A restaurateur extraordinaire, Thanaruek Laoraowirodge runs a gourmet dining cruise, several branches of the superb Supanniga Eating Room, and is behind the Michelin-starred Somtum Der in New York.
Born in Khon Kaen to a family of merchants, Thanaruek Laoraowirodge shuffled between Isaan and Bangkok while studying at Assumption and then Chulalongkorn University. He went to New York to pursue a master’s degree from NYU, and then came back to work in his family’s business. However, missing New York, he and some friends opened Minbar Royale, a New York bistro with Parisian touches, something at that time which was completely new to Bangkok, and it was here that he got his first taste of the restaurant business. Following this, he worked for Singha as their EST. 33 operator, where he continued gaining insights and experience in preparation for opening his future establishments; the two Supanniga Eating Rooms in Bangkok, a dining cruise boat, and Supanniga Eating Room by Khun Yai × Roots Coffee, the latest venue out on the Chao Phraya River which serves up traditional food from Thailand’s Eastern provinces (Laoraowirodge’s grandmother hailed from Trat).
Why did you start Supanniga Eating Room and what makes it special?
One thing I learned from working at Minibar Royale is that recipes are the heart of the restaurant business, this coming from a man who is not a chef but more on the management side. My sister and I decided to start compiling our grandmother’s recipes. Her recipes come from our family oral history, recited by my grandmother and her assistant. Once my grandmother passed away we decided to open a restaurant with her recipes as a reminder of her life. At that time Supanniga Home, our family’s four-room boutique hotel in Khon Kaen, still did not have a restaurant, so we opened Krua Supanniga by Khun Yai. Two years later, my best friend, who also admires my grandmother’s cooking, suggested we open a restaurant with the same concept in Bangkok. I realized that there was a demand for Eastern cuisine and also a demand for restaurants that offered nostalgic, home-cooked meals.
What’s your take on the Bangkok dining scene these days, as well as the arrival of the Michelin guide here?
The Bangkok dining scene is more diverse now, but many trends come and go. Of course you can tag along with the hype and make a profit but how can you make sure that it is sustainable? More diversity also reflects on more sophistication, especially in Thai cuisine. I think in the past five years Thai food has been a major part in boosting the Bangkok dining scene. For Michelin, I am very glad that they’ve finally come to Bangkok, as they are the most standardized and accepted world restaurant award. Both restaurants and consumers will benefit from this. It will create more competition among restaurants and also is an impetus for them to maintain their quality.
Were you surprised by the success of Somtum Der in New York?
We opened Somtum Der there only one year after opening the Bangkok branch. It was a great opportunity for me to go back to the city that I’ve always loved. My partner for Somtum Der (New York) is also is one of my best friends, so it was nice to work together. Its success surprised me very much. I never thought we’d receive this much recognition. Only in our first year we were selected to be in Michelin’s Bib Gourmand and then we received one-star recognition from Michelin. It’s funny because our only intention was to deliver the most authentic Isaan food possible to New York City.
Where are some of your favourite places to eat in Bangkok?
I like to go to Daimasu, a Japanese Izakaya place just off Surawong Road. I also love the street food on Convent Road and Sathorn Soi 10.
Where would you go for a “suit & tie” fine dining affair?
I actually never go to fine dining restaurants that require suits. I think nowadays fine dining restaurants have less strict dress codes and not many places in Bangkok require you to wear a suit anymore. I am more of a casual dining person and more into street food, but for special occasions I love going to Il Fumo for Italian food.
How do you see the food scene evolving in Bangkok over the next decade?
I think that in the future people will look for something more detailed and that restaurants’ business concepts will be more refined. I actually think it will resemble something more like New York. We will have more diversity and variety, with people craving things they have never tried and experienced. The world is getting smaller and smaller. People know more and more about others cultures and ethnicities and they want firsthand experience in exploring these things.
Interview by Dave Stamboulis