This ‘Chef’s Table’ Star Infuses New Life Into Traditional Thai Cuisine

10.15.18 1 month ago

Bo.lan

“We’re not going to make it less spicy because you can’t eat spicy. People walk out from my restaurant, but we are happier if they decide not to eat, because if the mind is not going to open from the beginning, it’s not going to work,” Chef Bo Songvisava — Chef’s Table, Season Five

Chef’s Table, the Emmy-nominated Netflix show (which showcases a different innovative chef each episode) is trying something new for seasons five and six. They’re zooming in on women and people of color. What’s so great about this commitment to show diverse chefs on screen isn’t just that it’s happening (although that’s very exciting), it’s that the show’s producers made the move after people complained that the series had mostly been featuring white men. Instead of becoming defensive or doubling down, the Chef’s Table team listened. And then they promised to dig deeper and learn from the conversation.

This kind of thoughtful adjustment is a rarity these days and we all get to reap the spoils — a more diverse food culture is a win for literally everyone. Besides, getting to know the work of chefs like Thailand’s Bo Songvisava is just plain old great TV.

Chef Bo embodies the same spirit that drove the Chef’s Table creators to widen their POV. Her restaurant, Bangkok’s Bo.lan, is both truly authentic and highly regional. With locally sourced, high-quality ingredients, and cooking and preparation methods that harken a return to traditional cooking.

Just like Chef’s Table decided to believe that people would be just as drawn to diversity in chefs, Songvisava believed that tourists and young Thai people could embrace the actual culture and flavors of Thai food. When she opened her restaurant, she set out to give them the chance to do so.

“There is a gap in the society,” Bo explains. “As culture changed in Thailand, working outside of the home became the norm and the traditional versions of recipes that were passed from mouth to mouth, mother to daughter were being lost. A lot of dishes were disappearing really quickly.”

Songvisava grew up loving cooking. She adored the happiness food could bring people. But the food her family cooked, she says, wasn’t traditional Thai. People in Thai cities didn’t have the time to cook anymore the way they used to, and food carts and stalls dominated the food scene. As a result, anyone who wanted to be a chef in Thailand most likely ended up at a European or American-run place.

This conundrum led Songvisava to seek out a restaurant where she could learn to cook Thai food the way it used to be done. She found what she was looking for at David Thompson’s Nahm in London — the first Thai restaurant ever to get a Michelin star.

Work at Nahm was hard but it was exactly what the young chef craved. The methods of preparation were gruelingly traditional. Bo was determined to succeed, something Dylan Jones, a fellow chef at Nahm, noticed. And fell in love with. A few years later the duo was striking out on their own — planning to bring traditional Thai food in a fine dining setting to Bangkok. The name they picked for their joint endeavor was Bo.lan, a play on their names together but also a homonym for the Thai word for “vintage.” They wanted to handmake dishes the ways they’d been made hundreds of years ago and serve food without substitutions. And use high-quality, locally sourced ingredients.

This meant the food would come at a cost, which people weren’t used to seeing with Thai cuisine in Bangkok. It was definitely a risk.

Bo.lan

“We just spent days and days, sitting in different booths and going through all the books,” Bo says of how the couple prepared to build their menu. “Because sometimes a recipe is at the back of the funeral memory book. Like a memoir.”

Of course, preparing lost recipes isn’t always an easy endeavor. It makes one wonder, how many of these lesser-known recipes didn’t work out?

“Oh hundreds,” Dylan laughs.

“Recipes didn’t really get specific with the measurements,” Bo explains. “Or how you do it, or how it should taste like…So some recipes, when you read it, it sounds very interesting but when you try it out, its just like ewwwwww.”

On top of trying recipes that probably hadn’t been attempted in the last century, Bo and Dylan were asking chefs to put in an insane amount of work in order to cook traditionally. For some, it was a deal breaker. They went through three sets of staff in the few months after opening. Bo would literally chase chefs into the parking lot, asking them why they were leaving in the middle of a workday.

“We’re not going to take on a staff member that doesn’t drink the kool-aid, so to speak,” Dylan says. “We want everyone to be on board with our philosophy and if those people want to work for us, we want to work with them. That helps to create a really good environment because we can believe in our staff and we know that they’ve got Bo.lan’s best interest at heart.”

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