One of the lesser-known consequences of the Vietnam War was the kick start it gave to Thai restaurants around the globe. All those millions of GIs on R & R in Bangkok became culinary ambassadors to the rest of the world before masses of tourists replaced them. Today, from London to Las Vegas, it is a cuisine you could identify blindfolded, with keynotes of chili, lemongrass, fish sauce, and shrimp paste.
Suddenly, a new chef has emerged in Bangkok who is revolutionizing Thai cuisine with creations that respect the foundations but take them to another level. Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn is the 30-year-old chef-owner of a modest establishment in Bangkok’s financial district, a 15-minute walk from Lumpini Park, called Le Du (Thai for “season”), where nearly 100 percent of the ingredients are Thai, but the concepts are more global.
Take khao chae, a Thai summer dish of iced rice in jasmine-scented water. In Le Du’s kitchen, it is transformed into cool rice with jasmine ice cream and a wild-ginger purée served with pork and shrimp balls with prickly radish greens. “It is a very simple dish, but it is the one I spent the most time to develop, as it is so close to Thai people’s hearts,” Tassanakajohn says. “They had to enjoy it, otherwise I have failed.”
Green chicken curry, another classic dish, usually swims in a spicy sauce, served with long-grain rice, but the Le Du version is created with contemporary culinary techniques. Chicken is soaked in brine overnight and then marinated for several hours before being slow cooked via sous vide. Pea eggplants are pickled, rather than boiled in a spicy sauce, while the large chunks of eggplant are cooked in coconut milk. The dish has a nearly identical flavor to the original version, but the ingredients are better defined and more intense.
Tassanakajohn’s use of sous vide, sauce straining, and purées is unheard of in traditional Thai cuisine. Thai wing bean salad is usually served on rice (which, along with noodles, is hardly used at Le Du), with the wing beans dominating the plate. But Tassanakajohn serves it with river prawns and a sauce made from prawn shells, tamarind, lemongrass, and other Thai herbs, strained to resemble a Western sauce. The wing beans become a garnish. “Most people in Bangkok eat traditional Thai food every day, but these dishes seem very different, yet familiar because of the same flavors,” he says.
David Thompson, the Australian-born Thai-cuisine guru and owner of Nahm in Bangkok, has no doubt about Tassanakajohn’s talent. “Ton creates amazing food,” he says. “He is one of the main reasons Bangkok is changing from being a food city to a restaurant city. Because he is Thai, he can break all the rules, deconstruct, and reconstruct, which I could never do as an outsider.”
Tassanakajohn’s talent is not entirely homegrown. After graduating with an economics degree from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, he worked at a bank for two months before pursuing cooking. In 2010, he traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America. He interned for six months as a chef de partie in the cold section of Eleven Madison Park, finished top of his class, and spent a year at Danny Meyer’s The Modern.
Within six months of returning to Bangkok in 2013, he found an abandoned restaurant off Silom Road and reopened it with a university friend looking after the front of house. The space is down a small side street, or soi, along with a local market and a number of noodle stalls and soup kitchens that operate during office hours. Le Du has just 36 seats, with teak planks from old rural Thai houses decorating the walls and simple tables and chairs on a cement floor. The one nod toward modernity is the large open kitchen along one wall.
Seasonality is another keystone in his philosophy. “People here tend to forget about it,” he says. “At present, we have a lot of fruit and vegetables from the north of Thailand, plus wild strawberries and gooseberries. I can’t wait for the egg larvae to arrive in the summer.” Tassanakajohn uses only local fish, including tilapia, king mackerel, and sea bass, and he eschews farmed varieties. The only imports are the Spanish jamón Ibérico and chorizo. Although he may be rooted in Thai traditions, he is happy to experiment. “It is the next step,” he says. “Every cuisine needs to evolve, whether it is French, Chinese, Japanese, or Thai.”
399/3 Silom Soi 7; 66-92/919-9969; ledubkk.com.