Celebrating Bangkok’s Top Female Chefs and Restaurateurs
While the realm of celebrity chef and restaurant mogul has tended to follow the words of soul icon James Brown, who crooned “It’s a Man’s World”, that trend is being bucked these days. We profile some of the sisters making it all possible—some who go it alone, and others who work alongside their romantic partners (which offers an equally daunting challenge).
Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun
Chef Bee comes from a cooking family background and 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, before 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.
Bee acknowledges that being a top female chef here certainly has its challenges, but points out that even though high-end restaurant chefs have been predominantly male, if you look at the history of Thai food it was traditionally made—in the past—by female cooks in aristocrat households. In fact, 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’s like to run a business with her partner, Bee says that being together all the time with one’s partner in a kitchen—a place that is both pressure intense, hot, and exceedingly fast paced—was initially quite difficult. She admits that she and Jason fought a lot in the kitchen at first, but easily learned to switch that off after work. And that since the pair are constantly creating and running everything as a team, she couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
It’s not only Thais making up the female contingent of chefs and restaurateurs in Bangkok. Dana, along with her husband Danny Garber, met in China a decade ago while teaching English in a small town. Missing good ol’ American grub they started a BBQ joint in Chengdu, but decided—after several years and multiple visits—that Bangkok was more to their liking. Thus their fantastic Texas-style ribs joint The Smokin’ Pug was launched, and these days the intimate eatery is packed nightly with expats and locals clamouring for the baby back ribs.
When asked for her take on being a woman running a restaurant here, Dana says that while Thailand offers its own challenges, being a female in the restaurant industry in the USA was even harder. Managing restaurants with male-dominated kitchens often made for sexist comments and an uncomfortable work dynamic. Here, it is more of an issue of strong women being seen as unattractive or feared, and it takes a bit more to earn respect. Dana adds 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.
The larger challenge that emerges here—that of being a foreigner, and trying to get staff to see one as something more than this—is prevalent, although the difficulties are well outdistanced by the rewards of having a full restaurant each evening. And as with Chef Bee, 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,” she says. “I believe that building businesses abroad has made our relationship incredibly strong. While we do get frustrated over different management styles, we are always able to laugh at things over a drink at the end of the night.”
To find the perfect example of taking trusted Thai street food favourites, giving them a twist, and serving them up in a cool setting—with creative cocktails matching the fantastic eats—look no further than Soul Food Mahanakorn. The Thonglor eatery (which has expanded to include a smaller grab-and-go version called Soul Food 555) is the brainchild of owners Candice Lin and her partner, Atlantic Monthly food critic Jarrett Wrisley, who now runs Appia—Bangkok’s best trattoria—while Lin handles Soul Food.
Candice, a multi-talented Taiwanese-American who also teaches calligraphy at Chulalongkorn University, remarks that sexism in the hospitality industry can be extreme, especially working in the front of the house.
“I’ve had my ass grabbed and foot stomped on among other things, even with Soul Food being a pretty classy establishment,” she says, and adds, “the industry is a man’s realm, both in Bangkok and internationally.”
Lin also laments the idolization of chefs these days, with all the TV shows, awards, and social media, which makes out the life of a chef as wild and exciting, when in reality it isn’t. The nuts and bolts of running a restaurant includes water pipes breaking, air-con units not working, and difficulties with staff communication and motivation. However, the flip side of the hardships is that things somehow all come together by the time the doors open each evening, and customers come in and have a good time.
Candice also casts a positive vote for running a business with one’s partner. Although these days Wrisley stays busy with Appia, the two of them still empathize and give constructive advice when it comes to problems either restaurant might be having.
“A true test of a marriage is opening a restaurant together,” she says. “But I couldn’t imagine doing this alone.”
Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava
Chef and co-partner of acclaimed Bo.lan restaurant, Bo Songvisava was given the inaugural award for Best Female Chef in Asia in 2013. Since then, the restaurant has been listed in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, 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 their first names) become the first zero carbon footprint restaurant in Thailand.
After doing a Masters in Gastronomy in Australia, Bo returned to Thailand to hone her skills but ended up in London (at David Thompson’s version of Nahm there), where she met her husband-to-be. The pair decided to return to Bangkok and open a fine dining spot serving authentic Thai food, something that really didn’t exist back then. 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. “We eat more than three times a day and we need to take a look at the damage that we do to the environment,” she adds gravely.
While Bo.lan has focused on fine dining, Dylan and Bo’s sister restaurant Err features urban rustic Thai, and is located 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 upholding this couple’s admirable traditions.
Sarah Chang Chalermkittichai
Born in Boston to a Chinese father and French Canadian mother, Sarah Chang Chalermkittichai graduated Cum Laude from Tufts University, followed that up with a Fulbright Research Grant at Chulalongkorn, and then a Masters in International Finance and Business from Columbia University, before becoming a senior underwriter at a Lloyds of London company. Her work in the financial industry brought her to New York, where she developed an acute interest in the superb food and wine scene happening around Manhattan. This evolved into worldwide explorations, which took on a whole new twist when she met her husband and business partner-to be, famed Thai Chef Ian Chalermkittichai, who at the time had just opened his first US restaurant in Soho. The two combined their professional strengths and lifestyles, starting the food and beverage consulting firm Cuisine Concept Co., Ltd.
