I was recently asked what I had missed most during the recent lockdown restrictions imposed due to this tragic virus crisis? I did not need long to deliver my response; unsurprisingly to many who know me, simply dining out. Rather than eat to live, I live to eat! There is no greater joy, in my humble opinion (family celebrations apart) than experiencing great food; but as a former Michelin Guide inspector, with a somewhat differing view from that of the current red book regime, the environment, ambience and service do make a significant contribution to one’s overall feeling, including perhaps whom one is accompanying? I have avoided Michelin starred restaurant deliveries, both Thai and Western, not that I do not wish to support, but I sadly suspect I would be disappointed. It can never be the same as dining in these stellar establishments. I have, so far, chosen to survive on my own limited western cooking skills. But eating at home, no matter how good the food or grand the environment, cannot truly compete with a memorable occasion dining out. Even simple food served up in even simpler surroundings is an occasion to be savoured. Once the original question had been answered, the follow up was, also unsurprisingly, where will you go first and what type of meal will it be? Simply put, I want to eat authentic Thai food in a classic venue. As a Scotsman living in Thailand for now several years, when we go on long haul vacations and visit accoladed restaurants across the globe, after a few days, I miss Thai food. Now is exactly the same; I regularly prepare steak and mash, spaghetti bolognese and mushroom risotto but crave a southern crab curry, a gaeng som and a proper tom yum goong! I am kinda fed up with farang food! Dining destinations on my list are the celebrated The Nai Harn and The Boathouse, two of Phuket’s grand, yet intimate, landmark hotels. Both have been around for decades and, despite changes in ownership and restaurant reinvention, perfectly maintain a high level of reliance on the classics. They both have highly respected signature western restaurants. But for me, I am looking forward to heirloom Thai cuisine at its most authentic and with the frills of exceptional service in exquisite surroundings. The Boathouse is where Chef Sonthaya Nithan, Khun Jimmy, has held the role of Thai Head Chef and Executive Sous Chef for the hotel since 2016. He is often found in the upper level of the restaurant in ‘his’ cooking studio, a sleek and modern open kitchen and dining room with idyllic views of Kata beach, where cooking classes are regularly held for both hotel residents and non-residents. On my call, Chef Jimmy tells me his story, “Growing up in Pattaya, I was primarily taught how to cook by my mother and I fondly recall those days when my mum and dad would compete with each other, both cooking main dishes and my three brothers and I would vote for which dish we preferred; mostly mum would win! Following many years in Pattaya, I wanted to see more and mistakenly took a role in Germany as sous chef in a Thai restaurant; sadly, this did not meet my expectations; the recipes having no reliance on authentic ingredients or traditional recipes. I was fortunate, however to be offered an opportunity to return to Thailand at The Boathouse.
I like to cook like my mother did, using local ingredients with a slightly more modern presentation.” Chef Jimmy is the winner of multiple culinary medals; dishes that exemplify his philosophy are home style spiced Lamb Shank Massaman Curry with the modern twist of a sweet potato puree, Yam Som O, pomelo and smoked shrimp salad and Tord Man Goong, shredded banana flower and minced prawn cakes. “I also like to recommend my Braised Beef Cheek Green Curry and Phuket style Moo Hong, pork belly with sweet soy sauce, but some of our non-Thai guests find these a little too adventurous and go for classic Tom Yum Kung or if slightly daring, I can persuade them to try my Tom Yum with Oxtail. As a proud Thai, these recipes perfectly showcase our cultural heritage and Thailand’s abundance of produce.” He ends our conversation passionately with, “I want all our guests to experience proper Thai food!”
My next call is to Head Thai Chef of luxury hotel, The Nai Harn, Khun Chatchanan Punjasuphachok, or Chef Ann. I ask her for her story. “I joined this celebrated hotel four years ago, hailing from Pranburi. Like many of my counterparts, I learnt to cook from my mum and have held roles in five star hotels across Thailand, including a stint on Koh Kood, where I was mentored by the renowned Chef Benz, herself a legend. It was here, that I truly learnt the pillars of classical Thai cuisine, making my own curry paste, embracing a no menu concept where whatever was found fresh at the market that morning or delivered by local fishermen would become the ingredients of a special dish that evening.” Chef Ann describes her favourite dishes, “Pha Goong, a tasty lemongrass salad with grilled local prawns, Plas Pad King, stir fried sea bass with ginger, celery, onion and oyster sauce and a Gaeng Phed Ped Yang, roast duck red curry.’ Like Chef Jimmy, Chef Ann believes in utilising local produce in traditional heritage recipes.
She continues, “Here at The Nai Harn, we offer authentic Thai recipes showcasing the best produce we have in painstaking, meticulously adhered-to recipes handed down from generation to generation.” She has been able to share her skills in Europe with promotions at a fashion week in Stuttgart and at the iconic Brenners Park alongside many illustrious European Chefs who enjoy experiencing true Thai cuisine. Chef Ann enthusiastically narrates her signature dishes, “Neua Toon, stewed beef cheek in a chili sauce and Sen Mee Moo Yang, grilled pork neck with vermicelli.” Both, sound absolutely mouthwatering!
My call ended, I reflect; whilst I am a great supporter of the ‘mom and pop’ restaurants that are dotted across Thailand, gems that offer street food at its best, just sometimes, the luxury hotels are worth a splurge for unadulterated Thai dishes prepared to perfection, a bit like a dry aged beef wellington served with bobby beans, fondant potatoes, confit shallots and peppercorn sauce. Truly memorable and definitely unrepeatable at home!
by Chris Watson
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.