Zest Interview: Bangkok’s Pam Soontornyanakij Is Asia’s Best Female Chef For 2024

Winner of multiple awards and a distinguished chef of her own accord, Pichaya ‘Pam’ Soontornyanakij is one of Thailand’s most celebrated chefs from the country.

Published On Feb 06, 2024 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


She’d dreamt of a Michelin and got much more than that. Bangkok’s celebrated chef, Pam Soontonrnyankij, who’s the first woman chef to not only get to that star but also receive the ‘Opening of the Year’ award, has also been announced as Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2024 by Asia’s 50 Best. Growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, Chef Pam's sojourn in the kitchen began as a child but she never really thought of being a professional life. “I come from a multi-cultural family. My mother is Chinese and my father is part Australian, part Thai and part Chinese. And my mother, who's a homemaker, would cook a lot. And because she also had to take care of me, she would take me everywhere, including her shopping trips. So we ended up eating all kinds of food at home and I would spend a lot of time with her in the kitchen,” she says.


As she grew up, Soontornyanakij went on to study communication arts. “But it didn't really fulfil my passion for what I wanted to do. So I asked my mom if I could get into cooking. Mom also wanted to study culinary arts when she was young but couldn't afford it. So for me to want to learn cooking professionally was almost making her dream come true. I studied in Bangkok for a bit and then went to New York to study. After finishing that I started working with the Michelin-star restaurant Jean-Georges. It was there that I realised how passionate I truly was about cooking. It was a challenging experience with plenty of hardships, not to mention I was away from my family, but it was rewards,” she explains. 

After a few years of working in New York, Soontornyanakij returned to Bangkok in 2016 and started her own catering and private dining company. After that she opened a more casual brand called Smoked that is all about American barbecues. But it's Potong, her third brand, that brought the big change to her life. “I think the most difficult thing for any chef's career is to find themselves and what they really want to do. It took me a while, but Potong, a progressive Thai Chinese restaurant, represents what I am as a chef. I wanted to represent the cuisine I grew up with, but also add my innovations that I learned from other parts of the world, and create something that is unique, and truly mine,” she adds. 

Potong was featured at 35 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2023.

Soontornyanakij's latest win, voted in by 318 members of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, only goes to prove how she not only excels at pushing boundaries but also acts as an inspiration to those women who choose hospitality as a career. But whoever thought it's all about the glory, could not be more wrong. “I do have a responsibility towards the restaurant and the cuisine, and how can I represent the award that I have won, or the generation that might be looking up to me and hoping to do well in the culinary arts. But that is not stressful. It actually motivates me to do better. I also have to stay updated, stay on my toes all the time. But I do think it's fun, it's nonstop of action,” adds the chef. 

Being a chef and being a restaurant owner is a work of true balance, but Soontornyanakij says that she's very fortunate to have her husband to help her out. “He was doing well in the corporate sector. But when I decided to go on my own, he also quite his job and moved back with me to Thailand to be my other partner in the business. He really wants me to focus on my passion, what I truly liked, and he looks after the business side of things,” explains chef. 

Known as Chef Pam, Soontornyanakij, who’s also a TV personality, at the age of 21, became the youngest chef to win the 2011 Asia Youth Hope Cooking competition by Les Disciples d’Escoffier. Since then, she’s only been on the climb. Her story will soon be aired on Netflix’s series ‘Chefs Uncut’. 

“This award goes beyond personal achievement — it celebrates my beliefs, respect for heritage, and a relentless pursuit to better myself. May this accolade inspire young female chefs to break barriers and ignite grand culinary dreams. I believe that with passion and dedication, anyone can carve their path to success. I am grateful to 50 Best for this recognition — it's not just mine, but a triumph for every aspiring chef worldwide,” the chef had said in an official statement. 

“To be honest, for me it was hard, but not because I was a woman. Being in the kitchen is a difficult job. I have heard stories of discrimination, but didn't have to face it. I am lucky. But the job is challenging. So it eventually boils down to if the woman can pursue her goals and dreams and overcome those challenges,” she says. 

Soontonrnyankij’s restaurant, Potong, which translates to ‘simple’, offers a culinary reflection of the chef’s Thai-Chinese heritage and pays homage to her family's legacy and history. Located in the building that was once a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy, Potong straddles tradition and avant-garde culinary techniques, offering a tasting menu comprising 20 dishes that reflect her five-element philosophy of ‘salt, acid, spice, texture, and the Maillard Reaction’. “The building is an intrinsic part of Potong's identity. It has been in our family for more than five generations, it represents our heritage. In 2019, the the-then tenants left and I went there to check it out and fell in love. It's in a busy small street, not really a place where you'll find a fine-dining restaurant but it just felt right to have Potong there. And when diners come there, I want them to experience travelling back in time, taste the menu my mom used to cook for me. Potong is an interactive space, what you see is not always it is. It's how I like it, to be able to create surprises and memories for diners,” she says. 

Soontonrnyankij has also recently floated her own scholarship programme called WFW (Women for Women) together with American Women’s Club of Thailand, a non-profit organisation, to support female students in rural areas of Thailand to achieve their dream in becoming chefs.

Photo: Instagram/Pam Soontornyanakij