Samantha Proyrungtong stifles a yawn. She got back from a food fair in Nigeria yesterday, a day later than planned due to a flight cancellation, and she’s still a little jetlagged. “This wine should help,” she assures us as one of the staff at her VIVIN Grocery – Bistro pours us a glass of GranMonte’s Viognier, one of the many made-in-Thailand products she’s proudly celebrating.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
“Wow, I don’t even know how to begin to explain what I do,” Samantha Proyrungtong begins, looking puzzled. That’s because she’s an entrepreneur, restaurateur, grocer, brand builder, and a PR and marketing guru. “And let’s add network and community creator,” she decides.
We’re at her VIVIN Grocery – Bistro in Asok, Bangkok – discovering the restaurateur and grocer parts of Samantha’s resume. And while VIVIN has smooth service, fridges full of fascinating local products and fully-booked bistro seating, its evolution wasn’t as effortless as it feels. “So, around 10 years ago, me and my partner and husband, Nicolas Vivin, started out with a stall at a farmers’ market – the market at K Village in Bangkok – and we only had one product!” she remembers.
Back then all they sold was foie gras infused with local rum. “And then, step by step, we expanded with artisanal cheese, and then homemade dry duck…”
The feedback was good. And the sales were too. So, a few years later, convinced the business could work, they opened stalls in two of Bangkok’s most famous supermarkets: Food Hall at Central Chit Lom and Gourmet Market at EmQuartier.
Further success there led them to cautiously open their own location. “The first VIVIN, in Ekamai, was an office upstairs and a showroom downstairs – we were mostly focused on B2B…” Samantha recalls.
Not long after, the pandemic hit. And, as it was for lots of businesses, the crisis forced a pivot for the better. “We had to do something,” she explains, “and so downstairs became the grocery store because back then, to follow regulations, we had to operate, officially, as a supermarket and not a restaurant.” And that’s one of the ways they survived.
At the same time, they turned their delivery truck into a drivable pop-up store, taking their Thai artisanal produce to different neighborhoods. The upstairs office, eventually, became a bistro. “Up there we began making artisanal sandwiches. And that was the birth of VIVIN Grocery’s still-famous jambon-fromage sandwich!”
Then, post-pandemic, they opened this place, VIVIN Grocery – Bistro in Asok, Bangkok
So now here, besides the 30 kinds of locally-produced artisanal cheeses they offer, there’s the famous omelets. And there’s their self-produced ‘shelf-to-plate products’ like duck breast dried in Thai fleur de sel. There’s that famous jambon-fromage, their take on the classic French ham and cheese sandwich, but entirely made with Thai ingredients. “Except for the butter,” Samantha admits, “because we use French AOP butter.”
And there’s their “gorgeous, creamy” Siam is Blue pasta made with blue cheese made in Chiang Mai by Jartisann, pasta from Samui, organic Thai macadamia nuts, and seasoned with the Thai fleur de sel and pepper from Trang Province.
And sometime between this year and next, Samantha is helping organize a ‘Thai Cheese Tour’ – taking Vivin’s monthly Thai cheese buffet on the road. “We’ll be in places like Phuket and Chiang Mai,” she says excitedly. “And we’ll be at five-star resorts and Michelin Guide-recommended restaurants all with the support of The Tourism Authority of Thailand.”
But it’s not like she wasn’t destined for all this. “I guess I’ve always been obsessed with food,” Samantha says thoughtfully. “I remember my dad always saying ‘your eyes are bigger than your head.’” That was back when she was growing up in Melbourne with its “foodie, fashion, art, music and underground party culture.”
At Primary School, she created handmade invites for a select group of her schoolmates asking them to join her food club. “I hosted a picnic on a lawn which I guess was my first ever PR event!” she laughs.
Which brings us neatly to the PR, brand building and marketing work she does now. “Right, so there’s Bangkok Foodies OFFICIAL. It began as a Facebook community and now includes an Instagram page and website. It was the sister brand of a very popular group I also ran called Desperately Seeking Bangkok, or DSBKK. Old-school Bangkokians know,” she nods.
