Bangkok’s top chefs join forces to help support the Royal Project, the King’s agriculture programme that has changed lives and produced some amazing food.
Chefs are a notoriously competitive bunch but, this month, some of the city’s most gifted, most celebrated cooks, including Gaggan Anand and David Thompson will come together for common cause. The Bangkok Restaurant Charity Week and its Destination of Gastronomy programme kicks off with a gala dinner on August 7 and continues until August 11, with all proceeds going toward the Royal Project, an astonishingly ambitious and successful agriculture programme in the northern provinces.
Founded 43 years ago by His Majesty The King, the Royal Project gave hill tribes the means and the expertise to grow produce that was otherwise being imported, helping them earn a living and support their communities.
“We now have 200 kinds of vegetables as well as coffee and tea and we’re always trying to improve the produce,” says Rithee Bunnag, a volunteer with the Royal Project.
“There’s also a lot of development and research – knowing what we can grow in different places. There are 38 stations and each station helps many villages. In total, it helps about 30,000 families.”
The Royal Project is a masterstroke of market-driven philanthropy but there is an ongoing challenge to persuade the hospitality industry that the produce is of serious high-end quality. This is another objective of the Restaurant Charity Week – raising money is important but it also serves as a valuable platform to promote the food.
“We have temperate crops, mostly ingredients used in Thai and European food,” Rithee says. “We want to promote local produce and show that the farmers can grow things that can be used in beautiful dishes in the best restaurants. A lot of chefs didn’t know what we could grow so we brought them to Chiang Mai to show them.”
Among the chefs who made the trip to Chiang Mai was Anand, whose progressive Indian restaurant in Chidlom is unanimously regarded as one of Bangkok’s finest and most innovative places.
Anand is already a fan of the Royal Project and its produce but seeing it operate first-hand allowed him to develop an even greater appreciation.
“We saw everything right at the source, the way the fisheries work, the way they farm sturgeon,” he says. “All the chefs loved it, we all said how great it would be to open a restaurant right at the centre – with that land and all that produce, it would be ideal.
“The way they do it and organise it, for a non-profit organisation, is absolutely perfect. Everything down to the way the packing centre operates. As a chef, you know that what you’re getting is fresh. For instance, everywhere else, strawberries are a summer fruit but in Thailand, they’re a winter fruit, so for that half of the year you know you can still get strawberries.”
Although Anand’s specialty is Indian food – admittedly, it’s not quite like any other Indian food – he draws inspiration from countless sources, including Thai food, and his approach to food and cooking continues to be shaped by his experiences in Bangkok.
“In many ways, Thai food has some similarities to Indian food – the spice and the sourness, particularly southern Indian,” he says. “And the way Buddhism brought the two cultures together – there is always room for me to find more inspiration.
“Also, Bangkok has the blessing of being a great transit point – you get a lot of people coming through – and people here believe in eating out. There are very few places you would travel to just to eat; in Asia, maybe Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok.”
Thompson (above left), whose Nahm Restaurant is one of the few in Bangkok to rival Gaggan for unanimous acclaim, is one of the world’s most influential Thai chefs. Thompson’s insight into Thai cuisine is as refined as anyone’s, making his endorsement of the Royal Project all the more significant.
“I use their chicken, their game birds, their yabbies,” he says. “It was set up to help the farmers in the north but there’s some real merit behind it – it’s good quality, so it becomes a very attractive option. I’ve been using them for the last three years.”
Like Anand, Thompson is an expat who has found his niche in Bangkok. And, given his success cooking Thai food, his connection to the country and its culinary traditions is probably even more acute.
“Thailand is home to me,” he says. “Where else could be better than Bangkok? And the access to Thais ingredients makes my job much easier. A cook is nothing without his markets and I remain stringently Thai in my cooking.
“When I’m out in the provinces I still come across new things. I was down south recently and discovered a succulent herb called pacmui – I use it as a side for my southern-style pork curry.”
Thompson has spent vast amounts of his professional life in Thailand and has watched Bangkok’s restaurant scene transform.
“Bangkok is a great food destination,” he says. “It’s changed a lot. When I came here 20 years ago, it wasn’t like that at all. It’s grown up and is now a contender on the world stage. And it’s a generous city – it lets people do new things.”
Bangkok Restaurant Charity Week
August 7: Gala dinner opening at JW Marriott, with nine different chefs preparing nine different courses. Tickets are B9999.
August 8: Cocktail workshop at Hyde & Seek, hosted by Nath Arj-Han, revealing the secrets of mixing the perfect tipple. Tickets are B2000.
August 9: The Modern Classic Cuisine workshop at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit, with Gaggan Anand. Tickets are B5000. Also a special dinner at Blue Elephant, with David Thompson, comparing authentic and modern Thai. Tickets are 4999.
August 10: Molecular X dinner at Aston Restaurant and Bar showcases the latest theory and technique associated with fine dining. Tickets are B6500.
August 11: Awards ceremony at the Renaissance Bangkok, recognising Bangkok’s best chefs and restaurants.
For more information, call 02-991-3031 or visit bkkrestaurantweek2013.com