In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we profile just a few of Bangkok’s top-rated female chefs
As we herald the arrival of March by celebrating International Women’s Day, 2018 is an especially poignant year for reflection on the advances made in women’s rights and achievements. The #MeToo social media explosion and Times Up movement—fighting back against sexual abuse—has gone viral worldwide. In addition, this year Hollywood nominated a woman for both Best Director and Best Cinematographer, categories in which they rarely get attention, and New Zealand, Iceland, Serbia, Peru, and Romania celebrated having women elected as the Prime Ministers of their respective nations.
Here in Thailand, there has been a female empowerment of the gastronomy scene, where women have taken charge as some of the top chefs at the top tables around town, an arena that, until recently, has tended to be dominated by men. When the Michelin Guide Bangkok arrived here at the end of 2017, it awarded seven Thai restaurants with stars, of which four are headed by female chefs. In this special report, Bangkok 101 celebrates all the accomplishments made by the fairer sex, as we catch up with some of the leading ladies in the kitchens across the city.
Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava
Chef and co-partner of the acclaimed Bo.lan restaurant, Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava was given the inaugural award for ‘Best Female Chef in Asia’ in 2013. Since then, her restaurant has appeared almost every year in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and Bo, along with her chef husband Dylan Jones, are well known throughout Asia—famed for a weekly TV cooking show, as well as their commitment to making Bo.lan (an amalgamation of the couple’s names) become the first zero carbon footprint restaurant in Thailand. Most recently, Bo.lan was honoured with a prestigious Michelin star.
It hasn’t always been easy though. After doing a Masters in Gastronomy in Australia, Bo returned to Thailand and got a job at the Metropolitan, mainly due to her English and translation abilities, as she hadn’t yet had any professional experience in the kitchen. Being around a range of Thai and foreign chefs, she learned quickly though, and then went to London, to work at David Thompson’s version of Nahm there.
Long days in a fast paced environment were the norm, but it was at Nahm that she met Dylan, and the two decided to return to Bangkok and open a fine dining spot serving authentic Thai food, something that really didn’t exist back then. At that time, fancy dining Thai spots were very much toned down for tourist palates.
These days, in addition to being a phenomenal chef, Bo is also a passionate educator, campaigning to raise awareness about Thai food and food security. Free range chickens and eggs, fresh ocean fish, and organics are the norm at Bo.lan, and additionally, they filter and bottle their own water, have used organic cotton for staff uniforms, and are focusing on turning kitchen waste into fertilizer. It’s more expensive to do it this way, but as Bo says, “We eat more than three times a day and we need to take a look at the damage that we do to the environment.”
While Bo.lan has focused on fine dining, Dylan and Bo’s other restaurant, Err, features urban rustic Thai, and is set out near the river, close to the Flower Market and Wat Pho. It offers a casual retro vibe, plenty of street food favourites and snacks, tasty cocktails, and continues in the pair’s admirable traditions.
Chef Jutamas Theantae started out pursuing the fine arts, studying printmaking and lithography at Visva-Bahrati University in India, which she thinks helped her stay attuned to fine details later on. She never forgot her promise though, made to her childhood friend and Karmakamet’s brand founder Natthorn Rakachana, as they sat on a porch stoop at 17 years old, saying that one day they’d have a restaurant. Theantae continued her culinary rise by working in Relais and Chateaux properties, and stints at the prestigious Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai and the Eugenia in Bangkok, along with teaching cooking at the Vatel Hospitality Management School and at Silpakorn University’s International College. These days, Theantae serves up creative and sophisticated French-inspired fare at the intimate Karmakamet Diner, which is furnished to resemble an old-fashioned Chinese apothecary.
Asking Chef Jutamas about her take on being a female chef, she agreed with many of the other lady chefs interviewed that she never thought that being a female chef was challenging, but that just being a chef by itself was challenge enough. However, she does caution that working in Thailand isn’t quite the same as working in some other overseas spots.
“There’s no community of female chefs here in Thailand, unlike overseas,” says Jutamas, “where there are female chef communities and organizations to facilitate information sharing.
“It’s not about being male or female,” she adds, sharing her advice to young women heading into the industry. “Work is work, discipline is discipline, sharing is sharing. Focusing on the work, productivity, and love for others is what one needs. As a busy chef, we sometimes forget that other than living just for ourselves, and for the plates in front of us, we can still do a lot of useful things for others. We can be a loving person, be kind, and not let the stress of the job turn us into a self-centered person. By loving others, you can just turn the stressful environment into a pleasurable environment, and that’s how we start to share and build something that is bigger than ourselves.”
