"You can be anything you want, but never open a restaurant", was his grandfather’s admonition to Thitid Tassanakajohn, growing up. Today, Chef Ton, as he is simply called, owns three restaurants and a Michelin Star tucked beneath his apron. At the end of the month, when Asia’s best chefs congregate once again in Macau for the reveal of Asia’s 50 best restaurants, his modern Thai restaurant Le Du, is touted to climb to the top ten. Le Du, which showcases reimagined Thai cuisine favorites, is currently ranked 14th. The restaurant also has a much coveted Michelin Star, awarded in November 2018.
By its name it is easy to mistake the restaurant to be French, but Le Du actually means ‘season’ in Thai. The restaurant offers a choice of either a 4-course or 6-course tasting menu. Chef Ton’s dishes such as his wild sea bass with pomelo and river prawn with pork belly jam, shrimp paste and organic rice, coconut panna cotta are reminiscent of traditional Thai dishes, but their flavors are more restrained and subtle on the palate instead of the familiar in your face explosion of tastes we associate with Thai food.
The charcoal grilled pork jowl (my dining companion said he would gladly trade his Barbra Streisand vinyl collection for another taste of this dish) and free range chicken were also the stars of the menu, showcasing the connection Chef Ton has made with his farmer-suppliers. The food coupled with the attentive front of the house staff, managed by Filipinos made for a fantastic meal.
We chatted with the youthful Chef Ton, who’s just in his early thirties, right before dinner service :
CES ORENA DRILON: Let’s go back to the day when you learned you were given a Michelin star.
Chef Ton: When I first knew about it, it was very exciting. Because, to be honest it’s a dream come true. As a chef, it’s one thing that you aspire for. It’s every chef’s dream. So we were very excited and we were very happy.
COD: Of course, the challenge is to maintain it.
Chef Ton: Yes And I think to maintain it, because people always ask me like, “Do you put the pressure on yourself to retain the star?” My answer is, “No. Because we always aim to be a better restaurant every year.” And that’s what we aim for and what we’ve been doing for the past 5 years. Though I think, if this still continues to be better, I don’t think retaining the star is what we have to worry about. We want to worry about ourselves more than the Michelin.
COD: Your philosophy of 99% local, how did you develop this?
CT: The thing is, you know, in the past, like 5 years ago when I opened here at Le Du, every restaurant in Bangkok was promoting using imported ingredients, everyone preferred to eat lobster, to have foie gras, to have you know, something imported. But then, I’m thinking like, “Why? Our country has so much to offer and I don’t want people to see local ingredients as cheap ingredients. Thai ingredients could be high-quality also and that’s what I want to present not only to the locals but also to the foreigners that come to visit my restaurant also. That shows how generous this country has to offer in terms of the products.
COD: Do you get involved with the producers as well?
CT: Yes. There are a lot of producers. We created connections in the past 3 years because some of it, we never have like, “I want you to grow something that you cannot find in the market.” So that’s why I have to get connected with them, tell them what I want and then create a trust, the relationship, and now we develop so much in terms of the farmer connection and fisherman.
COD: Can you cite for instance one particular dish that you’re offering now that’s a product of your collaboration.
CT: The product of collaboration, I think it’s everything. The chickens, we work closely with the farmer who grow chickens for us and it’s free range and more than organic because they eat whatever the food is given and is special for that farmer. And then, we’ve been working together for 3 years and then I’m the first one, the first chef to actually work with him and then we developed a lot of connection. And that is what I’m very proud of also.
COD: So you’ve already found your calling? I mean, this is it, being a chef because your parents wanted you to be in finance.
CT: Now I know. But this is what I want, what I do and what I love to do so I guess this is my last career.
COD: It’s not really work anymore because you love it...
CT: No because I always say for me, chef isn’t more like a lifestyle. And the job for me is not coming to work. It’s coming to see my customer, to see my team. It’s a part of my life and that’s how I see a chef’s career.
COD: You know, chefs are portrayed, the job is portrayed as very glamorous but it’s a lot of hard work and physically very exhausting.
CT: Yeah. I mean, nowadays, you know, because of the media and TV shows and everything, people look at it very differently. Ten years ago, people look at a chef’s career as a low level job and now they look at it as very glamorous, very high-end, very special career to have, but most of the people don’t see the work behind the scenes. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears and then that is what people don’t see. And I want the new generation, I always tell them, “This is the end result and everyday I still have to work and try to be better.” Because there are so many good chefs now and we cannot stand still even in my position. And then, for the new generation, I always tell them that, “You got to work hard and you got to be patient because it’s not like a very cool profession to have. If you want it, you have to go and get it and work for it.”
COD: But you’re still young.
CT: I mean, newer generation like people in college, in their 20s. I really want them to see it that way, yeah.
