Regular visitors to this website, like my dad, may notice that I am posting more frequently than usual. That is because I have no job. This, plus the fact that my book proposal has been sent back to me for revisions by my publisher, means that I will be doing everything I can to procrastinate from what little “work” I actually have. Hence, this blog post.
A few weeks ago, my friend Dwight sent me a PR story in the Bangkok Post exhorting tourists to try Thai fine dining. I knew he wanted to get me riled up. Alas, I was on vacation and happy, so his attempts to wind me up did not work.
However, I am now back from vacation and not as happy. So here we are. The PR story, which I think is pretty cleverly written, refers to the recent press enjoyed by Thai street food as the product of “well-meaning” but “foreign journalists”. The people who watch or read their coverage are “brain-washed” into thinking that this food is “the best that Thailand has to offer”. These people have been “misinformed” by the musings of foreign journalists who only write about the food they see while walking down the streets of Bangkok, presumably on their way to a Burger King or Hooters.
The point of the story is to say that these street food-championing dummies don’t really know Thai food. It’s a way to take the mantle of authenticity back from street food and “eating like locals” to elevated Thai fine dining, where it belongs. This is smart, as far as it goes, because average Thai people can’t afford this food on a regular basis, but tourists can. The foodie market that Thailand is seeking is no longer the market that carries their stuff around in a backpack and eats som tum off of a cart. They are looking to nab a more well-heeled crowd, preferably one that will support the burgeoning high-end local food scene.
I am all for this, and by this, I mean supporting local talent and reframing Thai food as a cuisine that requires work, skill and knowledge, something that is worth paying extra. No objections from me on that count. Too long have Western restaurants been able to price themselves above their Asian peers, even though equal amounts of work and dedication have been poured into the cuisine. Asian food is relegated to a bunch of “noodles” and “rice”, delivery food on par with pizza and subway sandwiches. That is actually why some Thai street food is so extraordinary, because it has been made with care and dedication under onerous conditions. But that is a discussion for another place and time.
Instead, let’s talk about me. Am I, by any chance, one of those “foreign” journalists who are “well-meaning” but dumb? If so, and only if so, because who would talk about me, calling me foreign is truly a *chef’s kiss* of covert bitchery that completely works in undermining my knowledge of Thai food. Well done!
OK, let’s go back to Thai fine dining. In case you missed it, I am all for Thai fine dining. I am not only all for this, but I am all for fine dining restaurants which use the products of hard-working local farmers, breeders and fishermen and turn them into the extraordinary creations that these fruits, vegetables and animals deserve. I want to do everything I can to support this, but in a way that is sustainable, honest, and true to the chefs and farmers themselves.
Here are some of those restaurants that I love:
I have written about this place before, but I just want to reiterate how much I am a fan of Chef DK and his concept. This restaurant’s idea — to use ingredients that are as local as possible, ie. from your own backyard — was among the first to take shape on the dining scene, at a time when it was still seen as “woo woo” and hippy dippy like Phoebe on “Friends”. Today, the idea that the best ingredients to use in good cuisine are also the most local — at a time when salmonella outbreaks and general hygiene concerns (hi coronavirus) reign supreme — is pretty much widely accepted. Also, he has a charity called #NoOneHungry in which donations go to help feed the dependents of hospitality workers laid off by the COVID-19 crisis. You can donate here.
I’ve never really written about this place — located at the Siam@Siam Hotel — but I have to say that it’s what I see the future of Thai food becoming. Like Chef Black at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, Chef Thep crafts a seasonal menu depending on what he sees as appropriate to the moment; for example, sator or stink beans at the beginning of the rainy season, or ant’s eggs in the fall. Despite his obvious technical prowess, Chef Thep describes himself as merely a “custodian” for the products grown or raised by the farmers he champions, so much so that once a month he holds events in which the diners can meet the farmers themselves. That, to me, is *heart eyes emoji*.
I have to contact Chef Ice for an upcoming professional event, and I am seriously worried that he will consider putting out a restraining order on me. Sorn is that kind of restaurant. It’s won a gazillion accolades, but when you go to its supposed “website”, you can’t even get in (or maybe I can’t even get in). It makes finally scoring a table inside its hallowed walls and being able to eat one of its menus that much more special.
But the main reason for all the hysteria is the food. It’s really, really good, a way to show off regional cuisine — not the Royal Court stuff, no fruit carver or pretty girl playing traditional instruments in sight — that is both true to the source while being inventive, elegant and delicious at the same time. This is a wildly difficult tightrope to walk. I am thisclose to holding a boom box up outside of the restaurant and blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in the rain, so hopefully Chef Ice will give me another reservation soon.