Nooror Somany Steppe
Chef Nooror Somany Steppe grew up around the kitchen, as her sister owned a small provincial restaurant in Thailand. Her mother also gave her a passion for cooking, teaching her traditional recipes at an early age. Later on in life, she was inspired by her food guru and culinary mentor, Ajarn Srisamorn Kongphan. Nooror studied advanced culinary arts at the prestigious Madame Jacob Institute in Belgium, and even added Indian cooking to her repertoire during a three-month stint as a guest chef in the kitchen of The Taj Mumbai. After meeting her husband, Belgian businessman Karl Steppe, the pair launched L’Elephant Bleu in Brussels, where they resided at the time. The restaurant went on to become one of the leading Asian restaurants in Europe, and today there are twelve Blue Elephant restaurants worldwide, led by the elegant Bangkok branch, housed in a gorgeous 1900s colonial-era building on Sathorn Road (which was awarded a Michelin Plate in the 2017 Michelin Guide Bangkok).
In addition to its many restaurant outlets, Blue Elephant is also renowned for its authentic cooking school, as well as for its unique sauces, curry pastes, and other products, which are exported and sold around the world. In 2003, Chef Nooror was given the ‘Thai Taste-Thai Best Award’, and Blue Elephant was chosen to spearhead the Thai Government’s campaign to showcase Thai cuisine as the best in the world. She has since become a celebrity chef, invited to arrange gourmet Thai banquets at international conferences, catering for Thai Airways, and most recently, was asked to oversee a lavish Thai gala dinner cooked for 400 guests at the World Economic Forum 2018, staged in Davos, Switzerland.
Asking Chef Nooror about the greatest challenges as a woman chef she says, “Back in the old days, it was not easy here in Thailand to be a female chef leading the men in the kitchen, but these days women are treated more equally. For me, it was challenging to go overseas and be seen as a petite Asian woman; I felt I had to prove my strength and knowledge, as well as be faster than the others in order to gain respect and recognition.”
Chef Nooror quotes her favourite motto when asked for her thoughts and advice for young women heading into the restaurant industry; “Make the impossible possible!” She continues, “Be passionate and be yourself. Just remember, cooking is an art, so be your own artist.”
Hailing from Japan, Chef Saki Hoshino is now into her third year living and working in Thailand. Along with several Thai partners, she opened the popular 80/20 restaurant, which alludes to the restaurant sourcing 80 percent of its ingredients locally. Saki is the dessert chef
for this hip, cutting edge eatery—recently awarded a Michelin Plate—and she got her start in cooking and baking as a child, helping her mother and grandmother making fresh miso, umeshu, yoghurt, and koji. She continued her culinary passions by moving to Canada and doing a hospitality management diploma, and then specializing in pastry and baking at George Brown College. Hoshino worked at different bakeries and restaurants in Toronto for a decade and then moved back to Japan to study the art of wagashi (Japanese sweets) and fermentation, before coming to Thailand and becoming involved with 80/20.
Catching up with Saki, I asked for her take on being a female chef in Bangkok as opposed to elsewhere, and she responded that one shouldn’t concentrate too much on gender.
“I don’t think too much about being a female chef,” she remarked. “A chef is chef, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. Different chefs have different visions, ideals, and cooking styles. I know that Canada was more diverse when it came to gender—when compared with Japan—but it never really affected me in either different countries or kitchens. A chef has to keep pushing herself and her team no matter where she is.”
Hoshino says her greatest rewards as a chef in Bangkok come when guests come in and try her desserts and tell her how much they love them, and that just cooking good food for everyone is satisfaction in and of itself. She also had words for young women wanting to follow in her footsteps, saying, “Believe in yourself and just go for it. Especially in Asian countries, many young people have a dream or vision of what they want to do, but they give up due to expectations from their parents or other reasons. Many people just follow steps made up by someone else, as opposed to dedicating time and effort to do what they personally want.”
Saki went on to say that even failing can be okay, and that it can actually be a key to becoming successful. Wise words from someone specializing in making those with a sweet tooth happy!
Arisara ‘Paper’ Chongphanitkul
As a rising star in Bangkok and on the international culinary scene, Arisara ‘Paper’ Chongphanitkul recently made waves by becoming the first Thai woman to compete in an international competition by participating in the ‘Ladies World Pastry Championship’ in Rimini, Italy, showcasing the talents of women pastry chefs from around the world. Chef Paper—as she is nicknamed—studied at the Gastronomicum pastry school in France and then worked in Paris and Brussels with master pastry chefs Sadaharu Aoki and Hugues Pouget at the world-famous Laurent Gerbaud of Brussels. She now heads the Issaya La Patisserie, a culmination of her and Chef Ian Kittichai’s work in the pastry kitchen. The duo have even produced a beautifully illustrated cookbook, featuring the recipes of all of their favourite sweets.
