Written by Mika Apichatsakol
“The Dessert Issue”, June 2023
When you think of fine desserts in Bangkok, it’s difficult not to think of Mia Restaurant where Chef Michelle Goh not only closes the tasting menus with her sweet, exquisite creations but also serves an adventurous “omakase dessert” experience below the main dining rooms at an intimate six-seater counter.
“You can’t fake it when it comes to pastry,” says Pongcharn “Top” Russell. “You have to be truly qualified and disciplined to know how to make pastry.” He’s talking about his partner-in-crime and in-life, Michelle Goh, the pastry chef at Bangkok’s modern European fine dining restaurant, Mia. Michelle herself tells me that her and Top’s dynamic in the kitchen is one of yin and yang, where she’s the more rigid and organised one, while Top is the kitchen’s free spirit.
“I like to think that I keep him grounded and that in turn, he helps me loosen up a little bit,” says Michelle. “I do all the paperwork, ordering, and most of the staff management, while he’s the one with all the bright ideas and the one who usually implements fun into the kitchen.”
While the pair collaborates pretty evenly on the menus at Mia, Michelle uniquely brings to the table a decade of experience in pastries and desserts. The Malaysian native first caught the baking bug in high school and made the decision to move to Australia after graduating, to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney. After culinary school, she worked in pastry at a few fine dining establishments in Sydney and Melbourne, before moving to Singapore in 2015 to work at Pollen, a fine dining restaurant where she would meet Top. Eventually, Top pitched her the idea of moving to Bangkok, and so they did in 2016 and opened Mia with restaurateur Julien Imbert in 2020.
But, of course, 2020 was a difficult year for anyone to open a restaurant. Mia was shut down twice due to Bangkok’s Covid-19 lockdowns, leaving Michelle and Top a lot of time to think about the direction of their restaurant. Originally conceptualised as a casual dining venue, they decided to pivot Mia towards what they were both good at: fine dining. Three years onward, in addition to its seasonal tasting menus, Mia now has a new bar downstairs with an omakase-style dessert experience that really puts Michelle’s talents for elegant and inventive pastries on centre stage. An after-dinner occasion, the experience takes guests on a sweet adventure in five courses plus cocktail pairing.
When asked to describe what her pastry style is like for those who have yet to experience it first-hand, Michelle explains, “After learning all the basics of classical pastry in school, I worked with a Korean pastry chef, who had a very—what the industry likes to call—‘gypsy’ approach to pasty. For example, she had a cheesecake that was made from tofu, which she paired with coffee, blueberries, and matcha. She also had another dessert that featured a sweet potato pastry cream, served with miso and soy sauce ice cream.
It sounds unconventional, but when you really think about it, in Asia, we do use sweet potato and a lot of other ‘savoury’ ingredients in our desserts.”
This freedom of choice informs much of Michelle’s creativity at Mia. For example, one of the signature desserts on the menu is Mia’s Cereal Bowl. It’s inspired by shaved ice desserts paired with various condiments and toppings that Southeast Asian countries each seem to have their own version of— Malaysia and Thailand included.
“There’s an iteration of this that I’ve never seen outside of my hometown in Malaysia that my sister loves. It consists of canned corn, condensed milk, and Milo powder,” Michelle shares. “When you consider it, those ingredients are a very breakfasty combination, so that’s how I came up with the Cereal Bowl dessert for Mia. We make a Milo cream and our own homemade cereal mix with popcorn, chocolate crumble, and dehydrated milk. Then we have our corn ice cream on top and a cornflakes-infused milk on the side, to pour.”
Another thing Michelle considers when creating a dessert experience is a predecessor to the main dessert—a pre-dessert, if you will. “Normally for the pre-dessert, I always choose a vegetable paired together with a fruit because when you have your main course and you switch over to dessert that’s so sweet, sometimes it’s a bit jarring. A vegetable brings in a little bit of that savoury flavour and makes the transition smoother.”
I have heard bits and bobs about Michelle and Top’s remarkable management style over the years and finally in their presence for the first time, I wanted to hear all about it directly from the source. Michelle tells me about how Mia differs from what is still considered the norm in the industry.
