Wall Street Journal: Thailand, Asia’s New Culinary Crown
Thailand’s explosively spicy cuisine, cheap labor and local products lure entrepreneurial chefs.
In a night of boozy bliss and culinary ecstasy, Asia’s 50 best restaurants were announced Monday at a ceremony in Bangkok. China, Japan and Singapore dominated with nearly half the awards, but the rising star on everyone’s lips was the host country, Thailand.
Topping the list for an unprecedented second year running was Gaggan, a Bangkok restaurant that combines Indian cuisine with molecular gastronomy. Using his own laboratory, Mr. Gaggan deconstructs traditional Indian recipes, creating unique, often surreal-looking dishes filled with surprising flavors.
“Definitely, Thailand is now recognized as a hot spot for dining,” said Mr. Gaggan Anand, the restaurant’s colorful owner and experimental chef.
Thailand may have had only four restaurants on the list (China, including Hong Kong and Macau, had 13, while Japan and Singapore had 10 each). But all four of them (Gaggan, Nahm, Eat Me and Issaya Siamese Club) placed in the top 25, with two in the top 10. Thailand also claimed a lifetime-achievement award for Australian David Thompson, who has spent his entire career cooking and writing about Thai cuisine.
Mr. Thompson deflected praise for an award reserved, in most industries, for former stars: “Naturally, I feel like I still have a lot of life left.” He gave all the credit to Thai food, an explosively hot cuisine he has chronicled not only at Nahm, his acclaimed Bangkok restaurant, but also in two books. Thai food was celebrated for ages in local kitchens and street corners but now is a global force, he said.
The glitzy awards, sponsored by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, come from William Reed Business Media, a fast-growing competitor to other established restaurant-ratings lists such as Michelin. More than 300 writers, chefs, restaurateurs and foodies from across Asia voted for the winners. Yet past the results have been criticized for lacking diversity and localization. This year, the Philippines (Gallery Vask, at No. 39), Cambodia (Cuisine Wat Damnak, No. 43) and Indonesia (Bali’s Locavore, No. 49) each had only one restaurant make the list. The Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal and Vietnam had none.
William Drew, William Reed’s group editor for the World’s 50 Best (which also does a global and Latin American list), praised the range of winners. “We had 13 different countries and territories— more than ever before,” he said. “Up and down the list, you can see a reflection of the diversity of the cuisine.” Twenty percent of restaurants listed were new entries.
After a three-year run in Singapore, this year the award ceremony relocated to Bangkok. “We want to move from one gastronomic capital to the next, showcasing all the great food cities,” said Mr. Drew. The goal isn’t only to bring increased recognition with visiting chefs, but also to present opportunities for more local cooks to participate. This year, three of the world’s top chefs, including Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (No.1 on the World’s 50 Best list), attended the ceremonies in Bangkok and traveled to Chiang Mai with several Thai chefs.
Monday’s awards were at The House on Sathorn, a fitting showcase for the rich range of Asia’s exotic flavors. Now part of the luxury W Bangkok Hotel, the century-old colonial mansion and former Russian embassy reopened after a three-year renovation. Turkish chef Fatih Tutak’s résumé includes stints at the famed Nihonryori Ryugin in Tokyo and Noma in Denmark. His grilled octopus in vine leaves and grouper topped with sambal, onion and chili-fired lime were delicious examples of his New Asian cuisine.
Some years back, creative chefs like Mr. Tutak would have bypassed Bangkok, where few standout restaurants existed outside the main hotels. Top talent gravitated toward Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and, more recently, Seoul and Shanghai. But a renaissance has lifted Bangkok’s restaurant scene.
Mr. Thompson attributed this to rising incomes, a return of Thai chefs with experience in the great kitchens overseas, and an increased experimentation with Thai flavors. His own career exemplifies the latter two factors. While in England, he won the first Michelin star awarded to a Thai restaurant, then later opened his acclaimed Nahm in Bangkok.
“This city has been completely transformed,” Gaggan’s Mr. Anand said. He arrived in Bangkok from India in 2007 to find a city largely lacking in signature restaurants. “Places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo are already saturated. You can really make your mark in Bangkok. All these young chefs are coming and doing unique things.”
The city’s neighborhoods are bustling with creativity and vibrant options. “Bangkok has become one of the world’s best cities for eating,” said Jarrett Wrisley. The Allentown, Pa., native moved to Bangkok from Shanghai, where he was a journalist. He opened Soul Food Mahanakorn in 2010, serving zesty northern Thai food in a remodeled shophouse in Thong Lo, now one of the city’s trendiest districts. Six years later, he’s added Appia—a Roman trattoria—and five more outlets.
“Bangkok’s the real deal,” Mr. Wrisley explained. “The entry costs are low, so you get a lot of entrepreneurs as opposed to chain restaurants and real-estate groups. Labor is cheap, plus you have all these great products available locally. And Thais love food.”
Judging from this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, that love affair is going global.
Mr. Gluckman is a Bangkok-based writer.