he returned to school for an MBA in management. After another brief stint in Iowa, the couple landed in Mahtomedi. Pratumwon became a regular golfer at Indian Hills Country Club, where he became friends with a group of mostly retirees. What the men knew was that Pratumwon liked to hit the links. What they didn’t know was that he loved to throw down in the kitchen.
He invited the men to his home for a Thai meal, and the rest is history. Fellow golfer Dodd Clasen hired Pratumwon as a destination chef, flying him to Monterey, Calif., to cook for an executive five-day retreat for 10 business owners. “They really thought the food was great,” Clasen says. He notes while Partumwon’s food is “unique and incredibly tasty,” it’s the entire experience of having him cook and serve that adds the finishing touch. Pratumwon often humorously engages the diners with anecdotes and provides background about the menu items.
The success of the California event led Clasen to encourage Pratumwon to cook professionally, and his business partner created a website for him. “It was kind of exciting,” Pratumwon says. Formed four years ago, his catering business, ICookThaiFood, is featured at a variety of venues, including business events, birthday, engagement and graduation parties, the Mahtomedi High School Homecoming and charity auctions.
Pratumwon’s passion for food drives his desire to cook and present a visually appealing plate. “The first thing you need to do is make the food look good,” he says. “Before you taste my food, I want you to taste with your eyes.” That perspective comes from years as a server, watching the reaction of the diners as he placed the food before them.
“[The food] looks so delicious in the presentation, and when you try it, you’re just in awe,” Kimberly Peterson says. Peterson hires Pratumwon for small and large family events, and she uses the ICookThaiFood “Mom’s Helper” program. Customers may choose one of three entrée selections, which change each weekday. The fully prepared meals are available for pickup or delivery. Peterson says she’s tried other “make your own weekly meals” programs, but none of them hold a candle to Pratumwon’s price point and quality. His passion for his cooking is a crucial ingredient in his food. “My passion leaves [me and] goes to their appetite,” he says of his customers.
While he taste-tests his meals, Pratumwon doesn’t eat his catered fare. “You cooked it, smelled it, tasted it, you had it,” he explains. Home is a different story. He proudly shows a picture of a weekday meal, featuring a culinary bouquet of color and textures; salmon with lime and a ginger/hoisin glaze, paired with tuna sushi find their way to the family’s table. “At home, Thai food,” he says of a typical meal. Along with Oerter, Pratumwon cooks for sons Ty, 20; Gavin, 16; and Nolan, 11. “He’s my shadow,” Pratumwon explains of Gavin, who occasionally caters with his father.
While local grocers offer Thai ingredients, Pratumwon visits Shuang Hur Supermarket, a St. Paul Asian market, for some of his must-have ingredients. Even the store, with familiar sights and smells, can’t satisfy Pratumwon’s longing for Thailand, to which he occasionally returns. “I miss a lot of convenience,” he says of the ability to shop for fresh ingredients at local markets. Pratumwon adds, “I miss the look of food from 30 to 40 years ago.”
A Sampling of Pratumwon’s Information Cards
In keeping with Pratumwon’s desire to educate, as well as feed, his guests, information cards describing menu items’ origins and ingredients are often posted during catering events. Some of the featured options include:
It’s been more than 475 years since King Ram Kamhang located the land called Siam, now known as Thailand. This dish originated in Kamhamg’s era as a royal dish and is still enjoyed by the royal family. Fresh, golden and crispy shells are filled with lightly seasoned ground meat and served with sprinkled or roasted white sesame seeds.
Pad Thai Noodle
You are experiencing #5 on world’s 50 most delicious foods! After being introduced by the Prime Minister of Thailand to promote reducing rice consumption in Thailand in the late 1930s and 1940s, the pad Thai dish has been well-known ever since. Tender rice noodles are tossed with palm sugar and tamarind-based dressing, and topped with well-seasoned grilled meat; finished with fresh bean sprouts, green onions and freshly roasted crushed peanuts.
Pibul "Pete" Pratumwon Recipes
Healthy Lettuce Wrap
- 1/2 lb. ground pork
- 1/2 lb. shrimp, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup sweet onion, diced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 T. hoisin sauce
- 3 T. good soy sauce
- 2 T. rice wine vinegar
- 1 T. fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 1-2 tsp. hot sauce (Sriracha)
- 8 oz. water chestnuts, drained and medium chopped
- 3-4 T. cooking oil
- 4 green onion, thinly sliced white part
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1-2 head(s) of lettuce (baby romaine preferred)
Heat cooking oil in the saucepan over medium-high heat. Brown ground pork and shrimp until no longer pink. Drain excess juice. Turn the meat mixture back in the same saucepan, stir in garlic, onion, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger and Sriracha sauce. Cook until onions are translucent. Stir in the remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, spoon several spoonfuls of mixture into the center of a lettuce leaf and wrap taco-style.
Authentic Thai Chicken Curry
- 1 lb. chicken, diced in 1” cubes
- 3-4 medium russet potatoes, quartered
- 4 oz. yellow curry paste “Kaeng Karee”
- 12 oz. coconut milk
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 medium sweet onion, quartered
- 3 T. fish sauce
- 3 T. tamarind juice or 4 T. lemon juice
- 2 T. palm sugar or 3-4 T. sugar
- 1/4 cup cooking oilInstructions:
Heat cooking oil in 6 qt. pot at low to medium heat. Add curry paste. Cook until the aroma of curry infuses into the air. Add coconut milk to mixture of cooking oil and curry paste, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture forms liquid (about 1/4 cup of coconut milk). Add the chicken to mixture, turn heat up to medium, then add mixture of 1/2 cup of chicken broth and 1/2 cup more of coconut milk to chicken. Cook with cover on about 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, stir and add all the remaining ingredients except potatoes and onions. Cook another 15 minutes with cover on. Turn the heat to medium low, add potatoes and onion and cook another 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft and tender. Serve with Jasmine rice.