On The Pass with Chef Tam of Baan Tepa

Written by Christopher Menning | December 2, 2019

Chef Tam speaking about Gastronomy

Chef Tam of Baan Tepa

Chef Chudaree “Tam” Debhakam has made a name for herself travelling the world to showcase modern Thai cuisine. She is an advocate of food waste reduction after being the Chef Ambassador for Thai Harvest/ SOS and UNEP campaigns 2015 – 2017 and she was crowned the first winner of Top Chef Thailand whilst also being the youngest in the competition. To say she is a leader in her field would be an understatement. 

Her background in farm-driven cuisine from her tenure at Blue Hill by Chef Dan Barber in New York piqued her interest to replicate a similar authentic approach to cooking in Thailand. 

After travelling around her home country exploring more of her heritage and learning about the abundance of produce available, she came back to Bangkok to transform her Grandmother’s historic home into an urban food space complete with a chef’s table restaurant, open kitchen and a small garden to cultivate local herbs and vegetables.

 

The garden at Baan Tepa by chef tam
The garden at Baan Tepa

The concept of Baan Tepa is a reflection of Chef Tam’s approach to cooking and her philosophy on sustainability. At Baan Tepa it is clear to see the ingredients are at the heart of their cuisine. 

A hyper-local approach to sourcing ingredients and being mindful of food waste is one of the reasons they placed number 79 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 51-100 list.  

Baan Tepa’s philosophy is to curate and create environmentally conscious, locally inspired menus and learning new things alongside local communities. This is the heart of the Tepa way.

We wanted to catch up with Chef Tam in her stunning ‘culinary space’ of Baan Tepa and learn more.

chef-tam-in-her-herb-garden-2
Chef Chudaree “Tam” Debhakam in Baan Tepa's garden

When did your career in food first start?

Chef Tam: “So I guess I started when I went to culinary school. I graduated from University in the UK and then I kind of realized I didn’t want to pursue jobs in the degree I was studying. 

So I went to culinary school in New York City and then started working for Dan Barber straight after the blue hill at Stone Barn I did that for about three years and I guess I never really look back from the kitchen after that.”

Can you tell us a bit about the restaurant here and your philosophy in cooking?

Chef Tam: “So basically it links back to my experience at Blue Hill because coming back here to Bangkok after 3 years of working there was difficult.

I wasn’t sure why where I wanted to go or which restaurants I wanted to work for so I was doing my own little pop-ups and events.

I travelled around Thailand quite a bit to source my ingredients. I wanted a space to collect all these ingredients and discover all the flavours so I can create new tasting menus. So we decided to renovate this place.

 This used to be my grandmothers old home. No one has lived here for about ten years 10-12 years. It’s a little bit out of the city, but it gives us room to play around and have a garden and grow our own food. 

So the whole concept behind Baan Tepa, is showcasing local Thai ingredients and you heritage varieties that are almost lost and not very well known to the modern Thai person. It’s goof to connect the cooks in the kitchen to the garden so they can grow their own produce and understanding the ingredients. 

It’s also important to manage what we create as waste after cooking for all these people so its kind of like full circle. A true culinary space.”

Baan Tepa Kitchen front door

Can you tell us about the garden?

Chef Tam: “Actually where we grow the ingredients we use is quite a small space. We have to be conservative. However, we do have some seating area in the back for guests with a cafe.

 I think I like the idea of an outdoor Cafe in Bangkok. It’s pretty hard in the city to go somewhere not too far and feel like you’re close to nature. I wanted to create that environment whilst also giving our guests insight into what they’re going to eat and drink that day.”

How about some of the ingredients you mentioned that aren’t that well known?

Chef Tam: “I like strange herbs and old varieties that you wouldn’t see going to a usual Thai restaurant. Because we don’t have that much growing space we have to pick herbs that have very strong characteristics. 

Some of the ingredients are Pak ka-yang, pak sompoi, bai hoosua which is like Mexican mint. yod maroom and stuff that I’m excited about are the weeds that grow naturally like pakkad nokkhao.”

How did you find all of these spices and herbs? Was it because of the travelling?

Chef Tam: “I learnt this all myself travelling and meeting a lot of the producers. Most of the time the things that I want for the menu are usually the things that they’re not selling and keep to eat themselves! They say “you shouldn’t buy this you couldn’t sell it, because people don’t know it”. That is what is more interesting for me as a cook.”

Chef Tam and her team on the pass at Baan Tepa

Is it quite fun to be able to showcase these ingredients and are you customers usually surprised?

Chef Tam: “I mean depends on the guest! Honestly, some guests will be like what the hell is this? you know they will just look at you with blank faces like okay, we’re going to eat this but we have no idea what’s in it! 

We try to do a bit of storytelling like an introduction to where the ingredients are from and who the producers are. Most of the time they’re excited and they ask questions and they want to know more which is great.”

Can you tell me about one of your star dishes right now?

Chef Tam: “We have these little snack bites like a Choux pastry that we stuff with chicken livers and a tamarind jaew dip. 

This is inspired by Street food like grilled chicken livers still served with Jaew but we present it in a completely more refined way. Not very Thai at all.

But it’s surprising to the guest because when they eat it, it’s a familiar taste. A really seasonal one right now is the wing shell that we get from Koh Pha Ngan. It’s served with a heirloom carrot sauce. 

We infuse the sauce with a curry base and dried fish so again Very Thai tasting but when you look at it doesn’t look that Thai. Another popular dish is our own house-made Roti. So that’s made with rice flour as well. 

We like to cook with different varieties of rice to showcase how versatile rice can be and not just eaten as sticky or steamed rice.”

And being in the culinary world, can you tell us about how you have seen Thailand evolve in terms of its diversity of food?

Chef Tam: “Since I moved back here from New York in 2015 there has been a huge change. When I first came back to Thailand I wasn’t inspired. I didn’t feel like there was anywhere that had the same or similar philosophy as Blue Hill did which is cooking hyper-local. 

No one was showcasing new ways of eating Thai food. 

But now I can see everyone experimenting and people are so much more open-minded. Very local ingredients are now well-received and valued for the most part. 

So I feel like that’s a big change and younger people are more willing to learn about Thai ingredients and also more willing to try them.”

And Gastronomic tourism is on the rise, despite the setback of COVID, how do you feel Thailand should proceed to keep this going?

Chef Tam: “Right now everyone is on survival mode. Honestly, without any tourists, it’s been tough for all restaurants. 

However, everyone has been supporting each other and I feel pleased that everyone has come together. Especially during the time that we all had to switch to delivery. 

The industry support has been great.  I guess we have to keep going this way and just keep serving up new and exciting things. We all certainly need local support. I think that’s really important. 

We need Thai people to travel around Thailand and to go out to eat at their Local Thai restaurant’s. It keeps us alive. I think that’s one way to do it. Next is to be prepared for tourists to come back, I’m not sure whether restaurant regulations need to be stricter or not but we will be ready.”

Learn more about Baan Tepa

To learn more about the culinary space at Baan Tepa or to book you can visit their website here: 

baantepabkk.com

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