Bangkok’s Newest Top Chef Talks with John Krich about His Culinary Credo, as well as Hunkering Down in the Bunker
Behind the jutting concrete and purposely rough edge of this ambitious new three-story bar-restaurant, set to dominate the growing night scene along Sathorn’s linked Sois 10 and 12, you’ll find Arnie Marcella, a young head chef from New York bursting with battle plans. “This looks like it’s going to be the young epicentre of the city. But we chose the word bunker because the hospitality and service is going to engulf you, make you let go of the outside world and feel safe from all threats.”
That’s quite an ambition, but Marcella, 33, a Filipino-American raised in Poughkeepsie in upstate New York, seems well-prepared to leave his mark in Asia. He started cooking at his mother’s knee as soon as he “was old enough to pull a chair up to the stove,” went “down the road” from his home to attend the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, has apprenticed in authentic restaurants in Italy and Mexico before putting in a decade amidst New York’s highly competitive dining scene, including work as an Executive Chef starting two modern French establishments, and, most recently, came out of the kitchen of Brooklyn’s Aldeia, a Portuguese-Mediterranean standard bearer that earned a Michelin star.
During a month’s holiday in Thailand, he was encouraged to stick around by long-time friend Tim Butler of Eat Me restaurant and soon “fell in love with this place and the readiness for change, the excitement in the dining culture.” The articulate chef observes, “There’s a spirit here of creating an unspoken bond with customers, of the social aspect of dining, that has been lost in America.”
He says that “pampering diners can be a beautiful thing, the sense of community shouldn’t be taken for granted” and he plans to “curate the dining experience from the second my patrons walk in the door.” And Bunker is designed to offer multiple and varied experiences, from its full, sophisticated first floor bar to two upper floors that include a wall of craft beer tables, long shared tables, and plenty of outdoor balcony space. “It’s supposed to be like a maze, with every room and space being different,” says Marcella.
As designed by Kelly Wheatley, who also created “Eat Me,” there’s a conscious attempt to leave things unadorned in a style sometimes termed “brutalism.” But Chef Arnie doesn’t seem to have a brutal bone in his body.
“I just feel very lucky to be able to influence this community in a positive way,” he declares. To that end, he has been touring local markets and farms, trying to make connections with suppliers who will be at the heart of his menu. “Honouring and uplifting local vendors is very important to me, and so are the personal connections that a restaurant breeds,” he explains. “With global warming and all the problems, chefs today have to be socially conscious. But trying to be as local as possible isn’t just politically correct, it makes for better food.”
The chef isn’t unveiling his menu just yet, as Bunker will open officially sometime after the Songkran holiday. But he promises that “the environment always changes a chef’s palate—some flavour profiles get more vibrant, others more subtle.” He’s taking classes in Thai and is clearly getting influenced by all the Thai tastes around him. “The Royal Projects for growing food also blows my mind. There’s so much that can be grown here and grown well.”
Still, he promises “lots of influence from the Mediterranean, parts of Asia, and especially Japan.” And he wants to serve his plates “family-style, the way Asians eat, encouraging lots of sharing.” As for dealing with a new staff of Thai chefs and helpers, Arnie says, “You can always teach techniques, but you can’t teach the attitude of wanting to work together. It’s important for us to connect on the level of being here because we all love food and enjoy cooking.”
At this “Bunker,” there will be no unpleasant or dangerous surprises. But Chef Arnie, Bangkok’s latest invader, will take no prisoners in his attempt to make sure “we pay homage to a sense of community while at the same time taking the food to another level.”