COD: Part of what you do aside from the creative aspects that we see, the plating, the cooking, the conceptualization is running a business.
CT: Yes, exactly.
COD: So, you’re quite an entrepreneur. You have three other restaurants, so how do you manage?
CT: It’s different from being a chef. You still have to have a restaurant and the restaurant that‘ll be able to run because in real life, you still have to have the business that’s not losing money at the end of the day. That’s what we’re trying to do and I try to balance also in terms of food, the creativity and the business. So that is the new different perspective.
COD: You have the edge because you’re an MBA graduate.
CT: Yes. Also you know, I might see it differently from maybe some other chef but that’s my little bit of advantage.
COD: When did your parents start to take you seriously as a chef? Because it took some convincing, right? You had to finish your MBA before you could go to culinary school.
CT: Exactly, that is the deal with my mom. So, if you want to go to culinary school, you have to graduate MBA. Which is a good thing but then, I don’t think they saw the future, what it’s going to become or whatever. But I think they start to take it seriously after I open the restaurant and it actually didn’t fail. I think that’s the most important thing, you know. I don’t have to ask their money to put in the business and I think that what they see, this could be a business not just like a crazy kid who wants to just cook.
COD: And there’s no tradition of that in the family?
CT: No. My grandfather always told me when I was kid, “You can be whatever you want. Don’t open the restaurant.”
CT: Yes. That’s what he said always when I was a kid. “You can do whatever business you want. Don’t open the restaurant.” And I did the only thing he told me not to do but, anyway.
COD Did he live to see it?
CT: He saw it. Now, he passed away but he saw the beginning of it a little bit. So that’s the good thing.
COD: You have quite a relationship with Filipino chefs.
CT: Yes. Margarita (Fores) and Jordy Navarra have been here.
COD: How did that come about?
CT: We met each other in the events around Asia and also mostly in Best Restaurants and we hung out, we talked, we connected and we have fun. We have a lot of things in common. I think in Philippine and in Thai cuisine, we have so much in common in terms of the cuisine, the way of life, the products, so we have a lot of things to talk about. I think that’s how it started, the relationship and it continued that way.
COD: Tell us a little about maybe your signature dish, one or two. How you develop a dish? How do you conceive it?
CT: The river prawn is the only dish we never take out from the menu and it’s about us because it’s an inspiration from traditional Thai. It’s like a shrimp paste with rice and then that’s my favorite dish. I just want to make it in the version that people can accept and see it as more high value, more high-end food. So that’s how I wanted to recreate it. And it became like a river prawn dish.
COD: The challenge is having traditional food and elevating it or refining it. How do you do that?
CT: I learned a lot of technique. I’m trained in French restaurants in New York, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park and The Modern, and then I try to see the cuisine as you know, every cuisine can be better, everyone can be better and I look at Thai cuisine and then see how it could be better. It’s not the question about traditional or new or modern. For me, I want to make Thai cuisine a little bit better and I look at the traditional dish, the taste, the technique, and I put some new input that I think will make this dish or this curry better. And then, that’s how I see my food.
COD: You don’t get flak from traditionalists ? Because that’s how Thai food became world-famous. There was really a standard that everybody had to follow, right?
Click on the image below for slideshow
Ant Larvae. Photograph by Exgave
Ant Larvae. Photograph by Exgave
Compressed Watermelon. Photograph by Exgave
Slipper Lobster. Photograph by Exgave
Mango leaf parfait. Photograph by Exgave
Turmeric Chicken. Photograph by Exgave
Thai Tea pudding. Photograph by Exgave
Pork blood pudding. Photograph by Exgave
Wild mushroom, smoked pumpkin, dried & smoked river fish broth. Photograph by Exgave
CT: Yeah, of course. You know, when we started and then people of course talk about it and then there are people who like it and people who don’t like it but at the end of the day, people see that it works. Sometimes they have questions, they come and then the try and then they think, “Oh, this is actually good or better than the traditional one.” And I’m saying this so many times, “I’m not doing something to be the rival of the traditional cuisine but I think it can co-exist and to co-exist together, it makes Thai cuisine elevated because in order to go up on the world stage, you have to have a restaurant rooted in the traditional cuisine and also the modern. Because you have to show the people, show the world that you’ll just not stay still. And they’re like, “Oh, my cuisine is best in the world and we’re not going to do anything with it anymore.” Everything has to have evolution and the cuisine as well.
COD: What does the future look like, what are your plans?
CT: My plan is just to continue, to focus, to see how much Le Du can go further and how much my food can develop. And of course I try to see that to encourage the new chefs to cook more Thai cuisine in whatever way possible. I want to see Thai food grow, have more coverage, have more acceptance from the world cuisine. That’s my goal.
Le Du is at 399/3 Silom 7 Alley, Khwaeng Silom, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand