Bangkok is a city that feels in constant motion, with an energy that shifts from one block to the next. Skyscrapers soar in towers of mirrored glass and razor-sharp metal. Temples glisten in the sun and glow in the dark. Night markets boast fried, steamed, grilled, frozen and sauteed delights on a stick, in a cone or on straw platters as large as your table. Streets are lined with vendors pushing noodles, grilled meats and plastic-wrapped citrus painstakingly stripped of all trace of peel, pith and membrane. Motorbikes zigzag between three-wheeled tuk-tuks. The traffic makes rush hour in Los Angeles seem like the autobahn.
Thitid Tassanakajohn, 38, chef-owner of Nusara, Baan and Le Du restaurants in Bangkok, wants you to fall in love with it all.
During a recent trip, he insists we try his favorite place for lunch in the city, an outpost of the Kitti Duck Noodle restaurants. His mother gives me a ride in her Camry while we trail Tassanakajohn — known as Chef Ton around the world — in his bright yellow Porsche.
We feast on all parts of the duck — beaks, intestines, heart, liver and breast — arranged on platters alongside bowls of slippery rice noodles and heady cups of broth. It’s all unctuous duck to the 10th power, wonderfully gamy and more delicious than you can imagine. Sluice with vinegar, dab with chile, eat, wipe the sweat from your brow and repeat.
“This is real Thai food,” Tassanakajohn says, sliding the gelatinous meat from one of the beaks into his mouth. His mother nods in agreement, but is mostly quiet as she sips her broth and slurps her noodles. “My grandfather liked to come get these duck noodles.”
Bangkok is where Tassanakajohn grew up, in his grandfather’s house about 15 minutes east of downtown. This is where he returned after leaving behind a short career in finance to become a chef. After attending culinary school in New York City and cooking at some of the most prestigious kitchens in the United States — including Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges — he opened his first restaurant, Le Du. Just 20 minutes away from his childhood home, you’ll find Le Du down a crowded alley lined with street vendors in the city’s Silom businThe concept was simple: a fine-dining tasting menu that celebrates Thai ingredients and sustainability. Le Du means “season” in Thai.
Nusara’s inconspicuous entrance across the street from The Grand Palace. (Cody Long / Los Angeles Times) A tuk tuk driver waits on the side of the road outside of Samyan Market in Bangkok. (Cody Long / Los Angeles Times)
In California, it’s a familiar notion. In Thailand, opening a fine-dining restaurant in 2013 that exclusively sourced from Thai farmers and fishermen was nothing short of radical.
And his family wasn’t too keen on the idea either.
“I just wanted to open something in my hometown,” he says. “I had a big, big fight between me, my mom and my grandma. They were just, you know, very disappointed. As a Thai Chinese family, the chef is not the career that everyone wanted you to be.”
With Le Du, which secured the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Asia list earlier this year, he defied his family, and in many ways, the entire culinary community in Thailand. Michelin stars and tasting menus were reserved for more Eurocentric cuisines.
“At the time, people appreciate imported ingredients more than the local ingredients,” he says. “People see Thai ingredients as cheap ingredients and that’s not always true. If you can find the right farmer, the fisherman, the quality of the food [and] the produce can be as good as the imported ingredients.”
In Aor Thanomwan Singchui, he found the right farmer. Singchui runs Farmsuk in the Samut Sakhon coastal province near the mouth of the Tha Chin River. She grows various vegetables for the chef’s restaurants. Shortly after he opened Le Du, Tassanakajohn asked if she would consider growing edible flowers.
“I didn’t believe what chef suggested at first,” she says on a recent afternoon at Nusara, Tassanakajohn’s most recent Bangkok opening, where she is delivering flowers for that evening’s service. “But Chef Ton said he wants to create Thai food for the world to know. It was like an inspiration.”
Singchui started harvesting basil flowers, butterfly pea flowers, chile flowers and others she could pluck from produce she was already growing. She eventually expanded her edible flower offerings to incorporate specific requests from Tassanakajohn and other chefs. Now she estimates that she supplies at least half of the restaurants and bars in Thailand with her flowers.
