“Thai food needs a revolution,” says Tithid “Ton” Tassanakajohn, at 30-years-old already the head chef of Le Du and two other restaurants, speaking the creed of all who share his youthful zeal. “I always hear about nouvelle French, nouvelle Kaiseki. Now I want to help make the same thing happen here.”
Watch out, Asia’s Top 50! There’s a new generation of chefs, internationalized in training and outlook and ambitious to expand their native city’s dining choices, beginning to make their mark in Bangkok.
A decade earlier, you would have found Ton in Laughlin, Nevada, of all places, where he had gone on a lark to work in a casino. Originally a degree holder in economics, he had worked two months in a bank. “Those were the longest two months of my life,” he now confesses. “I knew I could never work an office job like that.” Eventually, he gravitated to New York and graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.), then honed his skills in two of the city’s greatest restaurants, Jean-George and 111 Madison Park. “But,” he recalls, “I always knew I wanted to come back and be a part of seeing my country change.”
Though a small establishment down a side-alley with the décor of a 1950’s nightclub, his flagship Le Du, founded two years ago, has already had a great impact in helping define a modern direction for Thai cooking (his fish terrine, soft-shell crab in curry, and deconstructed khao chae are trend-setting dishes in themselves). Though he was warned that he’d go bankrupt within three months of cooking this kind of food, he has recently expanded operations to open Baan, or “house,” that honours old family recipes and Baa/Ga/Din (see our review on pages 14-15), a more casual place to experiment in small dishes to accompany drinks. “It all happened so fast, but the spaces just got available,” says Ton, who describes his approach as “very Thai in flavour, but more refined in presentation.”
Much as he has wanted to charge ahead, he says a talk at C.I.A. by El Bulli’s Ferran Adriá affected him greatly. “He warned everyone not to go molecular without first knowing the basics of cuisine. And Thai food is what I grew up on, and I don’t believe you can really improve on the past, when they had all day in the palace to come up with the perfect balance.” He also credits Nahm’s David Thompson as his mentor, explaining, “David is the one who always supports young Thai chefs and talks about them wherever he goes.”
And he’s proud to be part of a swift transformation in Bangkok’s dining scene. “There are so many small, stand-alone restaurants [now], and they just seem to get better all the time,” he observes. “People don’t come here anymore just to sample the street food—they are coming with a list of new restaurants to try.” After all, he says, “It’s too easy just to put out lobster and salmon with caviar on top.” He prefers wild mushrooms and pickled shallots.
“I have to keep up because food here is moving fast, super-fast, faster than fashion,” he says. “But I’m still quite young and have to keep growing.”
The same could be said about Rangsima “Nan” Bunyasaranand, whose path back to Bangkok has followed a similar trajectory. Also a C.I.A. graduate, she too had an apprenticeship at Jean-Georges, then got the chance to learn from the famed Thomas Keller with a stint at Per Se. “That’s where I learned how to think about food, compose a dish, set standards high,” says this diminutive bundle of energy with a short hairstyle and a smile that lights up the room when welcoming diners to her Thong Lo mini-gastro-bar, Little Beast (see our review on page 78).
While the mascot is a bulldog, a la Adriá, she says friends suggested it because the place is “very small but with big flavours” and she, too, is “little and can be a bit of a beasty.” She clearly means that in the good sense of being tenaciously dedicated to what she does.
“When I returned to Thailand in ’07, I encountered a lot of sexism, a lot of discouragement, and scepticism from Thai customers about being a female chef,” she concedes. Yet the establishment she created serves up a French-influenced menu, surprisingly “meat focused,” that seems far more sophisticated and detailed than its homey, neighbourhood setting. But so far, she has no plans to expand. “Little Beast is my baby,” she says. “And it would be hard to let go.”
While trying hard to please her customers, she’s not above some playful experimentation—as with what has to be the only “Chinese brunch” in Bangkok, perhaps the world. Among the Sunday morning items she puts forth are a mock shark fin soup with Ibérico ham, shu mai with foie gras, and a single oyster bathed in an amazing sabayon flavoured with Shaoxing rice wine. “I am the kind of chef who loves coming in every day, making the stock, getting my hands dirty,” explains Nan. “And the ultimate happiness for me is seeing people coming together over my food.”
Another remarkable woman, the transgendered “Ann” Kanarak, has also brought forth a remarkable new landmark in Bangkok’s burgeoning food scene. Opened just three months ago, in an old brick shophouse along Phra Sumen Road, the brashly-named Bangkok Bold is a one-table, one-woman cooking studio, both for small cooking classes and a nightly chef’s table that has proved very popular. “We can hold six to ten, but some groups are even willing to sit in tiny chairs against the wall,” she says.
And the draw here is not as much experimentation as it is a deep fealty to real Thai fare. Sent to school in Sydney, Ann began cooking Thai dishes for her Australian friends and won so much praise that she tried for a job at David Thompson’s original Darley St. Thai. Another protégé of the Thompson school, known for its emphasis on researched recipes and homemade spice mixes, Ann credits the chef as her “inspiration,” explaining that “once I saw what he could do as a non-Thai, I had to ask myself why Thais can’t do just as well.” She eventually returned to Bangkok to work at Nahm, and followed that up with a longer stint with more responsibilities at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Thanks to her and so many other “revolutionaries” on the Bangkok scene—among them, the driven Euro-Kaiseki master of Aston (see pages 90-91 for our interview with Chef Zra)—Thais are not only getting the devotion that true gastronomy requires, but also tastes of the city’s thrilling culinary future.
Declares Le Du’s Chef Ton, “However much we honour the past, we all know that cuisines have to keep evolving or they can die.”
BY John Krich