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Thai food hits a new high
FIERCE PASSION KNOWS no bounds. It makes you throw all caution - and sometimes your son’s college fund - to the wind and plunge into something your heart truly desires. And what Thai chef Supaksorn ‘Ice’ Jongsiri truly desired back in 2018 was to open a restaurant totally committed to the cooking of Southern Thailand, where he was born.
A SOUTHERN STORY
“To save my soul I needed to do Sorn,” says the self-effacing, funny yet totally committed chef of the hit Bangkok restaurant which has won every accolade since it opened in 2018, including two Michelin stars. Chef Jongsiri is the cream of the growing crop of local-born chefs who are taking Thai cuisine to the next level, putting it in the global spotlight and driving its evolution.
More importantly, it speaks of a growing confidence of Thai chefs who have gone from being influenced by “glamourous” Western food and celebrity chefs into re-discovering their roots and telling their personal stories through food.
In Chef Jongsiri’s case, he had become increasingly disillusioned from running the seven branches of Baan Ice - his family’s Southern Thai casual restaurant that was started by his grandmother and named after him - serving dishes such as fiery sour curries and stink beans fried in chilli paste.
“(At our restaurants), people just want the same food,” he says. “The same menu, and worse, when we opened in shopping malls, people wanted the food fast. But we cook everything fresh, we never use the microwave or frozen food ever.” Tired of being boxed in, “I felt like I had lost my passion for cooking.
There are so many ingredients that are still undiscovered in the South. They need to be cooked before they disappear. The ancient way of cooking is a lost art - you need time to prep the food, to make freshly squeezed coconut milk and pound chilli with a mortar (and pestle). So I needed to do this.”
Sorn - housed in a beautiful colonial bungalow in a cul-de-sac off Sukhumvit soi 26 - is a luxurious tribute to the South, complete with a map from which he traces the origins of his ingredients, from Phuket lobster served raw with a punchy chilli paste, to sand mole crabs that are deep-fried to a crisp. While the 22-course menu looks progressive with its multiple, intricately presented bites, “it is not modern Thai at all,” he explains. “It’s very classic, using very old methods of cooking.”
As for whether he was worried if a restaurant like Sorn would succeed, given how he had sunk all his savings including, he joked, his son’s education fund in it, was not an issue for him. “I had no worries about succeeding because I was doing it anyway. I didn’t know who would appreciate it, but I know I’m happy cooking it to the best of my ability.”
A growing appreciation for Thai chefs has also moved in tandem with Bangkok’s standing as a dining destination, especially in the wake of dining guides such as the World’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants lists and Michelin.
“The Thai restaurant scene in Bangkok has improved vastly in recent years thanks to both foreign and Thai chefs,” says veteran restaurateur Fred Meyer, who counts Issaya Siamese Club, ICI La Patisserie and his crown jewel Saawaan - with one Michelin star - in his stable of eateries. “I don’t know if there was a specific point where we saw a major shift (in the interest in modern Thai cuisine), rather I think it was a perfect storm of increased exposure, investment in the industry and human resources, maturity, Bangkok as a top tourist destination and many other factors.”
While Singaporean chefs face greater resistance at home trying to convince their compatriots about the merits of redefining local or street food in a modern or upmarket setting, Mr Meyer says that Bangkok has moved beyond that. “We saw a lot of it in the past, and there’s still some of it now, but I think diners in Bangkok over the years have a greater understanding of the amount of work that goes into creating some of these very elaborate meals, and are increasingly willing to support that.”
Also, Thai chefs have a lot more to inspire them simply because of the vast scope of the cuisine, says Tom Vitayakul, hotelier and owner of Ruen Urai which has served royal Thai cuisine for 13 years. “Thai food is not that straightforward; it’s an amalgam of cuisine from different regions and provinces, and influences from neighbouring countries and cultures like Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and even the many different styles from home cooking, street food and royal cuisine.”
He credits chefs like David Thompson (of the original Nahm) for setting the stage for a greater appreciation of Thai cuisine and chef-driven restaurants. Where once Thai chefs were more likely to be cooking anonymously in kitchens, “more restaurants like to associate themselves with chefs so you get more of them like Le Du, Sorn, Paste, Saawaan, 80/20, AdHoc - many of which also focus on local ingredients.”
CHARTING THEIR OWN PATH
Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn easily blows away detractors who think Thai street food should stay on the streets. Her sometimes-molecular but mostly modern approach propelled her restaurant Saawaan into the Michelin Guide, earning one star for her mind-bending yet grounded creations. Taking a simple idea like beef soup, she turns it into an intense extract of beef stock served with a parcel of shredded beef wrapped in chye sim and finished with herb oil for a simple yet stunning flavour bomb.
