As we highlight in this year’s edition of Thailand Tatler’s Best Restaurants Guide, much to the delight of Bangkok’s foodies, the city’s fine dining scene has given rise to a clutch of award-winning restaurants that are considered world class. But with patrons continually hungry for ever unique gastronomic encounters, a number of our top cooks are creating new attractions using the chef’s table concept for a distinctive and engaging private dining experience. We had a chat with five of them to get a peek into their journeys in the world of curated culinary arts, as well as with a restaurateur who has recently embarked on an even more refined one-table venture.
1. Chef Art
A popular chef’s table in the Ekamai area is run by experienced chef Art Supamongkol Supapipat. Growing up watching his mother cook and being part of a big family that valued dinnertime gatherings instilled in him a profound appreciation for food at an early age. A little-known fact about chef Art is that as a young lad he was an avid swimmer and received a sports scholarship to Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. “The Olympics was once a personal goal of mine,” he says. But his interest in the culinary world never waned and when the time came to decide on a career choice he went for it. “It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to ask for permission to study cooking,” he laughs. With the blessing of his father and advice to pursue his dreams with passion and hard work, Art returned to Thailand to train as a chef. [Swipe to continue reading.]
Following his graduation from Dusit Thani College, a training programme in the kitchen of a small boutique hotel in Holland followed. It was a tough start but chef Art reminds us it takes a lot of willpower and perseverance. “I started at the bottom,” he says. “I spent a month just washing and prepping vegetables before I actually got to cook anything.” It is this experience overseas that really turned him into the kitchen guru he is today. “I think it is important not to skip any steps,” he explains. “When you start at the bottom and experience all the facets of working in a kitchen, that is how you strengthen your foundation and truly learn. It also taught me a great deal about team work.” For him, becoming a good chef works much like a pyramid. With the absence of a strong foundation, there is a lack of solidity. [Swipe to continue reading.]
His guests today at Chef’s Table by Chef Art enjoy an array of Western dishes, mostly French and Italian, which he prepares by adding his own personal touches and style to them. While prices vary according to the number of guests and courses, 3,500 baht is the starting price. The desire to offer new experiences is what led him to focus on a chef’s table concept. “I also hate commuting around the city with all the traffic so catering to people from my home is definitely an advantage,” he smiles.
While culinary modernity and experimentation is another booming trend, chef Art focuses on the old and traditional. “I’ve tried molecular and modern cuisine but it’s not really my cup of tea. My motto is classics never die,” he says. This gives you a glimpse of what his menus are like. “The thing about a chef’s table is that people can tell you what they want to eat and then leave it up to the chef to get innovative. I think the strangest thing I have been asked to cook is pig’s brain,” Art laughs. But this is part of the challenge—having to use one’s own creativity and skills to satisfy the needs of the clients. Though he loves cooking, Art admits a chef’s table is not something he will do forever. Eventually his goal is to take a very long vacation and travel the world with his wife.
2. Chef Vichit
A celebrated veteran in Thai culinary circles, chef Vichit Mukura made a name for himself heading the kitchen at Sala Rim Naam at the Mandarin Oriental. After 27 years, it took a long decision-making process for the executive chef to finally resign from the famous hotel to pursue a culinary project that he could call his own. His latest venture, Khao restaurant, has created quite a buzz. Also located in the Ekamai neighbourhood, the restaurant offers innovative takes on traditional Thai dishes. A separate room located at the back of the establishment is where exclusive chef’s table dining is a highly sought-after option, which will set your bank account back by at least 4,990 baht. [Swipe to continue reading.]
“My emphasis has always been on Thai flavours combined with premium produce and ingredients from around the world,” shares Vichit. As a chef he appreciates food but is first and foremost a Thai and this permeates through the dishes he creates. Throughout his career, he has not only strived to share his knowledge and appreciation of Thai food with the world but also to place this traditional fare up there with the rest of the world’s fine dining cuisines.
His chef’s table offerings comprise from six to 10 courses and cater to a maximum of 13 diners at any one time. If you want a seat at the table, you should book well in advance. “Initially, we thought most of our clients would be foreign but right now around 80 per cent of our chef’s table clients are Thai and many are repeat customers,” Vichit says. Having clients return regularly is gratifying but also presents a challenge. “You have to constantly find new ways of doing things or come up with new dishes each time,” he laughs. That said, it is precisely his ability to create innovative dishes while preserving the essence of Thai cuisine that has caught so much attention.
