A young student travels to the US with a student group and works in a casino’s kitchen. The experience gets him hooked and he returns to the US soon after — this time to join the Culinary Institute of America. Once graduated, he goes on to work at Michelin-starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, and Jean Georges before returning to Thailand and starting his own restaurant. Today, two of his restaurants, Le Du and Nusara, are among the top in the country. Ton, meanwhile, is the first Thai chef to win a Michelin star.
Chef Thitid Tassanakajohn, better known as Chef Ton, was recently in the capital in association with Culinary Culture (known for bringing top chefs from across the world to India) for an exclusive two-day pop-up at The Leela Ambience Gurugram. He presented an eight-course degustation menu with beautiful cocktails accompanying each course. The two dinners, which were sold out well in advance, included stellar dishes like prawn with chilli beetroot sorbet, lobster curry and stinky sprout, lamb massaman with potato, and sticky rice with mango. Every preparation gave an insight into Le Du’s well-thought-out, balanced and nuanced menu, for which many ingredients he had carried with him. Post a hearty meal, we caught up with the chef on all things food.
Excerpts of the interview:
1. What brings you to India? Is this your first visit?
I have been to India before but it’s my first time in Delhi thanks to Culinary Culture. I love India and wanted to bring the flavours of Thailand here and so I am here! I have carried with me some key ingredients from the north and south of Thailand to ensure the experience one gets is original and authentic. I want people to taste real Thai food.
2. You have two restaurants on Asia's 50 Best. What does it mean to you personally and for Thailand’s culinary scene?
More than me or my restaurants, it is about the visibility and recognition that Thai cuisine is getting. The acceptance and appreciation for Thai food worldwide mean a lot to us and that is also my personal goal — to take Thai food to the world’s stage. But, of course, I am very happy that my restaurants are among the top 50 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants and at No. 65 on the World’s 50 Best.
3. Tell us a bit about your restaurants — Le Du and Nusara.
Le Du is a modern Thai restaurant that combines Thai ingredients and flavours with French techniques. So you have food that is very modern, pre-plated, served in courses and appeals to all kinds of people including ex-pats, travellers and locals.
The other, Nusara is a small space that is dedicated to my grandmother who brought up my brother and me. We lost her a few years ago and wanted to remember her through her food. So, we serve home-style Thai food with some twists in a small 14-seater space that offers a peek into the food I grew up eating.
What are the hottest culinary trends Thailand is looking at in 2023?
In fact, just like the theme of my restaurant, Nusara, many new restaurants are bringing back original recipes and heritage ingredients in Thailand. Back to roots is the hottest culinary trend in Thailand right now and people are also happy to give attention to their own food and ingredients rather than running behind foreign food and imported ingredients, which is a welcome change.
4. How is Indian food perceived in Thailand? Is it popular?
Indian food is very popular in Thailand. I will say it is among Thailand’s top three cuisines and we have many Indian restaurants. There are many similarities between Thai and Indian cuisines. Like India, we also use spices, curry and rice and most of these spices have come from India. Especially the massaman curry that was first created about a century ago with the Indian spice blend. In fact, we get many Indian guests at our restaurants and they love the food as much as we love serving them.
5. Have you explored Indian food yet? Is anything on your list?
On this trip, I have been to Indian Accent and Bukhara and I have to say I love the food in both places. Personally, I loved dal at both Bukhara and Indian Accent the most but I have to give it to the legendary Bukhara for its kebab that is so, so good and the naan that is just so smokey and amazing. I also made India-inspired pani puri as one of the starting courses we served at The Leela Ambience Gurugram and it is my ode to Indian food.