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Thai And Proud Of It
FOR THOSE WHO associate eating ants with Rene Redzepi of Noma, Thitid Tassanakajohn is quick to remind you that the Nordic chef didn't have first dibs on cooking with insects.
"Thais have been eating ants for centuries," laughs the Thai chef-owner of Le Du when asked if he was inspired by Noma when featuring the little critters in the tasting menu of his acclaimed modern-Thai restaurant in Bangkok. "It's not (about being) cool, it's our culture."
Interpreting Thai culture and ingredients using his own training in Western culinary skills is what drives chef Ton - as he is better known - whose mission is "to elevate Thai cuisine onto the world stage".
The 32-year-old chef knew he wanted to be a chef at a very young age, but, as is the case in Asian families, his parents were quick to steer him towards an economics degree and a short-lived career in banking, which he hated. He took off to the US to train at the Culinary Institute of America and then worked at the likes of Eleven Madison Park and Jean Georges in New York, before returning to Bangkok to make his mark on the Thai food scene.
Le Du may have a French-sounding name but it's actually Thai for 'season', which is what determines his menu. That, and the fact that he has been using strictly 100 per cent Thai ingredients "which has been very challenging but we have stuck to it for more than three years now," he says.
Being completely Thai was always his game plan. "We started with around 85 to 90 per cent local ingredients in our first year (2013). There's a lot of uncertainty when you work with small local farmers, but I believe we must grow together and work patiently with each other. It's not only about representing Thai flavours but also the terroir of my country.
"This is very important to me. I use European techniques where I see it will improve my cuisine, but at the end of the day I still cook Thai food. It might look different but the soul is there. In fact, I've always called my cooking modern Thai-inspired cuisine, but as the restaurant has evolved over the past five years. I would say it is much more Thai now than when we started."
While the food is fine dining, the restaurant itself is deliberately unpretentious so you can focus on the food - which retains the essence of Thai flavours while playing with presentation and texture. A meal here is a mix of familiar flavours in unique settings: a 'ceviche' of raw sea bass marinated in lime juice, Santol fruit and chilli paste topped with a savoury cloud of coriander and coconut milk snow; Thai Teochew-style steamed grouper topped with Japanese-inspired deep fried scales in a tangy pickled lime and fish bone stock; and chicken rice re-engineered.
Ant larvae with rice and crabmeat in a curry sauce are a tribute to northeast Thailand's rainy season and its indigenous ingredients. And a lovely if odd-sounding fried shallot ice cream and warm duck egg custard sweetened with palm sugar is a match made in dessert heaven.
Chef Ton is paving the way for fellow young Thai chefs to follow in his footsteps. "I hope they see me as a example of how much can be done with our cuisine. There was a time when young chefs only wanted to cook French or Italian food, but now more of them want to cook Thai. I can see that even with my own team."
He also credits award-winning chef David Thompson who started the restaurant Nahm, "for showing me how great Thai cuisine could be on the world stage."
International diners certainly agree, for Le Du is number 14 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list while Baan - a casual Thai restaurant serving his own family recipes such as his favourite Pad Kra Pao (spicy holy basil with beef) - is listed in the Bib Gourmand section of Bangkok's Michelin Guide 2018.
Both Le Du and Baan fill the two ends of the cooking spectrum for chef Ton. "You need one to satisfy your passion and ego. And the other for you to find peace," he smiles.
Le Du, 399/3 Silom soi 7 Silom Bangrak, Bangkok. Tel: (092) 919-9969.
Baan, 139/5 Wireless Road, Lumphini Pathumwan, Bangkok. Tel:+(66) 2-6558995.