Cuisine was where her passion really lay, so she doubled down on the foodies content. “Now, we have other groups nationwide – there’s Phuket Foodies OFFICIAL and Chaing Mai Foodies OFFICIAL – and even regionally as we started a foodie group in Hanoi and also in Myanmar.” They’re not all as active as Bangkok Foodies, she admits. “We’re always on the lookout for motivated moderators who can grow the community through a commitment to authenticity and quality.”
Added to all that she runs the marketing agency, Extrovert Consulting. “I guess my life is about pushing boundaries and challenging perceptions, hence the name,” she shrugs.
“My friends would definitely say I’m outspoken, but also energetic, motivated, creative, hardworking, determined and passionate. In any big-city F&B industry, there are a lot of passionate individuals and inflated egos, including here – but fortunately in Bangkok most of us are also still good friends!” she laughs.
Can you describe Bangkok in one sentence?
It’s organized chaos, and it’s thrilling, mysterious, entertaining and multifaceted.
Why should people visit Bangkok right now over other Asian cities?
Because it’s such an exciting time. The tourists are back and lots of new places are opening. I call it re-blooming. There’s a fresh vibe about Bangkok right now, one that’s filled with positivity and hope. And long may it continue!
Can you give us three life hacks to help us get the most out of a trip to Bangkok?
Arriving on-time by taxi is almost impossible because of the unpredictable traffic. For short distances take a Grab bike. And for longer distances, take the MRT and BTS.
And look, Thailand is amazing. But it’s not all smiles and breathtaking temples. Tourists can get charged more, or occasionally harassed. But try to take it all in your stride – dramatics won’t get you anywhere here.
Adding on to that, I suggest that you don’t fixate on the famous sights and places to eat. You might end up queuing for hours or waiting months for a restaurant reservation.
There’s likely to be 1,000s of places that are just as good. Some are even better. And those ones need your patronage as much, if not more, than the famous places.
When you ask any Bangkok foodie to take you to that crab omelet joint or that famous spicy instant noodle place they will most likely cringe inside.
How would you describe the restaurant and bar scene right now in Bangkok?
There’s a noticeable increasing interest in health and sustainability. Veganism is popular, much to the chagrin of the hardcore carnivores. And locavorism – eating locally produced food – is also on the rise. People now actively seek out local, artisanal and organic products.
Fine dining suffered massively during the pandemic. But in 2023 fine dining establishments have been sprouting like mushrooms. It’s not just big brands. There’s standalone restaurants. Some have famous chefs attached to the projects, but others don’t. The opportunity is clearly there to open businesses. However, we have to be mindful of oversaturation. We’re looking at too many restaurants which means too much choice, and all opening in a short space of time. Are there enough people in that segment of the industry to fill all the seats? Time will tell.
You have a guest visiting for one day only. What is your 24-hour Bangkok itinerary to make them love the city?
That depends on who it is of course! And their objectives and the timing of the visit. But, for chefs and foodies, for example, market trips are mandatory. For the raw, uncensored experience, we’d go to Khlong Toey wet market. For something slightly less chaotic, we’d go to Yaowarat or Phrakanong – depending where they’re staying. With only 24 hours in Bangkok, you wouldn’t want to waste too much time in a taxi.
Naturally, we’d have to drop in at VIVIN Grocery – Bistro too. There, we’d have the cheese and charcuterie platter or our famous fluffy omelet, or our jambon-fromage sandwich. They could grab a few gifts while they’re there as well.
Then we’d explore a mix of street food-style vendors and finer establishments. For something unique and edgy, Kate’s Place Supperclub. She serves the food in a secret room. For Eastern Thai comfort food, Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine by Sri Trat. And for a special pad thai, Pad Thai Fai Talu by Chef Andy Yang. It never disappoints.
For accessible restaurants with a reasonable budget, there’s Thai food at Samlor, Indian food at JHOL by Chef Hari Nayak, Thai snacks and cocktails at Err by Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones of Bo.lan, Peruvian food at Guilty Bangkok by Carlos Rodriguez, Nanbei for Chinese, Chef Tooru Tanaka’s Tori Tama for yakitori or gather a group together and go to the wildly entertaining Thai-grill restaurant, Aromkwan.
