Written by Mika Apichatsakol
Photos by Haw Suepin
March 30, 2023
Chefs Pichaya Utharntharm and Thitid Tassanakajohn, known in the industry as Chef Pam and Chef Ton, respectively, represent a new generation of Thai chefs who are gaining widespread recognition, not just for their own careers, but for Thai cuisine.
On a day-to-day, whether dining at home or outside, Thailand’s population of 70 million predominantly enjoys its ethnic cuisine. Yet, when it comes to “special occasion” dining, it’s almost as if the greatest level of juxtaposition is required for the experience to feel exciting and worthwhile, especially in the form of an obvious cultural contrast. West versus East. Or even a different kind of East versus our kind of East. But there’s a new generation of highly skilled Thai chefs who want to change this perspective.
We begin in Bangkok’s Yaowarat area, at the latest venture of decorated young chef and former Top Chef Thailand judge “Pam” Pichaya Utharntharm. Chef Pam’s restaurant, Potong, is situated inside a century-old shophouse in Chinatown that was once her Hokkien ancestors’ pharmacy. It was the history of the building itself and a desire to create something new that was also rooted in the rich past, which inspired the chef to open Thailand’s first progressive Thai-Chinese restaurant.
The notion of Thai-Chinese cuisine hits home for many Thais. Believe it or not, Thailand has the world’s largest Chinese community outside of greater China, explaining why much of the culture here is tied to Chinese customs and beliefs. Chinatown, therefore, is a hot spot for Thais to reconnect with and celebrate their ancestry, especially through food. This is very much true for Potong’s chef, too.
Her father Chinese-Australian and her mother Thai-Chinese, Pam’s parents were both raised in Bangkok’s Yaowarat area and ultimately crossed paths there. Pam explains that she is very much influenced by her mother, who was in charge of feeding the family. “Growing up, I learned a lot from her, whether it’s where to find the finest local ingredients, how to prepare them and serve them, or simply recognising what authenticity tastes like. Food is also something that brings our family together, an experience I want to simulate at Potong.”
Pam describes her 20-course menu at Potong as “historical, spiritual, and emotional”. Changing seasonally, some of the flavours you might find in the current menu include five spices, aged duck, cashew, palm juice, mooncake, Sichuan pepper, Chinese fig, watermelon, and pineapple. These components, while commonplace to locals, are utilised in such innovative and mind-blowing ways that, barely a year in the business, Potong has already received a Michelin star and more importantly, a reputation in the foodie industry.
As a chef who is well-travelled and has been trained in some of the most prestigious culinary institutions in the world, Pam remains most interested in Thailand and Thai heritage when it comes to her craft. “Thailand’s food scene has evolved so much in the last few years. There are things which I feel that we have that others don’t, but there’s also more that can be done here. It’s an exciting time for Thailand, and I believe we’ll be seeing more cross-cultural Thai cuisine in the near future,” she says.
Not too far away from Potong in Silom is the progressive Thai flagship of Thitid Tassanakajohn, or Chef Ton. Called Le Du, which is a French-looking romanisation of the word for “seasons” in Thai, the restaurant’s menu and concept is centred around seasonal, local ingredients. Despite the restaurant and chef’s current fame and success, Ton shares that innovation naturally came with a lot of doubt and pushback.
“People have this misconception, especially locals, that Thai food is always supposed to be cheap because we’re using local products, as opposed to imported ones. I think this is the challenge that someone in my position faces.” Fortunately, the understanding and appreciation for Thai fine dining and local ingredients are starting to come through, in part thanks to the sustainability movement becoming a mainstay across industries and a new enthusiasm for non-European-centric fine dining among seasoned diners, but this has taken a long time, considering an early visionary like Ton.
“Ten years ago when I opened Le Du, people laughed at the idea of using Thai ingredients for a fine dining restaurant. Now every new restaurant is promoting the use of local ingredients. It’s a good trend, and I’m proud to be one of the ones who brought that into the Thai food scene,” says Chef Ton.
He makes a very important point about value for money. “Thai ingredients are becoming very good and shouldn’t be considered inferior to their foreign counterparts. Our farmers and fishermen should be fairly compensated for the passion that they put into their work.” When you spend as much time with suppliers as Chef does, you get to see with your eyes the work that goes into creating their products, at which point you wouldn’t be so eager to question paying a premium price for them.
“If we don’t support the Thai agricultural community, they won’t be able to continue developing the quality of their ingredients.” Ton offers an example: “This is one of the reasons we never got to have good beef in Thailand. Thais are willing to spend a lot of money on Australian or Japanese wagyu, but when it comes to local beef, the reaction to the price tends to be, ‘why do I have to pay this much for Thai beef?’”
This is something that the chef would like to see his peers, as well as customers, embrace. “It needs to involve every player in the dining scene,” says Chef, adding that “fine dining is fine dining, whether it’s Italian, French, or Thai.
An ambassador for Thai cuisine through and through, with ventures like Le Du, Nusara, Baan, Mayrai (a pad Thai and natural wine bar), and his latest Thai seafood-focused fine dining restaurant in Phuket, Samut, Ton says another misconception he encounters in his work is the one that assumes Thai food is always very hot and spicy; one-dimensional.
“On the contrary, there are actually many Thai dishes that do not require any spiciness, and then with the dishes that do, there’s actually so much more going on beyond spiciness in terms of flavour.” With his numerous Thai outlets, Ton is on a mission to educate diners about the complexity of the flavours in Thai cuisine. Yes, Thai food is known for hitting you in the face with flavour, but break it down beyond spiciness and there’s sweetness, sourness, tanginess, and saltiness in a complex dance where each plays a role and no one overpowers the other. “The balance and combination are what make a good Thai dish, in my opinion,” says Ton.
Circling back to his love of local ingredients, complexity isn’t just a product of Ton’s expert preparation but something which is found in Thai ingredients themselves. “My favourite ingredient to work with is—besides anything that’s in season—is palm sugar,” says the chef. “Real palm sugar, which you get from the top of the palm, is sweet but with a complexity when you reduce it in the pan. It’s not like regular, processed sugar that’s sweet but biting on the palate. For me, palm sugar is a gift from nature, smooth, chemical-free, and my most favourite Thai ingredient to cook with.”
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