Despite Thailand being an agriculture-based economy, many products end up exported and quality has never been comparable to the imported variety – that is until today.
Emerging from these improvements has been a restaurant movement focusing on local, artisanal offerings of the highest quality with many garnering Michelin stars and other accolades for their efforts. Combined with this has been a focus on organic, sustainable farming with a goal to minimise carbon footprint. Inevitably this has placed question marks around those restaurants which only feature imported products. But are these questions really fair?
Considering the question of whether to import or not, clearly if one is dining at an Italian restaurant, one’s expectation is to eat parmesan cheese on one’s spaghetti carbonara. So integrity of concept must be preserved. However, where there is the possibility of using local produce, why do chefs continue to use the imported offering?
Perhaps the single largest area of improvement in Thai-raised protein has been in that of beef. Whilst Thais have not traditionally had an appetite for this particular meat, for obvious reasons, the younger generation are now gradually shunning their parents’ beliefs, and as a direct result of this, a plethora of premium steakhouses have successfully sprouted across the country.
The recently opened Prime at The Nai Harn, Phuket offers up an extensive range of world-renowned, imported Stanbroke and Rangers Valley wagyu from Australia, and their Executive Chef Mark Jones holds the view that Thai beef is not quite yet at the level insisted on by his discerning diners. Mark describes the Rangers Valley black market sirloin, 30-day dry-aged with Himalayan sea salt and a marble score of six, as “truly incredible” in terms of both flavour and texture.
Focusing on the other side of the coin with a local offering, Chalee Kader, chef/proprietor at 100 Mahaseth in Bangkok, the receiver of a Bib Gourmand award for his Isaan-themed restaurant, provides a menu entirely devoted to Thai beef, and to a certain extent challenges that view. He receives his beef from Korat, and whilst embracing a nose-to-tail philosophy, offers lesser-seen cuts of bavette and oyster blade in addition to his prized fillet and rib-eye. He believes that in a blind tasting, his local beef, cross-bred for the past 15 years, would come out on top.
Chalee does, however, somewhat amusingly comment that Thai diners quite often query why this local beef is so expensive, almost the same price as imported Aussie or US wagyu. Interestingly, despite this, he tells me proudly that the premium cuts always sell out first.
Whilst chefs may debate whether Thai wagyu can truly sit alongside the Australian or American variety, most chefs concur that it cannot yet compare with Japanese wagyu such as the gold medal-winning Miyazaki, the accepted champion of the wagyu Olympics.
In Bangkok, Ryuki Kawasaki, chef at the two-Michelin-starred contemporary European Mezzaluna, imports almost 80% from Japan including his signature beef, Niigata Murakami wagyu beef A5, which he serves grilled over Binchotan charcoal. The quality of this beef, he believes, is unrivalled. This perfectly meets his diner expectations for luxury proteins.
Back in Phuket, our only Michelin-starred restaurant on the island, PRU, located at Trisara, is proud of its 100% local commitment. Head Chef Jimmy Ophorst can frequently be found nearby the restaurant at his dedicated farm, Pru Jumpa. On his seasonally-inspired menus, he currently offers Thai beef from Nakhon Phanom alongside locally grown vegetables.
In fact, he informs me that the key to his signature carrot dish – unsurprisingly, the carrot – is the intense sweetness, largely due to the influence of the much warmer climate. His locally grown beetroot, which features unusually in a dessert, is also an opinion-altering surprise. One of Jimmy’s aims is to stimulate the diner through his innovative combinations to rethink their view of these humble vegetables.
Continuing with this theme, Alessandro Frau, chef and owner of Phuket’s temple to Italian gastronomy, Acqua, recently awarded a Michelin Plate, has discovered a fellow Italian in Khao Yai who using Italian seeds is growing many Italian vegetable varieties here in Thailand, which are now reaching his required standard. He does, however, still import many Italian products as his diners expect when they ask the provenance of, say, the asparagus or the tomato for it to be 100% Italian.
A fellow Phuket restaurateur, Jamie Wakeford, chef/partner of Bampot Kitchen & Bar, also a recipient of the Michelin Plate, recently branched out with a second restaurant, Olta in Bangkok, and reflects that when he opened Bampot in Laguna in 2015, sourcing quality, local products at that time was a daily challenge. He agrees that the local scene has improved considerably with the upsurge in artisanal producers. He is currently featuring on his Bangkok menu recently discovered Chiang Mai heirloom tomatoes which I have been fortunate to experience; sweet and juicy!
However, for chefs to be able to offer their diners a choice of local products, they need to have access to growers who share their philosophy of cooking the seasons and the drive for the zero-mile vegetable.
James Noble, a former star-studded British chef, has established his farm in Pranburi. Boutique Farmers, located south of Hua Hin in Pak Nam Pran, specialises in organic and sustainable growing, providing vegetables to many of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Thailand. One can also experience dishes created from “plant to plate” as James likes to say at his farm restaurant, open for dinner at the weekend and Sunday brunch. You can even homestay for a very nominal price, provided you help out around the farm!
Fish and seafood in particular surprisingly pose yet another dilemma. Regarding lobster, Mark comments that it’s extremely difficult to source a consistent supplier of local lobster, it’s often up to three times the price of imported Boston lobster and, sadly, despite the freshness of the former, it’s not necessarily a more superior end product.
Scallops offer up an equally challenging issue; the local queenies just cannot compare with the deep, icy water, hand-dived Hokkaido scallops on Mark’s menu.
Jimmy has had some success with a painstaking but ultimately worthwhile search for Phang Nga crab and river prawns from Surat Thani which are both truly exceptional. Alessandro’s diners, however, have an expectation of the vibrant, red Sicilian prawns which reflect his Italian heritage.
As for local fish, most chefs agree that they would love to offer them up, but there are very few that meet their exacting standards due to the warm, muddy waters affecting the flesh and ultimately the taste. Jimmy features on his latest menu an innovative cobia and sturgeon dish, but most except for the truly brave prefer to import.
Butter and cheese have also presented chefs with a further headache with many importing both from France and Italy. Alessandro even serves up the stellar Beppino Occelli wrapped in parchment, a multi-award winner in blind tastings.
Jimmy, strictly adhering to the PRU philosophy, churns his own with a high fat content local milk to ensure the end result delivers the rich and creamy taste and texture we love. PRU also leads the field in Phuket and I believe even in Thailand with a world-class range of Thai cheeses from cow, sheep and goat, mostly from the north of the country and certainly worthy of comparison with those from France and Italy.
So, having chatted with this group of culinary magicians, let’s acknowledge that this drive for culinary excellence is not solely driven by chefs themselves; it is also catering to diner demand as they seek ever more exceptional culinary experiences. The demand for premium products is as high as it has ever been. Diners still seek luxury imported produce and are apparently willing to pay the price associated with the unique flavour profiles offered. Sustainability is of course moving up the league table and we must respect both chefs who challenge themselves with locally sourcing the best that Thailand has to offer and also those who strictly maintain their integrity of concept.
Whether it’s local or imported, providing it for our dining pleasure at its peak is a far from easy task. In my discussions with these incredibly talented cooks, several also raised the customer value perception; diners, be they Thai or non-Thai, will always sadly be more willing to pay a higher price for an imported product, rather than a product from “up the road”, although this may indeed change with time.
But Thailand’s wealth of high quality products does not end with proteins and vegetables. Whilst many of you reading this article will have undoubtedly sampled local wagyu and vegetables, I want to share with you a further artisan product you may well be less aware of.
I wonder how many of you have sampled the ever-widening range of artisan bean-to-bar local Thai chocolate on offer, particularly at the premium end of the market. If I was to ask you, “Where does the best chocolate originate from?”, perhaps you would say Belgium, Switzerland or France with beans from South America.
However, Thailand is now competing on the global stage. The cacao bean is now grown across Thailand in Chanthaburi, Nan, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon. Growers such as Kad Kokoa are leading the field with award-winning chocolate bars. Other artisan chocolate makers such as Xoconat are specialising in small batch production that in blind tastings is beating competitors.
In conclusion, there is an old Thai saying, “Nai nam mee pla nai na mee khao” – “there are fish in the waters, there is rice in the fields.” It seems that now there is much more than just fish and rice; Thailand is indeed a land of plenty and now premium plenty!
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.