Today they are the faces behind Issaya Siamese Club, and Namsaah Bottling Trust, as well as being partners and co-founders of the dapper Hyde & Seek gastro bar. Meanwhile, in New York City they are behind Spot Dessert Bar (multiple outlets), and Tangerine at Resorts World Singapore.
Sarah confirms once again female stereotyping exists everywhere in the restaurateur and chef world, making it one big boy’s club. However, her background in professional finance—also a male-dominated industry—prepared her well for these challenges.
However, one personal issue for Sarah is dealing with people’s perceptions of her as a celebrity chef’s wife. “People often assume I don’t work or just ‘help’ him with things,” she says, but points out that keeping her own last name has helped dispel some of those problems, as it enables her to establish her own identity.
On the topic of women in the restaurant business in Thailand, Sarah remarks that, “There are many women in the workforce in Thailand, and many women in management positions, so I don’t think that when women succeed in the hospitality industry people are surprised, especially now that it is such a big industry here.”
As for working with her partner, Sarah mentions that she and Ian have other work partners, and take on specific roles, which allows them to function independently. However, in their consulting firm it is just the two of them, in terms of final decision making and ownership.
Arisara ‘Paper’ Chongphanitkul
Chef Arisara Chongphanitkul, better known as ‘Chef Paper’, is a rising star on the Thai and international culinary scene. She completed her formal education at the Gastronomicom pastry school in France, and interned at the Beau Rivage Hotel (also in France). She has worked alongside pastry greats such as Sadaharu Aoki and Hugues Pouget in Paris, and Laurent Gerbaud in Brussels. In 2011 she returned to Thailand and started working closely with Chef Ian Kittichai at the award-winning Issaya Siamese Club. In addition to being Issaya La Pâtisserie’s Executive Chef and a founding partner, she is also the Executive Pastry Chef of Issaya Siamese Club. And if you want to marvel at some of her eye-popping creations, she and Ian have produced a beautifully illustrated cookbook featuring the recipes of all their favourite sweets.
Chef Paper confides that her greatest challenges these days are in being a leader and being responsible. She remembers 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 otherwise, and to use this in help finding one’s own style of work. She happily admits that the world of pastry is becoming more and more appreciated and that it has become “edible art”, not just about making sweet things.
As both Executive Chef and owner of Little Beast, a gastro bar serving contemporary French food that has been wowing local diners over the past several years, Nan Bunyasaranand is certainly making her mark in Bangkok. She got her start in the trade via interning at the Mandarin Oriental, and Berlin’s Adlon Kempinski, before enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America to fine tune her skills. After working as a chef in New York she started a private dining company in Bangkok, leading up to the opening of Little Beast.
Chef Nan thinks that it isn’t just challenging being a female chef, but that it is challenging being a chef period! She says it best to put the battle between the sexes aside and just focus on the work. Comparing her stint working in the USA to Thailand, Nan feels that there is sexism to be encountered in both places—more so “verbally” in the States, while in Thailand there’s an older generation of Thai men that can be challenging to deal with.
“I think there will come a time when chefs will just be cooks, not male chefs or female chefs,” she remarks. “And it will be less about who you are and more about the work you do.”
As for why she decided to open a foreign food restaurant as opposed to going Thai, she concedes that she loves eating American comfort food, and as she’s always been cooking Western food it was an easy decision. “Besides,” she adds with a laugh, “in terms of Thai I also feel I’d never be able to cook as well as my mom or my grandma!”
This year’s winner of Asia’s Best Female Chef is May Chow, who opened a twenty-seat Chinese bao burger eatery in Hong Kong in 2013, combining her North American upbringing with her Chinese Heritage. The wildly successful enterprise now has a branch in this city—appropriately named Little Bao BKK—with others in the works, making May an honourary Bangkokian.
As a child, May loved watching her mother cook and serve up large meals to extended family. But her parents didn’t approve of translating that love into a degree, thinking of the life of a chef professionally as more of a low class job. Thus, the dutiful daughter went into a hotel management program at Boston University instead, but also began interning in restaurants (without mentioning it back home). She started selling her bao burgers at a food stall in Hong Kong, with servings selling out every time, and the eatery launched shortly thereafter.
Chow thinks that in Asia, there is still an archaic view of the chef as a low-tier job, with long hours and low pay. Parents tend to think that there are drugs and gambling involved, and thus don’t want their girls to be part of the kitchen. But this is slowly changing.
“When I was younger, I was given the easy jobs because I was a girl,” she recalls. “I wanted to be in the hot kitchen, but was always sent to the cold section. Thus, I stripped some of my “feminine” side to be with the boys. When you are young, you want to fit in, but once you get a bit older, you’re confident enough to move past this.”
Chow has also become a great role model for women in Hong Kong, where there haven’t been many female chefs, and hopes her recent award will help to change that situation, giving young women belief that if they aspire, they can succeed.
For young ladies heading into the industry, Chow thinks Asia should work more on introducing university level culinary education, similar to the USA, adding that currently it’s too “vocational”. She also thinks there needs to be wider curriculum, and not just putting women in hotel internships, but teaching about up-to-date global food trends.
By Dave Stamboulis