Why is his restaurant called Khao? “As a Thai chef, I think it’s important to understand and know as much as possible about rice,” Vichit explains. “After all, we are a leading rice exporter and the cultivation of rice is part of our national tradition. This is what led me to grow my own rice down in Pattaya. The truth is I can’t live without rice,” he laughs. [Swipe to continue reading.]
Throughout his career Vichit has had the opportunity to cook for global celebrities and heads of state but his culinary odyssey had rather prosaic beginnings. He developed a passion for cooking at an early age and as a boy he would help his mother in the kitchen at home. By the age of 10 was preparing his own simple meals to take to school.
From humble beginnings, his success wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter. “As a teenager my first jobs working in a professional kitchen involved washing dishes, mopping the floors and organising various condiments and ingredients among other things,” he recalls. “I started at the very bottom of the ladder.” But the years of hard graft paid off when, at the age of 24, he was appointed as a full-time chef at the Mandarin Oriental. Vichit says that focus, endurance, perseverance and an openness to continually learn new things are paramount to becoming a good chef. “Unless you have spent hours and hours standing and sweating in a hot and busy kitchen, you simply don’t know what it takes to be a chef,” he says. “It is also about team management and so much more.”
3. Chef Pam
Pichaya Utharntharm, otherwise known as chef Pam, is a force to be reckoned with. Even if you are not familiar with her cuisine, you may well have seen her on television as a judge on Top Chef Thailand, which made its debut here last year. At the age of 21, Pam was the youngest chef to win the 2011 Asia Youth Hope Cooking competition by Les Disciples d’Escoffier. Later in France, she placed second at the Young Talent 2012 contest. [Swipe to continue reading.]
After accomplishing courses at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit culinary school in Bangkok, her eagerness to learn more compelled her to travel to New York where she became a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. Over the years Pam has accumulated work experience in some of the finest establishments—Jean-George, where she was mentored by chef Jean-George Vongerrichten and chef Mark Lapico, Grand Hyatt Erawan and Le Beaulieu to name a few. These are experiences that have helped shape the refined culinary skills that she practises today.
“When I returned from abroad I was so driven and full of energy,” she smiles. “I wanted to open my own restaurant.” But while the idea was brewing in her head, her mother began to invite groups of friends over for whom Pam would cook. “The feedback was great and I think that’s really what led to catering private dinners at people’s homes.” Things picked up rapidly for Pam. The idea of opening a restaurant was put on hold and it is within the comforts of her home that she now regularly offers an exclusive chef’s table dining experience. A seat—literally at her own dining table—is difficult to score now.
It has been a fruitful journey of self discovery but today she has her own techniques and style of cooking that are very much her own. “Salt, acid, spices, texture and the Maillard reaction—the interaction between heat and the acids and sugars in food that produce a browning effect—are the five elements that I have learned to master,” Pam shares. She is very experimental with her cooking. [Swipe to continue reading.]
While her menus change, the one constant is Western cuisine prepared with an Asian touch. A customer favourite is her creatively concocted kale rolls. “I travel a lot and whenever I discover something I like, be it a spice or an entirely new dish, I try to use it so that my chef’s table offerings are unique and surprising for the clients,” she says. “One advantage of a chef’s table is that there is no fixed cost and you can calculate the amount of food. Moreover, it gives people a new kind of experience that can be customised to their preferences. And it is also more intimate.”
While much of her produce is imported, Pam tries to locally source her ingredients where she can, which also means regular strolls in the fresh markets around Bangkok. “Food is passion and memories,” she says. “I truly believe dining is something that can be experienced on a spiritual level.” Looking to the future, a fine dining restaurant of her own is still very much in her mind but she is adamant about cooking for everyone. “Firstly, I want to open a place that is affordable for all,” she smiles. For now, she is content with her chef’s table, offered at a minimum charge of 3,500 baht and while she is glad to see Thailand’s food scene booming, she would also like to see more consciousness when it comes to food waste. “It’s perhaps easier said than done, but it would be great to see more people actively trying to tackle this issue.”