“Seriously, all Michelin stars use our flowers,” she says with a laugh.
On this particular afternoon, she presents Tassanakajohn with a box of bright orange flowers with soft, short, smooth petals.
“Here, taste one,” she says.
“We call it watermelon flower,” Tassanakajohn adds. “Or ‘somsad’ in Thai.”
The tiny flower immediately registers as watermelon. A sweet, ripe summer melon with a hint of its bitter rind at the end.
Later that evening, I have the watermelon flower again, as an integral part of a dessert course that involves sago, coconut and fresh grated chestnut.
Tassanakajohn’s food is your neighborhood Thai joint hooked up to a Pivetta Opera Only amplifier. His flavors are familiar but stunning in their concentrations of funk, bitterness, spice and heat. That same meal at Nusara, which earned the third spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Asia list, included a sapid blue swimming crab curry with a rich marine taste over a crisp betel leaf with horseshoe crab roe. Another course presented a sliver of local squid draped over squares of cucumber and tomato for a refreshing, two-bite salad. A dollop of paddy field crab roe made my nose tingle.
But the dish he’s most known for, the only one to remain on the constantly shifting menu at Le Du, is the khao kluk kapi, or river prawn with fermented shrimp paste rice.
“Khao kluk kapi is a dish that showcases how you can take such simple, cheap street food and elevate it to a signature dish that people love all over the world,” he says.
Khao kluk kapi is found at street stalls across Bangkok and at a handful of restaurants in Los Angeles including Prael and Jitlada. It’s typically served as a mound of fried rice blasted with fermented shrimp paste and surrounded by various garnishes of fried egg, sweet pork, raw onion, raw fruit and chiles.
The version at Le Du is refined and thoughtful, with most ingredients sourced from the nearby Samyan market. A river prawn plucked from the water that morning is butterflied and grilled on an open flame. Tassanakajohn paints the prawn, as plump and as long as a lobster, with pads of butter while it sizzles on the grill.
He cooks his rice like risotto, layering in chicken stock, cream and kapi, a pungent fermented shrimp paste that, in large enough quantities, will make your eyes water.
In another pot, he makes a prawn sauce with prawn heads, galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, chile paste and cream.
To serve the rice, he adds a mound to a plate and carefully places a spoonful each of raw, chopped green beans, shallots, green mango, minced Thai chile, a chiffonade of lime leaf and a pork belly jam across the top.
He sets the prawn off to the side, then covers the tail portion with bits of golden, fried egg crumbles and the rest of the body with copious amounts of prawn sauce.
The best way to approach the dish is to fashion a bite with all 10 components. The raw vegetables are fresh and crisp, bumping up against the richness of rice and prawn sauce. Each tiny square of chile sends a shockwave of heat. The pork belly jam, made by caramelizing pork with palm sugar, fried garlic and coriander, is the sweet meat paste condiment I wish was on tables everywhere.
It’s a plate of food that will make you question why this mound of fried rice is not more popular than, say, the pad Thai you’ll find on every Thai restaurant menu in both Bangkok and Los Angeles.
“I want to make Thai cuisine one of the best cuisines in the world and, of course, Thai ingredients to be the best among other ingredients in the world as well,” Tassanakajohn says. “I really hope that at the end of the meal, in every one of my restaurants, the guests leave with the feeling of more understanding of Thai cuisine and more love for Thai cuisine.”
Where to eat Thitid Tassanakajohn’s food in Thailand and Los Angeles
Food Bowl Night Market: Chef Ton will appear on the L.A. Times Food Stage at the Paramount Pictures Studios Backlot, 5555 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 23, lafoodbowl.com
Le Du, 399/3 Silom 7 Alley, Silom, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand, +66 92 919 9969, ledubkk.com
Nusara, 336 Maha Rat Rd., Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Khet Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand, +66 97 293 5549, nusarabkk.com