"This dish is gonna be like POP POP—it's a little bit spicy from the Thai chilies, sour from the fresh yuzu, and umami from the mushrooms and truffle," says Pichaya "Pam" Utharntharm as she arranges creamy, translucent slices of Hokkaido scallops on seashells. "I love appetizers, because you get to play around. There aren't as many rules as with a main course."
For the final flourish, she hoists a canister of liquid nitrogen up and pours a steady stream of freezing vapors over the plates. Somewhat intimidated by how casually she wields something the size of a toddler that could easily take one's hand off, I ask if she's ever been burned.
"Oh, from this?" she asks. "I've done this so many times I don't even think about it anymore."
There's really no other way to put this: Pam is kind of a badass. At 27 years old, she's already picked up a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and worked directly under Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his eponymous Michelin three-star, which the The New York Times praised as a "a radical reimagining of the grand style of French dining." This month, she'll preside over the contestants on the inaugural season of Thailand's edition of Top Chef as both the youngest and only female judge. As if that weren't enough, the enterprising chef has already launched not one but two culinary businesses of her own. One of these, a barbecue delivery service, offers Wagyu brisket, pork belly, and other meats super-slow-smoked over local hardwoods like lychee and tamarind. The other, The Table by Chef Pam, is one of the hardest seats to score in Bangkok right now—as of writing this, it's booked through the end of April, with requests for even later reservations piling up fast from guests happy to pay anywhere from Bt2,500 to Bt10,000 ($70 to $285 US) per person for the privilege. That's all the more remarkable given that it isn't a restaurant at all, but rather the dining room table in her house.
"I didn't really plan to do this," she tells me, stirring a truffle risotto. It's a special request from her guests this evening and the simplest item on the menu. Even here, though, she adds her own personal touch. Rather than imported Arborio rice, this dish owes its unctuous texture to locally grown Japanese Nishiki grains. "One day, my mom said she wanted to invite her friend over to show off my skills. That was the start of everything."
Though she's never invested in advertising or PR, word of mouth spread and acclaim came quickly. Since starting the project in 2015, she's gone from doing one event a month to three or four nights a week. "Oftentimes when customers come, they're like, 'Wait, this is in your home?'" she says with a laugh. "I feel like this is my hobby. I mean, it's a full-time job, but it doesn't seem like it at all. I'm happy when I work like this, because I can order everything fresh. Nothing sits around in the fridge for days and I feel good about my food."
Working outside the confines of a traditional restaurant also allows her to serve whatever she wants. One of her signature dishes—a round of butter-fried charcoal bread with salted cream, sturgeon caviar, and a supple 63-degree sous vide yolk the texture of ripe Brie—would feel right at home on the crisp white tablecloths of Jean-Georges, while a simple salad of Chinese kale topped with dates, toasted almonds, and a crispy squid ink-tinted tuile feels more freeform. Almost everything here—including the beef, caviar, and produce—is local, and there's a lightness to her creations, although she isn't shy about judiciously applying a pat of butter or splash of cream when a dish calls for it. While her style owes a great deal to Vongerichten, it's also constantly evolving and picking up influences from unexpected sources.
"Whenever I eat something interesting, I memorize it and use it to inspire my own creations. For example, I went to this French restaurant in Singapore and ate cold angel hair pasta rolls topped with caviar. I didn't know what was in there, but there was something sour, something sweet, and something really umami," she remembers. "For umami, I used shio seaweed, along with sautéed shallots for sweetness, then I added a little Champagne vinegar, just to freshen it up. I topped it with crab instead of caviar. In the end, it became something completely different and now it's one of my signatures."
Her willingness to experiment and her rapidly growing fanbase help explain why a television network called her out of the blue a few months ago. Pam was as surprised as anyone when they told her that they were looking for another Top Chef Thailand judge.
"Of course I said yes! I love that show. It's intense, though," she says. All of the challenges on the show, she insists, are presented on the spot. As a result, all of the reactions and occasional temperamental flare-ups are real. When I ask her if she's daunted by having to stand up to contestants who are mostly older than her and not shy about battling a judge's verdict, she arches an eyebrow, as if she almost relishes the prospect. "I think, being a chef, our characteristic is to fight. You have to be tough. We say it the way it is."
From my vantage point in the kitchen, I can see what looks like a dinner party in full swing. Both the wine and the conversation flow freely and the atmosphere has a more laid-back feel than any of the city's stuffier fine dining establishments. Throughout it all, Pam appears serene, adding a garnish to a blushing slab of King salmon cooked in a water bath to the consistency of custard, or spooning lychee granita into shot glasses for a palate-cleanser. The servers occasionally offer assistance, but for the most part, she's a one-woman show. By the time we get to dessert—individual Gran Marnier soufflés with a side of lemongrass tea—her chef's whites are spotless and she's barely broken a sweat, even while whisking egg whites into a cloud by hand.
We take a break for a glass of red while the tiny soufflés magically rise in the oven. She passes me a spoonful of the orange-perfumed raw pastry cream used to make the base. It's good enough that I have to fight the urge to lick the bowl.
"This is why my family always complains that I hardly ever cook for them," she says with a slightly weary smile, her first hint of fatigue in more than five hours. "I love it, but like most chefs, I just want something simple in my downtime. Usually we'll order pizza or grab Thai street food."
I ask if she would ever consider changing course, given how well her current endeavor is going.
"In the future, I might want to open a restaurant. There are certain limitations to this, since I only have two hands. I'm already at my maximum capacity," she tells me. "But if I do, I don't want to go the fine dining route. I would want it to be something where more people would be able to come and afford it."
When pressed as to what that might be, she smiles coyly. For the time being, she's more than content to stick to her own less conventional path. Without the colossal overhead and food waste of a full-scale restaurant, her nimble little operation gives her the freedom to travel north in search of better local ingredients or riff on a new concept or cuisine. She's still playing, while the rest of Bangkok waits to see what she'll come up with next.