But Chef Pongmorn - who earned her stripes at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and Siam Kempinski’s Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin - says there was a time when “people didn’t believe I could turn street food into fine dining”.
At the time, she says, “The perception of Thai fine dining was royal cuisine, or traditional Thai with carvings of fruit and vegetables.But after they tried my food, they were convinced. I try to combine traditional and modern techniques while still keeping the original flavour.”
Sra Bua was where she shaped her own style, as she saw how molecular techniques could actually enhance rather than detract from the essence of Thai food. And while Western-trained, it was the exposure to such techniques that made her want to focus on her heritage. “The more I worked, the more I wanted to find out about Thai cuisine and that’s why I made the change.”
With her success at Saawaan, Chef Pongmorn hopes she can inspire other young chefs to follow in her footsteps to forge their own path, “as I believe Thai cuisine will be much better for it.”
One thing that many of the new generation Thai chefs say play a big part in their cooking is local ingredients. That formed the core philosophy of Le Du, the one Michelinstarred modern Thai restaurant that ThiTid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn opened in 2013.
The Culinary Institute of America graduate who interned at Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges in New York returned to Bangkok at a time when Nahm, Bo.lan and Sra Bua were the main fine dining and modern Thai restaurant names. “There were no modern Thai restaurants run purely by a Thai.”
The thinking then was that “no one can sell Thai food at a high price because no one will pay for it”. And despite advice to the contrary, he pushed ahead with Le Du, using 90 per cent local produce.“We had a very quiet first month,” he laughs. “But after that, we had a good review from a magazine. And people started coming, including Thai people. Many have become my regulars until today, so I guess that’s not a bad sign.”
He feels that his restaurant has helped to pave the way for more Thai chefs to do their own thing. “They think, ‘if this guy at Le Du can make it, maybe so can I’!”
Locavorism is now almost a norm for independent chefs, with the likes of Sorn and Saawaan sourcing their own produce and creating a bigger market for local farmers, while inspiring them to continually improve the quality of their produce.
“I like to work with organic farmers and I’ve built a good relationship with them,” says Chef Pongmorn. “We also have our own farm, Le Chedi farm, not far from Bangkok where we produce local vegetables and quail.”
REDEFINING THAI FOOD
After making his name with modern Thai cooking, Chef Tassanakajohn has now set his sights on traditional cuisine. He recently opened Mayrai Pad Thai Wine Bar in Bangkok’s old town, near the Grand Palace.
Located in a narrow conservation building that dates back to the King Rama V era, he serves gourmet quality pad thai from just 79 baht. “It’s about serving really good quality street food with good ingredients.” Inspired by how Michelin star ramen bars have taken a humble noodle dish to a new level, Chef Tassanakajohn wants to do the same for Khao Soi - a curry-based noodle originating in Chiang Mai - with his own recipe, made from boiling a stock with beef bones from local wagyu. The simple menu is served withnatural wine in a quirky pink neon-lit bar, but the prize is in the second floor, which is the real reason that Chef Tassanakajohn took over the space.
He’ll be transforming it into a fine dining space named Nusara, after his grandmother. The food will be influenced by his memories of her, while also reflecting Thai cuisine from the time of King Rama V, but from his own perspective. “It will be the same level as Le Du, but different,” he promises.
BRIGHT FUTURE FOR YOUNG CHEFS
Chudaree ‘Tam’ Debhakam counts Chef Tassanakajohn as one of the names who inspired her to strike out on her own with Baan Tepa Culinary Space, a tiny 10-seater restaurant that features an open kitchen and its own garden of local greens and herbs. A nutrition and food science graduate, she switched to cooking and had a chance to visit Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
It was a life-changer as it showed her how to cook seasonally and source locally. She now works with farming communities “to seek out heritage varieties of Thai produce and develop them into something that I feel people today, especially the younger generation, would want to know more about”.
She agrees that there are more opportunities now for young chefs to explore their own culinary identity. “I feel like now we are at the point where people are looking internally for new things, creativity within this generation of Thai chefs. People are definitely more open to try new renditions of Thai cuisine. It’s a very exciting time for us.” She also sums up the sentiment of her generation of chefs and the direction of Thai cuisine.
“It’s funny how, when I was working in Bangkok, I only wanted to cook western food because imported ingredients were so delicious to me. But after cooking in New York for three years I came back yearning to learn and cook Thai food more than anything. Being back here, I can say that I am very proud to be working with local ingredients and to share our perspective of Thai food with the world.”