Chef Paper said her greatest challenges these days are being a leader and being responsible. She remembered her days in Europe and remarked “When I was in Brussels and Paris, I was just interning, I was just doing a job and nobody was following me, but now I am a leader with a team. If you do things wrong, the whole team can collapse. I always have to push myself and improve, otherwise I will stay at the same level.”
Paper encourages young women to find inspiration, whether it be from movies, people, or other, and to use this in help finding one’s own style of work. She thinks the world of pastry is becoming more and more appreciated and that it has become edible art, not just about making sweet things. She says, “One should just practice over and over and do the things that you trust, and it will be reflected by those who will experience your dessert.”
It’s not only Thais making up the female contingent of chefs and restaurateurs in Bangkok. Dana Garber, along with her husband Danny, met in China a decade ago, while teaching English in a small town. Missing good old American barbecue, they decided to open up the “Pug,” named after their pet dog. They started a BBQ joint in Chengdu, but decided after several years and multiple visits, that Bangkok was more to their liking, and better suited to their ideas, and thus their fantastic Texas-style ribs joint was launched, and became the talk of the town, packed nightly with expats and locals clamouring for the baby back ribs and strong drinks to wash them down with. The lines outside their intimate Surawong eatery became so long that Smokin’ Pug celebrated the arrival of 2018 by relocating to a bigger venue right next to Lumphini Park, ensuring that all the rib lovers in town would be able to join in on the fun.
Upon asking Dana for her take on being a woman running a restaurant here, she offered some great responses. She noted that while Thailand offered its own challenges, being a female in the restaurant industry in the U.S. was even harder. Managing restaurants with male dominated kitchens often made for sexist comments and an uncomfortable work dynamic. Here in Thailand it is more of an issue of strong women being seen as unattractive or feared, and it takes a bit more to earn respect. For example, if the man in charge gets angry, he is just doing his job, whereas if a woman does, she is just being bitchy, at that time of the month, and will most certainly lose face for her actions. Dana remarked that in China, people were often shocked, wondering how on earth a 30-something woman was out running a restaurant until 2am, as opposed to being at home focused on kids.
Dana added that perhaps an even larger challenge emerges here in Bangkok—that of being a foreigner, and trying to get staff to see one as something more than this, although the difficulties are well outdistanced by the rewards of having a full restaurant each evening with people from around the globe enjoying a fun and positive slice of American culture. And as with other husband-and-wife kitchen teams, Dana agrees that two is always better than one.
“Since Danny and I met in China twelve years ago, we have only spent about ten days apart, and I believe that building businesses abroad has made our relationship incredibly strong,” she says. “While we do get frustrated over different management styles, but we are always able to laugh at things over a drink at the end of the night.”
Dana encourages young women heading into the business to just go for it, and to be firm, but try to keep emotions separate from the job unless you want to be judged for that. She adds that you might have to work a little bit harder than a man, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from following their dreams.
A Mumbai native with a virtuoso culinary resume, Chef Garima Arora graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, worked at the fashionable Parisienne boulangerie Le Quartier du Pain, and then did a stint at the two-starred Michelin gastro mecca Noma in Copenhagen. While in Denmark, Arora was contacted by Bangkok’s own Gaggan Anand, chef and owner of the two Michelin-starred Gaggan, a reputable restaurant which has also been ranked number one on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for three straight years. Anand wanted to do a restaurant project with Arora in Mumbai, and she came to Bangkok to train with him at Gaggan. The Mumbai project ended up not happening, but Arora decided to stay. With her Bangkok mentor’s blessings she opened up Gaa, which features her modern eclectic culinary fare inspired by her worldwide cooking experiences.
Chef Garima remarks that Bangkok isn’t much different when it comes to the challenges faced by female chefs, or chefs in general, around the globe.
“The struggles of a kitchen are the same everywhere. The long hours, time away from friends and family, and the physically demanding nature of the job are universal,” she says. “As women in the kitchen, we face the same struggles as our male counterparts-setting up a business, running it successfully, and dealing with the intricacies of it all.”
It’s all worthwhile though. Arora adds, “You get to see your vision come to life alongside a diverse and passionate team.” She also thinks that perhaps here in Bangkok it is a little different because of the fact that Gaa is hers. “This being my own restaurant, I try to bring a little sense of compassion and care into the kitchen, and also create an opportunity for a better quality of life and better work life balance.”
