With her self-effacing demeanour and cheeky grin, Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn is not what you might expect of one of Asia’s hottest culinary talents. But the baby-faced, 32-year-old chef is as bullish about her own abilities as any heavily tattooed enfant terrible.
‘I’ve developed my own style and I’m happy about that,’ Aom tells me as we chat at Saawaan, the modern Bangkok restaurant that’s just slightly bigger than a hole-in-the-wall and which earned a Michelin star in 2018, the year it opened. ‘What I’ve tried to do is deliver a contemporary take on Thai cooking traditions such as dips, charcoal grilling, soups and curries. I’ve tried to use these techniques in a way that is beautifully presented – but still yummy.’
Aom is by no means the only visionary chef in Bangkok restaurants taking Thailand’s proud gastronomic tradition and giving it a shake. Bangkok has long been a culinary destination, but it’s only recently that Thai chefs have cemented their status at the very pinnacle of the city’s fine-dining scene.
Pioneers such as Nahm, Paste, Le Du and Issaya Siamese Club were influential in applying significant tweaks to the upscale Thai dining experience. They’re now vying with a growing collection of exciting upstarts, including 80/20, Saawaan, Karmakamet Conveyance, Front Room and Sorn – all of which benefit from the cooking skills of Thai chefs.
Insiders on the Bangkok food beat put this explosion of young homegrown talent down to increased overseas training and experience, and the rising standard of the dining scene in the Thai capital. Eight Bangkok restaurants appeared on the 2019 ranking of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, on a par with Hong Kong or Singapore. One strand that everyone – not least the chefs themselves – agrees on is that the arrival of the Michelin Guide back in 2017 has had a profound impact on driving up standards.
Eyebrows were raised when the Thai tourism authority signed a five-year contract with Michelin; it cost about THB143.5 million (HK$35 million) to launch the yearly guide covering Bangkok and other destinations in Thailand. Exorbitant though the price tag might seem, it appears to have been a smart move.
‘Bringing Michelin to Thailand has been money well spent,” says Oliver Irvine, managing editor of lifestyle title BK Magazine. “It was the same with bringing the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards to Bangkok. Recognition like this has established Bangkok as a fine-dining hub where some of the richest travellers in the world will visit simply to spend money in fancy restaurants.’
Rungthiwa ‘Fae’ Chummongkhon, who creates thrillingly original Nordic-Thai cuisine at Front Room, agrees: ‘Michelin has definitely helped prove that Bangkok can be considered a global gastronomic hub, and it has helped chefs here stretch out a bit. People nowadays are willing to pay more to be taken on an innovative dining journey.’
Many of the best young local chefs in Bangkok have already been awarded (or are aiming for) at least one Michelin star. And with inspectors doing the rounds on a yearly basis, chefs say that the pressure to keep standards high is bearing fruit.
‘It means that I need to keep getting better,’ says Aom. ‘Maybe I’m researching different dishes from around Thailand or finding farms where I can source great products. Michelin has forced us all to up our game.’
Experimentation is at the heart of this culinary revolution. At 80/20, head chef Napol ‘Joe’ Jantraget and his Japanese partner Saki Hoshino explore fermentation for their nine-course menu, an epic culinary journey with plenty of surprises. One highlight is duck brushed with whisky and coconut syrup, which is smoked and served with house-made duck sausages, a salad made with Sungyod rice – a prized strain from southern Thailand – and a long pepper curry infused with duck jus.
‘It’s good that people are changing their perspective on Thai food,’ says Joe. ‘Just because it is Thai does not mean that it will always be cheap. Sometimes dishes are plated simply or sound very simple, but a lot of time and effort has been spent on that dish.’
The experimental bent at 80/20 is exemplified by an on-site science laboratory and test kitchen, where glass jars filled with weird and wonderful ingredients are pickled, fermented and marinated, and new recipes developed or discarded.
‘We want to be a doorway for others to know about native and indigenous ingredients,’ says Joe. ‘We continually ask ourselves what it is to be a Thai chef today. We strive for a better understanding of Thai ingredients as well as the local wisdom and its traditions.’
Each of Bangkok’s best newbies sports something unique. At Saawaan, beef salads, crab fat dips, grilled pork neck and spicy-sour soups are reinvented as delicate tasting portions. Sorn applies painstaking attention to detail to the bold, fiery flavours of southern Thailand. Fish is lightly charcoal-grilled for added smokiness while soups are stewed for hours using specially selected beef bones. Karmakamet Conveyance takes a whimsical approach with dishes based on memories and places.
While the new breed of chefs in Bangkok’s restaurants is focused on change and introducing a modern, individualistic spin, they also emphasise the importance of Thai culinary traditions.
‘Thailand has always been a country rich in craftsmanship,’ says Jutamas ‘Som’ Theantae, head chef at Karmakamet Conveyance. ‘You can see that in the detail in traditional artworks and dance costumes. Maybe that’s why there has been a reluctance to experiment in the past. But these days we are much more modernised, and I think that’s the reason chefs are more creative.’
This story was originally published in June 2019 and updated in September 2020