THE PEOPLE’S CHEF
Look in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! NO!! It’s Chef Ton! He’s the young talented chef and mastermind behind one of Bangkok’s hottest restaurants at the moment—Le Du. However, he didn’t just stop at Le Du, but he has opened 3 more restaurants under his belt within this year which all are gaining popularity every day. We at Hungry Hub had to sit down with this guy and see if he is a real human or an alien superhero using his powers.
HH: Recently you were voted in the TOP 40 Men in ELLE Magazine. How do you feel about that? They voted 39 different businessmen and then have you as the only Chef.
Chef Ton: It was good. It was a little bit awkward. But it is good to be included in the list and they saw me as the new generation and trying to do something new. It will help me to get recognition and listened to in the future when it comes to Thai products and everything that I believe in. It was nice being the only chef that they recognized. I try to do something new, some people might like it, some people may not like it, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t.
HH: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? You used to cook in New York, right?
Chef Ton: Yes, but actually, first, my background in college was in economics. I have a bachelor degree in economics from Chula. After that, I worked in the banking industry for about 2 months, but I couldn’t see myself in that industry for the rest of my life, so I said, “I’m done.”
I then decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), graduated and worked in a few restaurants in New York. Then, I came back home to start up a restaurant in Bangkok.
At first, my family was very upset about the change, but my mom supported me the whole time and it gave me courage to pursue me dream of being a great Chef.
I worked at Eleven Madison Park. I worked at The Modern. I worked at Jean-Georges in Manhattan. They all are pretty high end restaurants, and I learned a lot from the head chefs.
HH: Did you work at any Thai restaurants while you were in NYC?
Chef Ton: I never did. I always worked in a French style restaurant with the cooking. I want to learn from them and learn their modern techniques that they use like their philosophies, work ethics. I think that is very important for me. I already know how to cook Thai food. I learned how to cook Thai food very well from Ajarn Wandee. She is one of the most respected Thai cooking teachers. She cooked in the palace, also.
It’s not about cooking Thai food. I went there [to America] to gain experience in work ethic and professionalism. I learned how to approach different types of product and think about food differently. That is what I took back to Thailand and it helped me when opening my restaurant.
HH: Well, not just this restaurant, you opened 4 of them! You could have stopped at Le Du and been praised for your style of cooking, but you took it to the next level by opening up 3 more completely different style restaurants.
Chef Ton: Yeah. This year has been very crazy for me. These 3 were not in the plan at the beginning of the year. I planned on opening only 1 restaurant—Taper. These 2 restaurants came out of nowhere. Baan was a concept that I always wanted to do—my family own, my family run, my family recipes— simple Thai food where I can sit down and have lunch. I wanted to do that in the future, but somehow we got the space. Same with this restaurant [Baagadin]—we got lucky in finding a good location, and my partner got everything ready, so we just did it.
HH: It seems to me that this restaurant is more of a masculine restaurant compared to Le Du which is more of a feminine restaurant.
Chef Ton: Yes, definitely. Le Du is my passion, my dream. Actually, Le Du was my project from school that I created. We had a class that we had to develop a menu and a concept of a restaurant and Le Du was it. It was a concept that I wanted to do before I started working anywhere six or seven years ago.
HH: It sounds like you have taken all these courses just to be with the experts in food and to get their concepts transferred to Thailand. What are some of the concepts that you have carried over from your education to Thailand?
Chef Ton: Besides the work ethic and everything, I want people to think locally and appreciate more of the local ingredients. I think Thailand is under the impression of having bad quality food. That is why many famous restaurants import their food. I think that is arguable, but we have to support the farmers and suppliers. If we don’t support the supplier then there’s no way things will get better.
People pay 5000thb/kilo of wagyu beef—yeah, of course, it is better than Thai beef because it is a better product. The beef costs that much more because people supported them for a long time and made the product better. If we don’t support our suppliers and farmers then we lose our identity. This is Thailand. This is our home. We need to eat the fresh local ingredients and help our own country and community.
That is how I run my restaurants. I would say 99% of all my ingredients are local. So, I want to show that it doesn’t matter—if you put enough attention into local products, it still tastes very good. It’s so easy to make.
People import oysters and put a full spoon of caviar on it and can sell it for a lot of money, but no thought has been given into it, no attention and it doesn’t help the community. It’s that easy. It’s very fulfilling to me when people come up to me and ask, “Where’s this from?”, “What is this sauce made from?”, “What is this, what is that?” and I love to say, “Oh, that’s a Thai mushroom or that’s fermented fish.” They are always surprised! I really enjoy that.
HH: You mostly employ Thai people in the kitchen?
Chef Ton: Mostly Thai people are back there. I want my kitchen to be ran very professional and it’s important to teach the young Thai cooks to have that mindset. We are in the era of a hotel dominant cooking scene in Bangkok for a long time now. It is changing, slowly, but it still needs a lot of change. The hotel mindset and the stand alone restaurant—especially, in Bangkok—are completely different. It’s about the hierarchy; people are doing the same thing every day, you cannot have any creativity. Maybe that is why many young people don’t want to be a chef and improve the restaurant scene.
I think everyone has the responsibility to grow your own industry and teach the young generation. One reason that I wanted to come back to Bangkok was to help push Bangkok into a better cooking scene. I want people to see Bangkok as a dining destination. People come here to eat. People come here to find a good restaurant. I am always told that I should open up my restaurant somewhere else. I don’t want to do it anywhere else. Bangkok is my home.
HH: Has it been a challenge for you to open 4 restaurants in Thailand and still be a very young chef in the industry?
Chef Ton: People always say, “You look very young.” I am 30 years old, I don’t know if that is young or not, I just want to do my thing. Ever since I opened until now, I still get a lot of support from all the very big chefs in Bangkok. We are all friends—David Thompson [Nahm] is a big mentor of mine. He also wants to push the new chefs to be the best and make Bangkok a food destination.
All of us top chefs around Bangkok—Gaggan, Bo.Lan, Nahm—we all support each other and try to push each other to the next level. I think everyone wants to make Bangkok better because if Bangkok is better then, it is better for everyone.
Even if one is not a chef, they can learn from Chef Ton. His work ethic, creativity, and eagerness to make the community better should be qualities that more of us should have. That is why even ELLE Magazine had praised him for his philanthropy work. His fame and popularity are on the rise, yet his compassion for this city is unmatched by any person that I have ever met. If there were ever such a thing as a real life superhero, then Bangkok has its very own—Chef Ton.