In December 2017 Gaa was awarded a Michelin Plate, a just reward for all her efforts. “My advice to any chef, male or female,” she says, “is to keep your head down, learn, work, work hard, and work with integrity.”
Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun
“Cooking was not a choice for me as I was born in to it,” admits Chef Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun, explaining that she comes from a cooking family background. “I grew up in a big family and my mother owned a small shop. Each day she would prepare dishes and that’s where I started to understand cooking.”
Satongun started cooking professionally when she met her partner, Australian chef Jason Bailey. The two of them opened restaurants together in Australia, winning awards for their talents and then coming to Bangkok to open a fine dining restaurant for Thais, the result of which has been the much acclaimed Paste, which combines modern techniques while keeping traditional Thai flavours and authenticity, trying to create dishes that evoke a strong sense of Thailand. In December of 2017 Paste became one of the seven Thai restaurants in Bangkok to be awarded a Michelin star in the Bangkok edition of the famed “little red book”, but accolades continue to be heaped upon both Bee and her restaurant. On February 6th, 2018, she was awarded the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2018, as part of this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, taking place March 23rd in Macao (see full story on pg. 87).
“We want to keep the taste authentic,” Bee says, explaining her award-winning food philosophy. “We feed our creativity into the form, so the presentation might not be what people are used to, but the flavour stays true.
“These days, Thai food is lacking in flavour,” she adds. “It’s more commercialized. There is no time to prepare your own sauces or to cook your food properly. I want to bring back the flavours of my childhood and introduce them to the world.”
Bee, now 41, says that being a top female chef here certainly has its challenges, as one has to be able to lead strongly as well as being able to pass one’s ideas on to the next chefs in line. Although she adds that time is actually on the women’s side, because even though high end restaurant chefs have been predominantly male, women have been manning the kitchens for a long, long time.
“If you look at the history of Thai food,” she begins, “it was traditionally made in the past by female cooks in aristocrat households and thus there are many old women who have been cooking for more than 50 years and have such an in-depth knowledge of the cuisine that things just flow naturally for them.”
When asked what it is like to run a restaurant business like this with her partner, she admitted that on the one hand it was initially quite difficult, as one is together all the time with one’s partner in a kitchen—a place that is both pressure intense, hot, and exceedingly fast-paced. She said that she and Jason fought a lot initially in the kitchen, but easily learned to switch that off after work, and that since the two are constantly creating and running everything as a team, she couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
For young ladies who want to follow in her footsteps, Bee advises plenty of patience, perseverance, focus, and always following one’s dream. She also emphasizes that young chefs must learn and respect traditional dishes, recipes, techniques, and the overall heritage of Thai cuisine, using it as a foundation before moving on to modern innovations.
Purida ‘Pu’ Theeraphong
Acclaimed Chef Purida ‘Pu’ Theeraphong presides over the kitchen at Bangkok’s elegant Osha, the luxurious Thai restaurant chain that first began in San Francisco and went on to open six branches there, serving traditional Thai food with modern and creative touches. Osha returned to the motherland in 2014, opening a branch in Bangkok with Chef Purida taking over as Executive Corporate Chef a year later. Osha has been a hugely popular edition to the Bangkok Thai fine dining scene, and a second branch opened up at Asiatique just over a year ago.
Theeraphong received a degree in commercial cooking at TAFE in Sydney, the Australian Government’s leading food education institute. This was followed by a decade of working in Australia, which included a stint as head chef at the renowned Spice Lovers. Chef Pu then returned to Thailand to work as the Executive Chef at the Radisson Plaza in Phuket, and then at Su Tha Ros in The Muse hotel right here in Bangkok. She also beat out several of the head honchos in the ‘Iron Chef Thailand’ competition, becoming the first woman to win the Iron Chef award, and has since brought her many talents into the kitchen of Osha.
Like some of the other leading ladies of Bangkok’s gastronomy scene, Chef Pu echoes a familiar sentiment that a career in the kitchen isn’t necessarily any harder or easier—whether it’s here in Bangkok, Sydney, or elsewhere—as there are the same challenges for chefs and women to take on.
“Female chefs have to prove themselves as being able to work under pressure and be detail-oriented more than men,” she says. “But they have to lead the team in the kitchen the same as men must, and this has to be proven everywhere.”
Theeraphong says her greatest rewards in Thailand have come from having successfully managed large functions where there have been more than 2,000 guests. “Being responsible for all the individual details and then getting feedback that everything went well is a great honour.”