“A lot of restaurants in Thailand still make people work six days, but we do only five days a week. We make sure. that every day we give staff a one-hour break and that we firmly stick to it and make sure that our staff go on break. The idea is when you’re at work, you give 100 per cent, and when it’s time to switch off, you really switch off.
We wanted to build a culture whereby you’re allowed to enjoy your day off without us calling you and bothering you. But then, when you come to work, you are expected to be focused and pay attention.”
The chef also tells us that, compared to many traditional fine dining establishments, there’s no separation between the pastry team and the main kitchen at Mia. “Pastry takes a lot of time, for example, to make the bread or the various moving parts that you have to freeze before you unmould—it always takes time. Normally, the pastry chefs are the ones who come in first, and yet by the time they’re finished, half the kitchen has already left.” Top and Michelle make sure everyone on the team starts and finishes work at the same time. “Otherwise it’s not fair,” says Michelle.
They also take staff meals seriously at Mia, making sure that meals for the team are high quality and that everyone contributes, because on the flip side, in many kitchen dynamics, the pastry section is usually exempt from cooking for the team. “Our pastry staff make meals just like everyone else,” Michelle informs me.
When asked where the motivation for all this comes from, Michelle talks about a shift away from the culture of cyclical abuse and burnout that occurs in the industry—a movement that she and her partner are proud to be a part of. She shares with me some of her past experiences before having the opportunity to run a kitchen on her own terms.
“When I was just starting out in my career, it was a time when people expected you to sacrifice everything for your job—your time, your health, your body, your emotional and mental wellbeing. It was the norm. They also expected you not to complain and to take the abuse. This kind of bully culture was just rife in kitchens, which is already a hazardous environment with how hot it can get, the long hours you’re on your feet, and the handling of equipment under pressure.”
Michelle recalls times in their career when she and Top would be left with no energy and no motivation on their days off from work. They would spend their day off trying to recover from burnout, just to have to go right back into it. “It’s just the wrong way to look at your job,” Michelle says. “So when we came to Thailand, for Top especially, it was our personal mission to cultivate the next generation of Thai chefs. That’s why we really tried to make working at Mia an acceptable environment where you don’t have to take abuse, and instead of dreading of coming to work, you can look forward to it.”
I can’t help but to feel that there is some connection between how chefs treat their staff and how they treat their customers. Another way Mia stands out among its peers, particularly to me, is its open-mindedness towards plant-based cuisine. Whereas many fine dining restaurants in Bangkok still struggle in this day and age to cater to plant-based diners, Mia proudly highlights dedicated vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. I asked Michelle once again where the motivation came from.
“One of my good friends back in the day was a service staff, and she was vegan. We would go out to eat together on our time off, and one time when we went to a casual place, the only thing they could make her was pasta aglio olio. So that kind of stuck with me and when we had Mia, I thought, ‘Let’s do a vegan menu and launch it during the Jay Festival.’” The feedback for Top and Michelle’s meatless menu was so positive, they decided to keep it on there all year long.
Today, if you go to Mia and select the vegan tasting menu, you’ll find palatable innovations such as grilled kohlrabi with cashew milk and mint oil, flaxseed cavatelli with rocket pesto, a pre-dessert version of the Waldorf salad, and dark chocolate ganache with coconut ice cream and macadamia for the main dessert.
But whether it’s vegan or not, it’s clear that Mia’s dynamic duo approaches all their menus with the same level of effort and consideration. Behind their curtain of culinary refinement is a simpler recipe for creating excitement and good memories on a plate. Michelle explains, “First and foremost, Top and I always cook food that we like to eat ourselves. So, we always put the ability to enjoy food at the forefront; it has to be like tasty; it has to be delicious. Apart from that, we try to make something that’s a little bit more interesting. So, I guess when we make food for our customers, we seek to create surprise and enjoyment.”
To book your table, visit Mia Restaurant website or call 098-862-9659. Mia Restaurant is located at 30 Attha Kawi 1, Sukhumvit Soi 26.
The Dessert Issue, highlighting the joys of sweet cuisine as well as drinks. Mia Restaurant’s Michelle Goh is plated on our cover surrounded by her own beautifully handcrafted chocolate bonbons, reminding us of the artistry in pastry and desserts.
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