4. Chef Tam
Up and coming chef Tam, or Chudaree Debhakam, is one of Thailand Tatler’s Generation T listers and winner of the Top Chef Thailand. Unlike our other interviewees, Tam does not do a chef’s table full-time as a regular business, but rather organises them occasionally. “Between cooking for an entire restaurant or a private chef’s table, I prefer the latter,” she says. More importantly for this mindful chef who shares her concern on the perpetual problem of food waste in Thailand, a chef’s table enables her to express herself in a more controlled setting and avoid wasting food. “When you know exactly how many people you are prepping for, you know exactly how much food you need to buy,” says Tam. “From the perspective of guests, I think people simply enjoy the privacy and experience of having an entire kitchen catering to them.” Of course, there is also the added value of being entertained as guests can interact with the chef. [Swipe to continue reading.]
“People tend to think I cook either Thai or Western food,” she says. “In fact, what I make doesn’t really have any labels. The technique I use is very much French but of course there are Thai influences like frying with a wok and using certain local ingredients.” Ninety per cent of her ingredients are locally sourced which differentiates her from many chefs. “I don’t rely on imported products,” says Tam. “I generally use produce from farmers that I know, so trust the provenance of the ingredients. You can never be too careful with all the hormones and chemicals found in produce these days.” It is this constant venturing to different parts of the country to meet local growers that makes it difficult for Tam to organise a regular chef’s table because she is always on the move.
To better understand her approach to cooking and her attention to healthy produce, one must look at how her journey into the culinary world began in her teen years. “I was a very sporty person in school,” she says. “I was also very interested in nutrition, always calculating nutritional values.” A graduate in food and nutrition science at the University of Nottingham, Tam decided she wanted to work in a restaurant that focussed on calculating food values for sick people. “That was my first time in a proper kitchen,” she says. “It was extremely tough working under a lot of pressure, having to be organised and so careful about everything. But I loved being in that environment.” [Swipe to continue reading.]
Despite the hardships, the experience outweighed her time in the laboratory doing food research, leading her to eventually set out for New York to gain more cooking experience. A farm-to-table course followed. During her time in the United States, she worked at Jean-George, 11 Madison Park and has also worked alongside chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
When she isn’t cooking, Tam enjoys doing culinary research. Today, she is on a quest of her own having moved to newer things, pop-up projects that enable her to share her farm-to-table philosophy with a wider audience. “In the future I would like to create a place where I can grow my own food and serve it,” she says. “And I would love to cook for more sick patients because the root of so many illnesses is food related.”
Sharing the same emphasis on exclusivity as the chef’s table concept is newly established Mighty, a one-table dining venue founded by Italian restaurateur Renzo Ambrosini, Thai chef Kongsak Likhitchanyakul and entrepreneur Tanasit Chaiyaporn. [Swipe to continue reading.]
While the idea of catering to a single table has shades of a chef’s table dining, Mighty differs in that it offers what can be described as an a la carte-in-advance menu. This enables clients to pick not only precisely what they wish to eat ahead of time but also to choose how many courses they would like—ranging from four to six. With chef Kongsak heading the kitchen, revisiting classical dishes using high quality ingredients is the culinary emphasis here. “We choose not to represent one cuisine in particular,” says Ambrosini. He adds, “We believe the future of a truly gastronomic experience lies in a restaurant with one table. It allows the customer to discover the true meaning of a banquet. The particularity of a one-table restaurant business requires meticulous attention to detail and customer care. This is where our confidence comes from—knowing how to grow over time and having the opportunity to give our guests a unique culinary experience.” [Swipe to continue reading.]
Hosting up to 12 guests at a time, the dining room has been designed to reflect the cuisine. “The room is distinguished by carefully selected antique furniture from across the globe. We wanted the decor and furniture to represent the spirit of Mighty, which is solid but graceful, powerful yet elegant, aged but comfortable,” Ambrosini says. He refers to the staff as kitchen artists while highlighting that this is also a place for ambitious young Thai chefs to truly express their full potential and prepare themselves for a bright future. Looking ahead, Ambrosini says there are plans to expand the business to gourmet home catering in which the Mighty team will design and prepare spectacular meals at the homes of clients.
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