Attracting upwards of 20 million tourists a year, Bangkok is the most visited city on earth. Its universal appeal isn’t exactly a mystery. Thailand’s capital city is a dynamic landscape seamlessly synthesizing old and new. Centuries-old temples and shrines exist alongside luxury hotels and designer boutiques. A long tail boat on the Chao Phraya river glides past the floating markets, while modern towers of glass and steel stretch to the sky overhead. Then there’s the food. Oh so much delicious food. Enticing aromas of galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce, simmering pork surround you as you navigate the dense urban grid; traditional ingredients that have held true here for generations. But now, a new guard of talented tastemakers are fusing these familiar flavors into something heretofore unseen. Suddenly, this is ground zero for Asia’s most conceptually driven kitchens. Come have a bite.
“Just a handful of years ago, dining out at a 'fancy' place in Bangkok meant going for French, Italian, or even Japanese,” said Chris Schalkx, a local food writer and co-founder of one of the city’s most-clicked food blogs. “Now, however, Thai fine dining restaurants are some of the most sought-after tables in town.”
The sea change was spearheaded by Gaggan Anand, an Indian-born chef who opened his eponymous restaurant in the city back in 2010. Since then, Gaggan has repeatedly appeared at or near the top of countless ‘Asia’s best restaurant’ lists. A student of Ferran Adrià (of elBulli in Spain), he proved that molecular gastronomy wouldn’t just work in this part of the world—it could thrive. And although his menus, by and large, focus on Indian and Japanese sensibilities, his progressive approach both inspired and invigorated the local talent.
“Today’s chefs aim to elevate Thai cuisine, and discover the many dimensions of regional specialities,” according to Schalkx. The country’s culinary map is typically broken down into general geographic quadrants: northern, southern, central, and northeastern—also known as Isaan. In Bangkok, they are all there for the picking.
At Sri Trat, in the Phrom Phong neighborhood of the city, Wongwich Sripinyoo specializes in the fare he grew up with in the country’s southeastern provinces of Trat and Chanthaburi. This includes a strong bend towards curries and rich and creamy dips. But here traditional preparations are upgraded with modern flair. Massaman carries young durian into the fold, long pu kai is served with whole mud crab, and Khao krieb pak mor—one of Thailand’s oldest ‘street foods—is stuffed with coconut and fresh green beans.
“Slowly but surely, young Thai chefs have left their ‘Westernized’ approach to cooking behind and started exploring the Kingdom's rich gastronomic heritage,” said Schalkx. “[They] head out to the Thai jungle and countryside to forage undiscovered ingredients and learn new cooking techniques –fermentation, curing– from local tribes, often during weeks-long expeditions. Many of these chefs aim to use local produce as much as possible.”
Chefs Supaksorn Jongsiri (known as Khun Ice) and Yodkwan U-Pumpruk are both native to southern Thailand. Inspired by the flavors of their home region, they partnered up in 2017 to open Sorn. A colorful assortment of ingredients are sourced daily from that part of the country, ending up in artful arrangements rendered through old-fashioned cooking techniques. A clay pot cooks everything here, including the date-sweetened Galae. Usually made with chicken, this version incorporates tender beef served on a wooden stick. The khao yam is a beautiful compartmentalization of rice, greens, and herbs, that all come together table-side under a fermented fish sauce.
Across town, Funky Lam Kitchen is positioning Isaan classics under the gourmet spotlight. Many of the flavors from this region actually originated in Laos, and Laotian co-owners Sanya Souvanna Phouma and Saya Na Champassak hold that if you like Thai cuisine, chances are half of your favorite dishes originated in their home country. A contentious claim, to be sure, but what they’re plating here is undeniably delicious either way. Larb seen beef salad is built around Australian wagyu. Meats are cooked slow and low over a charcoal flame to suss out tenderness such as in the Lin seen—a slow braised ox tongue served with a savory dipping sauce known as jaew sohm.
Even the high-minded cuisine born of Western origin now leans more heavily towards local sourcing. On the 61st floor of the Lebua Hotel, Vincent Thierry recently arrived as the city’s first three-starred Michelin chef. The contemporary cuisine he creates at Chef’s Table is decidedly French. Yet the ingredients consistently work in Thai components, including chocolate from Chang Mai and homemade butters and creams crafted from the farms of Khao Yai.
To helm its top tier kitchens, this city has had no trouble attracting exceptional talent from across the globe. But Bangkok seems to have reached a gastronomic tipping point wherein it’s finally incubating homegrown chefs in equal measure. Watch what Thitid Tassanakajohn brings to his seasonal tasting menus at Michelin-starred Le Du. Keep an eye out for Pongcharn Russell, the 27-year-old wunderkind of Freebird fame, who is readying his first fine dining pop-up, Ter’ra, later this year. Sujira Pongmorn is showing diners what a Thai tasting menu ought to look like; at Saawaan, she brought the inventive eatery a Michelin star in its first year in business.
These are the faces of a place in the midst of a modern culinary awakening. They’ll be waiting for you when you inevitably arrive. It’s not as if this city needed any help attracting travelers. But for any self-respecting gourmand, a pilgrimage to Bangkok is no longer a question of ‘if’, as it is of ‘when’?