From Michelin-stars in Chicago to Michelin-stars in Bangkok, Chef Dan Bark is blazing a trail of his own
It’s easy to think when approaching Upstairs at Mikkeller that you’ve taken a wrong turn or misunderstood the directions. Is this a restaurant, let alone a Michelin-rated one? On my visit, a crowd had gathered out front and were knocking back craft beers with a jovial enthusiasm. The Mikkeller running club appeared to be out in force, glistening with sweat as they chugged on bottles of IPA. But where’s Chef Dan Bark among all this revelry?
I soon learn that the split-level building serves two very different functions: with the dedicated craft beer brigade downstairs, and the cozy Michelin-starred restaurant located upstairs. A self-explanatory restaurant name I should have taken at face-value.
Upstairs, the small restaurant seats around 20 diners and is simple in that industrial-Scandi design we see more and more of in Bangkok. And there’s Chef Dan in his chef whites, smart, professional, and with the best hair in the business.
Previously of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Grace in Chicago, working under Chef Curtis Duffy for three years, Korean-born Dan Bark moved to Bangkok four years ago with his girlfriend—now wife—Fay Tragoolvongse. They met in 2011 while working at Avenues restaurant, in the Peninsula Chicago, and now own and operate Upstairs at Mikkeller.
Their efforts were rewarded in December 2017 when the launch of the Bangkok Michelin Guide awarded them a star. “It was a little surprising, in all honesty,” admits Chef Dan. “I was filled with excitement and gratitude though. Our hard work and sacrifices had been rewarded. I always thought we were creative enough, but you never know. Plus, there’s the beer thing.” He’s referring to the ten-course Tasting Menu paired with six Craft Beers, an unconventional pairing that’s helped set the restaurant apart.
The idea of beer with your meal is not what you’d call traditional, and is something Chef Dan admits was a completely foreign concept to Bangkok diners.
“At first we had backpackers who were here because they love beer but you could tell that they didn’t really get the food. And then we got local foodies, who didn’t want to drink beer. They wanted wine.”
Arriving in Thailand with a fine-dining repertoire, Chef Dan began serving casual à la carte fare at Mikkeller’s brewery before moving upstairs to focus on a more concentrated Tasting Menu. Confident in his kitchen output and how ingredients were complimented by the beer, he was unwavering in his approach and continued to promote and push his cuisine alongside the likes of new and unusual pale lagers and coffee stouts.
Having a beer sommelier on-hand helps. Guests are not only poured beer in a variety of different glassware to compliment the beer—from Mikkeller Whatever Belgian Wit (4.8%) to AleSmith Speedway Imperial Coffee Stout (12%)—but are given a background of the origin, fermentation process and why that particular tipple was chosen to pair with the dish.
Chef Dan understands the food-beer pairing may seem a little avant-garde for a restaurant such as this, on an almost-hidden Soi in the Ekkamai neighbourhood, but what’s wrong with being revolutionary and blazing a trail of your own?
“Guests are surprised with the outcome,” he says. “It’s not bland, run-of-mill beer we’re serving. We’re pairing fine beers with fine food. If our guests can learn something or we can introduce them to new beers and news ways of dining, then that’s a success.”
The kitchen team is small, four people max, all Thai; a tight ballet around a miniscule open-kitchen, barely big enough to flip a pancake. “My team are great,” he says in praise. “All loyal and hardworking. Like me, they dream big and have big goals.”
Each course is written on a whiteboard, under which is an inventory of ingredients: hibiscus, thyme, truffle, black garlic, pomelo, fennel, Hawaiian salt, etc.
“We stick local as much as possible, researching new ingredients all the time, but my standards are high, so I’m not limited by it. We import some things like Wagyu from Japan and lamb from Australia.”
As well as an obsessive, craftsman-like approach to ingredients, there is also an evident fixation on technique. I watch as he leans across the kitchen counter, inspecting plates and using tweezers to add finishing garnishes, but then out comes a coffee syphon to which diced coconut, cucumber, lemongrass, and coriander is added. The fragrant blend of herbs is boiled in stock to infuse and then served over a tortellini course with delicious results. It’s theatre but also a smart utilization of old-school coffee apparatus that cooks and percolates the broth.
In a local market with an ever-growing interest in craft beers, Chef Dan has emerged as a pioneer of the food-beer pairing, moving an archaic idea away from pub-grub and elevating it to fine-dining, even Michelin, status. Working with Denmark’s Mikkeller Brewing, he has created a new, fashionable pairing and a style of dining that only seems to increase in popularity and interest.
Interview by David J. Constable