Young Thai chefs shake up Bangkok's food scene

By AFP   July 1, 2023 | 03:46 pm PT
Young Thai chefs shake up Bangkok's food scene
Chef Ton ventures to a local market to "get inspired" for his menu. Photo by AFP
Thitid Tassanakajohn has a degree in economics from Thailand's top university, but turned his back on a stable career in finance to launch a high-end restaurant in Bangkok -- a city famed for its street food.

The 38-year-old, known as Chef Ton, is one of a group of top young cooks creating a buzz around fine dining in the capital, traditionally known for its affordable and spicy local fare.

His Le Du restaurant, or "Season" in Thai, topped this year's ranking of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, an influential British gastronomy guide.

The recognition was the culmination of a decade's work trying to expand perceptions of Thai cuisine, he said.

"Before, people thought that Thai food was cheap street food, and we only thought of fine dining as French or Italian. I wanted to change that concept, (to show) Thai food as a refined and elevated cuisine."

Highlights of his four-course and six-course tasting menus include a twist on traditional rice dish Khao Chae, made with a shrimp and pork pate, pickled radish and jasmine ice cream. His signature river prawn, with pork belly jam and shrimp-paste organic rice, channels his favorite street food.

"It is very important for me to showcase local products," he told AFP.

Since 2017, around 30 restaurants in Thailand, almost all of them in Bangkok, have been awarded coveted Michelin stars.

"It is a golden era of fine dining in Thailand," said internationally-trained Pichaya Soontornyanakij, or Chef Pam, whose restaurant Potong was awarded a Michelin star last year.

In Bangkok's Chinatown, nestled between shoe shops on a narrow street, Potong serves Thai-Chinese dishes in a century-old Sino-Portuguese building inherited from her ancestors. It once sold traditional herbal medicine, but now the upscale restaurant features luxurious furniture, stunning floral wall art and antiques.

The 33-year-old's favorite childhood street food dish, the Chinese-influenced goose stew, sparked the initial idea for the restaurant.

Only 35 diners can tuck into Potongs degustation menu each night and theres a three-month wait for a reservation. Photo by AFP

Only 35 diners can tuck into Potong's degustation menu each night and there's a three-month wait for a reservation. Photo by AFP

"Bangkok's Chinatown is such an unusual place for fine dining," Chef Pam said.

Two-week aged duck with five spices, Surat Thani oyster with vinegar pearls, and crab with black pepper jam are among the standouts of her 20-course menu.

Only 35 diners can tuck into the degustation menu each night and there's a three-month wait for a reservation.

"I want Potong to be the reason why foreigners come to Thailand," she said.

Tourism officials hope Thailand can capitalize on the new upscale culinary hype to boost the kingdom's economy after the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to the travel and hospitality industries.

Some influential food bloggers, such as American Mark Wiens, who has almost 10 million subscribers on YouTube, are spreading the word.

"Bangkok has the best of everything, whether you want a $1 or $200 meal," he told AFP.

However, some food critics are wary about the price point compared to other Asian megacities.

Thailand is among the most expensive countries for fine dining, said Bangkok-based food critic Siriwatoo Ruksakiati, but "there are certain elements missing, such as the quality of service".

Le Du is located in the heart of Bangkok's busy financial district, but at midday Chef Ton ventures to a local market to "get inspired" for his menu.

"I like to come to see which products are in season in Thailand, and I can start planning," he said, as he looked through a fruit shop overflowing with longan and mangosteen.

Educated and trained at top restaurants in New York City, Chef Ton said he learned from the best about how to push culinary boundaries.

Besides Le Du, Chef Ton manages seven other restaurants and has tens of thousands of followers on social media after appearing as a judge on Top Chef Thailand.

Avoiding "putting all my eggs in one basket" was a deliberate business strategy, he said.

"I have seen ups and downs of the restaurant business," he explained, adding that there can be cycles of popularity.

However, Chef Ton is hoping that the world's new understanding of Thai food is here to stay.

"I want to prove that Thai cuisine is not inferior (to) any cuisine," he said.

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