Meanwhile, her advice for young ladies headed into the biz is short but sweet. “Always have patience, learn and practice often, give attention to every dish, be detail-oriented, and most importantly, love what you do!”
Most people wouldn’t imagine that a career spent standing hunched over a street-side smoky wok set on a charcoal burning fire, while wearing protective ski goggles, would be something for a young lady to aspire to. However, Chef Supinya Jusunta, better known as ‘Jay Fai’ (Auntie Fai) is kind of the antihero of Bangkok’s all-star female gastronomy line-up, perhaps separated somewhat from the rest of the leading ladies pack due to her eatery’s humble streetside shophouse digs.
Nevertheless, her meteoric rise to fame is certainly something to be cheered. Jay Fai has spent almost four decades presiding over a hole-in-the-wall kitchen—simply known as Jay Fai restaurant—in Bangkok’s Old Town, where she is the lone cook whipping up crab omelettes, rad na, and pad kee mao “drunkard’s noodles”. She uses immensely large and insanely fresh portions of seafood, and charges prices ten times that of normal street food eateries, but foodie fanatics, along with legions of Mercedes driving, well-heeled society swells, line up curbside each night to get their fill. Food critics have raved about her street food for some time, and when the Bangkok Michelin Guide was published in December of 2017, it continued in its recent tradition of paying homage to local traditions (they gave a chicken and rice hawker cart in Singapore a star) by giving a nod to Jay Fai as the only shophouse “street food” restaurant in Thailand worthy of a coveted star.
Jay Fai has mixed feelings about the Michelin award and all the attention that is following in its wake. She says she is happy that Thai chefs and Thai food are getting international attention, but wondered why she only now received an award she’d never even heard of.
“I’ve been cooking for 30-40 years, why did they just find me now?” she retorts, with her usual acerbic downhome drollery.
Auntie Fai added that she hopes that other restaurants around town, rather than hers, be given the award next year, as she’s found it hard to cope with lines of tourists now queuing up to three hours or more to try to get a table. She adds that she’s been exhausted from trying to satisfy everyone, even needing one of her daughters to come help her full time to try and handle the crowds.
But whether such accolades are regarded as a blessing or a curse, one thing is certain; with all the talent coming out of Bangkok innumerable kitchens, food lovers in this city are ensured of having sated appetites for many years to come. And a hearty salute goes out to all the passionate chefs—male and female—for making it all happen.
PHATCHARA ‘POM’ PIRAPAK: GUEST CHEF SERIES IN PHUKET
Notoriously shy, and still shy of 30, Chef Phatchara ‘Pom’ Pirapak (above) is the queen of the kitchen at Saneh Jaan, the renowned restaurant on Wireless Road which was awarded a Michelin star back in December of 2017. Her culinary creations are described in the guide as “dishes crafted from ancient recipes…a mix of classics and hard-to-find recipes.”
And although this Bangkok restaurant is well worth a visit, if you happen to be in Phuket in mid-April you can sample some of this lovely lady’s divine delicacies when she appears at The Banyan Tree Phuket resort as part of the ongoing ‘Fine Dining Lovers Guest Chef Series’ presented by Sanpellegrino and Acqua Panna.
For two days in April the demure Chef Pom will be “manning” the kitchen at the Banyan Tree Phuket’s Saffron restaurant, serving a set dinner on Friday April 6th, and Saturday April 7th. Both dinners are at 7:30pm and are priced at B3,500, but for just B4,800 diners can opt for the wine pairing menu in which carefully selected wines are served with each course.
The set menu begins with an appetizer of mud crab wrapped with ginger, chili, and citrus in wild betel leaf. This is followed by a pomelo salad with crayfish, and a coconut soup with lotus stem and scallop. Next up will be a dish of river prawn with stir-fried vermicelli and curry sauce (below), before a fine tenderloin Panang curry—made from a recipe originating in the south of Thailand—arrives complemented by a serving of nutritious riceberry rice. Finally, a dessert of marian plum in citrus caps off this unforgettable feast.
For more information, or to make reservations, please call 07 634 2400, or send an email to:
Fine Dining Lovers Guest Chef Series: Designed to demonstrate how the finest natural mineral waters can be used to enhance the greatest of dining experiences, this series brings renowned chefs to Thailand from top dining destinations around the world, and also showcases top chefs from Thailand’s own creative restaurant scene. For more inspiration on food and wine trends, stories, profiles, and videos around the world visit Fine Dining Lovers, an online magazine sponsored by SanPellegrino and Acqua Panna.
By Dave Stamboulis