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How Thailand’s Le Du restaurant tells Chef Ton’s story of making street food a fine-dining experience

Spicy, street food and cheap. These were words that were often used to describe Thai food, says Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. A decade later, his modern Thai heritage fine-dining restaurant Le Du in Bangkok, which offers a four-course tasting menu featuring the agricultural bounty of Thailand and centuries-old culinary cultures, has overturned some of those stereotypes and made it to the number 1 spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list 2023. His other restaurant, Nusara, which opened its doors during the pandemic and offers a 12-course tasting menu served in the traditional Thai family style, made it to number 3 on the same list, making him the only Thai chef to have two restaurants on it.

During his visit to The St Regis Mumbai last month alongside Masque (Mumbai) and Potong (Bangkok) — both of which made it Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2023 at rank 16 and 35 respectively — for Masters of Marriott Bonvoy, The Indian Express sat down for a chat with the banker-turned-chef and restauranteur on his restaurants, his vision and why he took so long to expand outside Thailand. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us more about Le Du that won the top spot in Asia.

The word Le Du means season in Thailand. Everything we use is 100 per cent local and seasonal. We don’t import anything — I am not only cooking Thai food but also showcasing Thai produce and with that, I am showcasing the work of farmers and fishermen who have been our partners for a very long time. When it comes to food, you get modern Thai food but with a presentation that highlights the ingredients.

What made you launch Nusara and what is it about it that has put it on the culinary map so soon?

Nusara comes from our love and relationship with my grandmother. My brother – who runs it with me — and I grew up very close to our grandmother, who would cook and feed us every day. She passed away towards the end of 2019 and we wanted to have something in her memory and thus came Nusara. Named after her, it started in 2020 with a chef’s table offering fine dining Thai cuisine with a traditional approach — imagine a 12-course tasting menu proceeding from small, creative dishes to mains served in the traditional Thai family style to mark the memories we have of her — and we were fully booked for the whole year by the local people. In April this year, we moved to a bigger space to cater to the growing demand.

Cured king mackarel, corn and fermented fish & corn sauce Cured king mackarel, corn and fermented fish & corn sauce

How has working closely with farmers and fishermen helped you achieve your goal?

At the heart of what we do lies our connection with farmers and fishermen. We are the first in Thailand to build a serious relationship with them and help them live a better life. Many of them expanded their work to cater to our demand. For instance, I convinced one of my vegetable producers to grow edible flowers and even though she was initially sceptical, today she is one of the country’s biggest producers of edible flowers.

What was your initial goal? How long did it take for you to become profitable?

My goal has always been to elevate Thai food. People know it as street food and I wanted it to be accepted in a broader spectrum of cuisine. And, it is not just about cuisine but also ingredients and that’s why it took us two years before we became profitable because we had so much to prove.

At a time when it was curtains for many restaurants across the world, you launched so many food ventures. Why?

I don’t know whether I was bored or inspired but I had two restaurants before the pandemic and today I have about ten. The lockdown saw the industry going through a very hard time, I saw it as an opportunity to help my industry and its people and because of that risk, I have created a strong team of about 100 people and it is growing stronger.

You have been to India a couple of times. Is there any cooking technique or dish that connects both cuisines?

Thai and Indian cuisines draw inspiration from each other. Thai curry, as we know it, is historically inspired by Indian curry.

A lot of places that get global recognition do tasting menus, including Le Du and Nusara. Is that the only way?

No, that’s not the only way. The tasting menu is the preference of the chef to express the ideas and a bit of the ego as well (laughs) and I think that’s how they were created but there are restaurants making it to the top without them.

Pork stuffed with bamboo leaves, Northeastern herbal curry and eggplant Pork stuffed with bamboo leaves, Northeastern herbal curry and eggplant

You opened your first restaurant outside Thailand (Niras in Hong Kong) just a couple of months ago. What took so long?

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I could have had a successful restaurant in New York but that wasn’t my goal. It was to make something that the locals believe in and that’s what we have achieved. Initially, people would wonder why they should pay us so much when they can spend that money to have French or other cuisines. I had to convince people, especially the locals because unless they accepted my food, I would feel that I haven’t achieved anything.

Do we see you taking your footprint to more places?

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It would be great to have something in India, and hopefully someday in New York as well.

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