For fine dining, the obvious choices would be Aksorn by David Thompson, POTONG by Chef ‘Pam’ Pichaya Soontornyanakij, Nusara by Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, Samrub Samrub Thai by Chef Prin Polsuk, Cadence by Chef Dan Barker, 80/20 Bangkok, Elements Inspired by Ciel Bleu with Chef Gerard Villaret Horcajo, Baan Tepa Culinary Space with Chef Tam Chudaree Debhakam and Chef Ferran Tadeo’s newcomer, Embassy Room, for a fine lunch at an unbeatable price. Then there’s Blue by Alain Ducasse and helmed by Wilfrid Hocquet, Alpea Bistro by Chef Arnaud Dunand Sauthier and ACQUA Restaurant by Alessandro Frau.
What should we order to help cure a hangover the day after?
After a late night out in Bangkok, we’d definitely need something to help us recover. For something good, greasy, deliverable and dangerously delicious, Daniel Thaiger Burger, Tortilla Quemada, Mazzie Pizza – even though it’s ten times better to eat there rather than getting takeout – Northern Thai from Krua Jiang Mai, Southern Thai from Phuket Town, sushi from Masu Maki, fresh homemade pasta from L’OLVIA Bangkok, and of course an artisanal sandwich from VIVIN Grocery!
But personally, if I had to choose one place it would be Boonlang Noodles, downstairs from Kate’s Place, which she also runs. I’d sit at the bar with a bowl of Kate’s awesome khao soi or her signature purple spring rolls. It’s just such an easy-going place, and it’s great if you’re traveling solo and you’re comfortable sparking up conversations with people around the counter.
Which are your three favorite places to eat street food right now?
I don’t tend to eat at standalone carts – there’s issues with hygiene and access to running water. You know, a combination of getting older and developing an iffy stomach and having guests visiting who are of a sensitive nature. So, I’m picking three restaurants serving street food in a restaurant setting.
Number one, Tom Nam Restaurant. They serve the most amazing river prawns you’ll ever have in Bangkok. Plus their other dishes are great too, but you’ll need a car to get out there as it’s about one hour drive from downtown Bangkok.
Then, Somyong. It’s a cheap and cheerful inner-city Isaan restaurant. And it has fun, local vibes.
Finally, Wattana Panich, where they serve their ‘50-years-old’ braised beef noodles. They’re so good. And thanks to the room upstairs you can always get a seat
Which place deserves more accolades than it’s received?
Actually, then there’s Chef Som Jutamas Theantae of SOM’S TABLE who is such a unique character. She travels the world to share her culinary art. Then there’s Chef Riley Sanders who was so young when he started. And Chef Christian Herrgesell. He’s a German Chef who just blew us all away when he cooked one unforgettable meal in Bangkok. He’s won accolades, but he deserves more.
What’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten in Bangkok? And where did you eat it?
The Laotian ‘som tum’ papaya salad at Zao Ekkamai. Seriously. I almost died.
Where’s your favorite place right now for a romantic dinner?
Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine for sure. It has this Orient Express-style interior that’s very romantic, and, importantly, the food and drinks are great and because they’re pioneering Eastern Thai cuisine, there’s lots of interesting ingredients and flavors to explore and talk about.
Finally, where do you go to escape Bangkok for the weekend? And what do you eat there?
Hmm, there’s a couple of good options to escape Bangkok for the weekend. My favorite mini foodie escape requires heading two-and-a-half hours north, for some wine tasting and a meal at GranMonte Vineyard & Winery in Khao Yai and their restaurant VinCotto. While we’re there, we can stop at my favorite local Thai restaurants, Yung Khao, Penloas, and The Gardener. For the best mango sticky rice with a view we’d also visit The Mango House Farm.
Alternatively, we could escape Bangkok in the other direction and take the three-hour trip down to Hua Hin. There we’d try SOM’S TABLE by Chef ‘Som’ Jutamas Theantae and Caribbean cuisine at Banana Ketchup by Chef Ox.