Award-Winning Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn Tells Us How He Helped Change Thai Cuisine For Good

Award-winning chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn changed Thai cuisine by challenging perceptions of it as a cheap street food, in the process turning it into fine dining at Le Du. And then, Chef Ton (as he’s better known) took home a Michelin Star for Le Du in 2019. His burgeoning restaurant empire – that includes Nusara, Baan, Mayrai, and Samut – shows the impressive diversity of Thai cuisine. And in 2022, remarkably, two of his restaurants – Le Du and Nusara – both ascended to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants top ten. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt  

It often begins with grandma’s cuisine. Or in mom’s kitchen. For Thai chef and restaurateur Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn it was the same. He loved the food of his childhood. And he would often watch his mom and grandma in the kitchen. However, it took disillusionment with his financial career to stoke a desire in him to learn to cook, at the Culinary Institute of America, and eventually to open restaurants like Nusara, Baan, Mayrai, and Samut.

So, with the imminent announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, on March 28th. And with the Michelin Guide coming to Vietnam for the first time – as it did in Thailand in 2018 – we caught up with Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn to talk food. 

You were best-in-class at the Culinary Institute of America upon graduation. Then you spent five or six years working in some of the best restaurants there. What made you decide to return to Thailand in 2013, to a far less developed country in terms of fine dining?

That was the reason. I had the chance to view perceptions of Thai cuisine from outside of my country – and to my colleagues and friends it was street food. I realized people view street food as simple and cheap – something way below the Western dishes served at high-class restaurants. So, as a Thai, I wanted to change that mindset. And that meant returning to Bangkok to open my own restaurant.

“Six years after we opened Le Du, we were awarded a star. And it was a dream come true.” – Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn

And that’s when you opened Le Du in Bangkok? Besides repositioning Thai food as something that could be seen as fine dining, did you really think you could win acclaim like a Michelin Star?

Well, the Michelin Guide hadn’t even come to Thailand then. So, that definitely wasn’t on our mind. But it did. And in 2019, one year after it first arrived in Thailand, and six years after we opened Le Du, we were awarded a star. And it was a dream come true. 

The flip side of getting a Michelin Star for Le Du must be the pressure…

We stayed grounded and true to the original objective for Le Du – which was to cook the best dishes with the best local ingredients. I truly don’t think you can or should cook to win stars. That would mean losing the reason you came into the kitchen in the first place. We always kept our faith and our focus intact. So, after the award nothing much changed – honestly – I was still just the same happy person who had the chance to cook everyday. 

Chef Ton in the kitchen at Nusara, a private dining-style experience, where he describes the food as ‘colorful Thai cuisine.’

But, when you opened other restaurants like Nusara, Baan, Mayrai, Samut, the time you could spend in the kitchen must have been limited?

Part of that expansion was to give a career path to the chefs that had grown up alongside me, and who needed to step into restaurant management. It was my responsibility to do that for this next generation of chefs. 

And there’s a different culinary style in your restaurants. Why is that?

I really wanted to start showcasing the breadth and diversity of Thai cuisine, because I love it. And at different levels of accessibility. 

Le Du is my take on radical Thai cuisine. Baan offers simple, home-style cuisine based on old family recipes. Mayrai, on the other hand, is a wine bar where we serve dishes like pad thai and khao soi in a casual setting. 

And then in the same building as Mayrai, we opened Nusara as a place where we would really elevate traditional Thai food into an intimate, sophisticated kaiseki-style experience with locally-sourced and organic ingredients.

Le Du’s fresh river prawn.

With such a range of restaurants, how would you define your cooking philosophy today?

You know, each dish we serve is authentically Thai. The techniques may be French. The presentation may be influenced by Japan. But the taste is always Thai. 

I also understand the importance of using fresh, seasonal ingredients to achieve the highest quality cuisine. And, these days, I’m especially excited by experimenting with underrated Thai ingredients – things that people perhaps take for granted.

Could you give us an example of that?

So, in one of our kaiseki menus at Nusara, we had giant sea caviar marinated in fish sauce and sour mango. It was inspired by the way Japanese dishes use ikura or salmon roe. I guess I want to show that Thai ingredients are on a par with other cuisines. 

Then, another example is sago from Phatthalung Province. We served it with young coconut juice and shelled raw chestnuts, the way Italians use truffles. 

And Thai food is famously spicy. What’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Haha. OK, that would be jungle curry! Jungle curry is a traditional dish of Thailand. And it’s made using 60 different types of chili.

That’s interesting because when I tried Thai jungle curry in Australia, it was never too spicy…

In Thailand, it’s really a dish from the provinces. Overseas, the jungle curry Thais would make would be a lot less spicy. Otherwise, people would refuse to eat it!

Chef Ton with his Asia 50 Best Restaurants Award for Le Du in 2021. [Image: The Nation Thailand]

Finally, if you could only choose one dish to eat for every meal from now on for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Wow…I think I’ll choose pad kra pao. It is a rice dish that’s served with stir-fried beef and basil leaves. I’ve been eating this dish since I was a kid.

For some reason, I thought the answer would be Pad Thai!

Pad Thai is especially popular with foreigners! For me, it’s not a food we would eat daily in Thailand. We generally prefer something with rice. I’m guessing that if you asked ten Thai people the same question, eight of ten would choose pad kra pao

So, pad Thai is more beloved by foreigners. Jungle curry gets tamed for foreign palates. How do you think we can modernize, preserve and popularize Thai cuisine around the world?

To ‘modernize’ a traditional dish, you first need to understand its foundation. You have to understand the core of the cuisine you want to change. Only then can you apply new techniques to it, and apply your creativity while balancing authenticity and personality. For me, that’s the correct way to refresh a dish and also to place yourself on the culinary map…

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