For weeks, I’ve watched Duangporn Songvisava (best known as Bo) yell orders in the kitchen or tend to her restaurant guests during dinner service. I walked into Bo.lan in Bangkok last month to interview for an internship, but what I thought would be a formal Q&A session became an enlightening conversation about the present and future of Thai food.
Songvisava opened Bo.lan in 2009 with her husband, Dylan Jones, and in 2013 was awarded with the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef by Veuve Clicquot’s 50 Best Restaurants in Asia. These days, Songvisava’s schedule includes hosting her weekly television show, Eat Am Are (on Thai PBS) and lecturing at local universities. Opening Bo.lan has also led her to educate people about general issues surrounding Thai food.
Working in Bo.lan’s kitchen and witnessing firsthand how the staff toil to achieve Songvisava’s vision of Thai cuisine, I found that this was more than just a restaurant; it was a wholesome representation of Thai culture and heritage. It’s about time that the world sees this very different side.
You’re doing something very different from other Thai restaurants. What is it about Bo.lan’s philosophy that sets it apart?
Our philosophy is based on the Slow Food philosophy, which includes supporting biodiversity. We want to use different vegetables, such as snake-skin pear, edible flowers, banana blossoms, betel leaves, that people don’t usually use because there’s no commercial value to them. Most Thai restaurants don’t use these vegetables because they are not widely available.
Do you think that these vegetables are more Thai in a way?
Yes, because they are indigenous to the land.
How do you find these indigenous vegetables?
People in Thailand still use them if they cook at home. You have to go to low-key markets. Nowadays supermarkets in Thailand have smaller sections for local vegetables. This wasn’t the case seven years ago. We have good relationships with farmers who deliver them, and more Thai restaurants are starting to do this.
Bo.lan does so much more than just serve delicious food. It also preserves Thai traditional recipes. Do you also see this as the restaurant’s mission?
Yes, another philosophy we have is to safeguard the Thai food heritage. When cooking we try to keep it as “Thai” or as “traditional” as we can — for example, using pestle and mortar or making our own coconut cream here at the restaurant.
Why is it that Thai food has to be safeguarded this way?
These days people want convenience, and people lose the core of how things get done and why we do things a certain way. A blender cannot replace a mortar and pestle. Preserving our food culture also applies to how we serve the food here. We serve our main course family-style because it is how Thai people eat. Some of our guests don’t understand that we don’t do courses here, and how the main affair comes in the middle. Thats how you get the balance right.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for people to accept the way Thai food is eaten?
People apply the same rules to all restaurants, and if we label ourselves as a fine-dining restaurant, then people have a certain perception and use Western standards to apply it to our food, which does not work at all — like people ask me for table salt to season their food, but that’s not Thai.
What do you feel Bo.lan is doing for Thai food in Thailand?
When people come to Thailand, they usually go to Thai restaurants in hotels where the menu is very stereotypical — tom yum, kaeng keaw wan, pad Thai. After we opened, a lot of places also came up with different concepts that didn’t already exist in the market. There’s a movement of what else Thai food can be.
How do you think you are influencing how Thai people look at Thai food?
The younger generation of chefs wants to learn about how Thai food was cooked back in the day. For me to be able to contribute to this interest is more important than having a successful restaurant. If you wanted to make money with a Thai restaurant you need to go elsewhere, but I didn’t want to do that because I wouldn’t have access to all the ingredients that I do here, and I wouldn’t have my relationships with farmers.
What made you realize that Bangkok needed a restaurant like Bo.lan?
I grew up in Bangkok and never saw anything like this. If you had friends visiting from abroad and wanted to show them something that was Thai, you couldn’t take them to a hotel restaurant because those aren’t real Thai flavors. And if you take them for street food, they might get sick.
So is the general idea of what Thai food is completely wrong?
The general crowd of people who might not travel or who do not have a background in gastronomy have a completely different idea of what Thai food is. We have customers who come and say, “I think the Thai food in San Fran is heaps better.” So the perception is still different.
What do you think about the new generation of Thai chefs?
The new generation is going to move things forward because they have the core understanding of Thai culture, and they want to go back and apply this tradition to their cooking. The problem is not the new generation; it’s the old generation.
Were older generations helpful when you were doing culinary research?
Not really. The older generation controls most Thai organizations. They are the ones that come up with lists like “10 Most Popular Thai Dishes” that foreigners should try when they come to Thailand. We have a lot more than these 10 dishes. It’s easy for marketing, but there’s so much more to explore. Older chefs in some organizations also have the impression that we can’t serve pala (fermented fish) to farangs (Westerners). Pala is pungent, but it’s our culture. Thai people should not be timid or afraid of what is ours, and we should be proud to introduce this to foreigners exploring our cuisine. I say let them try and judge for themselves.
You’re a very prominent advocate for Thai food. How do you voice your opinion about what people are turning Thai food into?
Once I was asked to make pineapple fried rice at a chef’s conference in Milan, but I refused. Thai people eat it and they enjoy it, but it is not representative of Thai food. If I agreed to make what is commercially right, Thai food is going to be a Pizza Hut. It is already like that anyway abroad.
Is your goal to represent Thai food as it was eaten back in the day?
I don’t stick with it too much because it’s impossible. Thai recipes are not exact — we use a trial-and-error method. We hardly ever use recipes straight out of the book. In the old days you had to be good at something to be able to sell it. But today anyone could set up a stall, sell whatever and just add a bunch of MSG — another big problem for Thai food.
That’s why it’s hard to use the word “authentic” when we talk about Thai food.
Exactly! We always end recipes with “Season as you like.” When you eat noodles, for example, you season it to your preference to how sweet, salty, spicy and sour you want it. This is such a characteristic of Thai people, especially when it comes to how our food tastes — it is very individual. In contrast, the French have everything written down.
How do you apply this when you work in the kitchen?
When my team makes something too sour, as long as it is relatively balanced, I let it be because it’s their taste. The flavors are not always going to be standard.
I’ve also noticed from interning here that you and Chef Dylan are very environmentally aware. Why is this so important to you?
It relates to the philosophy of the Slow Food movement because at the end of the day, food comes from nature. I still want to eat yummy food, so I think that it is my responsibility to take care of the environment that the food grows in. Restaurants produce so much waste and we use so much water, and I think it’s unfair to be eating luxuriously while damaging the environment. Think about it: You are able to eat this because of the environment.
24 Sukhumvit 53 Alley, Khlong Tan Nuea
Watthana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
+66 2 260 2961