This Former Pickle Producer Will Make You Rethink Everything About Thai Food
At the Bangkok restaurant 80/20, 80 percent of the ingredients are entirely local—including foraged herbs and rare vegetables that even many Thais have never tasted.
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"I got to a certain point and I realized I didn't know anything about Thai ingredients," says Napol "Joe" Jantraget. It would be an odd admission coming from any Thai chef, let alone one who's been making waves with his innovative twists on the national cuisine for the past year. Despite the country's celebrated gastronomic status, until recently little attention was paid to preserving some of its lesser-known traditions. Like many Thais, Joe grew up eating curries and rice without a second thought. It wasn't until years later that he began to consider what was on his plate as a part of his cultural heritage, and to wonder how much of that was being lost.
Thailand's complex history has produced a staggering number of preparations ranging from rustic Isaan fare to baroque creations once served at the Siamese court. Over the centuries, the cuisine has incorporated Khmer, Peranakan, Burmese, and other culinary influences, resulting in wildly different regional specialties dependent upon both foraged and cultivated ingredients. Yet with the progression of time, fewer and fewer ones were making it onto restaurant menus. For years, Bangkok eateries tended to stick to a similar list of popular staples, often drowned with extra sugar to cater to the city's famously sweet-toothed urbanites. Fortunately, times are changing and the arrival of restaurants such as Supanniga Eating Room, Err, and Paste, in addition to old favorites such as Nahm, signals a renewed reverence for old recipes. Enter Joe, who returned to his native land with an anthropologist's eye and an insatiable curiosity for all things edible.
"I remember trying young watermelon for the first time and thinking, Wow, this is terrific. Why does nobody use this? Even when I ask another Thai person to try it, it's usually a completely new experience for them. It feels like I've discovered something, even though it's been there for years."
Eating at 80/20, his handsome bistro connected to a Bangkok hostel, would be a new experience for just about anyone. Dishes like the butcher's steak, carved into thin, bloody slices and served with a betel leaf emulsion, curried wing beans, and hairy eggplant, or the red sticky rice dumplings, a toothsome twist on gnocchi topped with local mushrooms, cured yolk, and garlic confit, hardly fit into the conventional culinary canon, but rely heavily on produce from nearby Talad Noi market and rarer foraged plants from the countryside. The restaurant's name references the fact that the chef and his partners shoot for 80 percent local ingredients, with the remaining 20 percent allowing for creative wiggle room. Though the 80/20 has rather serious ambitions—as evidenced by a recently instated eight-seat chef's table—it's far from a stuffy, concept-driven experience. In lieu of the the asceticism that seems to plague so many über-fine dining establishments, there's a sense of flexibility and fun that owes much to the time chef Joe spent working at Creme Brasserie, a casual eatery in Toronto.
It helps that this venture, which started off selling artisanal pickles and confitures, is close to a family business. Saki Hoshino, a Japanese pastry chef who creates meticulous landscapes dotted with basil- or chile-spiked ice cream, is Joe's wife, while his old friend Napol "John" Jantraget acts as a marketing guru. "We have a team that can actually support my crazy ideas," says Joe with a laugh. "We have eight partners now and each brings something unique to the table."
That collaborative environment has allowed for a great deal of experimentation over the restaurant's short lifetime. "Whenever I find something new, I play around with it," says Joe. "For example, we're really into barbecue, but we didn't want to use hickory or maple to smoke our meat when we have longan tree or hem, one type of wood that people use to make tea. For one dish, I picked up a local tea you can buy in any Thai grocery store. When I started burning it, I could smell this floral aroma and I thought that it might pair well with duck. The smoked duck breast is now one of our bestsellers."
Many of the dishes have evolved in a similar fashion, always staying true to their Thai roots without getting bogged down in dogma. A kick of miso adds an unorthodox umami jolt to eggplant cooked three ways, while a savory cricket crumble dresses up a lamb tartare that's equal parts French and Isaan. Everything that comes to the table remains grounded in regional ingredients, including ones so obscure they lack a translation. "I would like to be a window for other chefs outside of Thailand about what lem basil is or wasabi leaves are. We name some of these things ourselves because it's hard to find English names for them," says Joe. "I know a guy who'll go out to Udon and come back with a bag of vegetables and herbs and just go, 'Try this.'"
As to why so many of these ingredients seem to have fallen by the wayside over the years, John points to the rapid modernization of Thai society. Like most cosmopolitan capitals, Bangkok is a place where you can snag sushi, burgers, and pizza on the same block, but where green spaces are dwindling and traditions are sometimes shuffled off to the side. "Imagine ancient Thailand. People used to have big gardens and it was natural that they grew things. Some people have carried on that tradition, but you don't see it very often anymore," he says. "A lot of what we're dealing with is wild too—wild fruits and herbs. We want to highlight all that, just bring back those good oldies."
It's fitting that a restaurant aiming to inject new life into something all but forgotten should wind up in Talad Noi, at the heart of the city's Chinatown revival. While contemporary Bangkok mostly hugs the bends of the BTS Skytrain around Sukhumvit Road, this older area has been all but bypassed by developers. In stark contrast to the glitzy megamalls and luxury condos strangling the downtown, these streets still sport century-old shophouses, many with businesses that have been run by the same families for generations. "I was in Canada for 12 years and when I came back, so many things here had changed," says Joe. "But this area, for me, was still the same. It's like time stopped. It feels like home."
As more and more affluent young Thais head to this part of town, some have worried that the creep of gentrification will alter this historic enclave. A few have pointed to trendy arrivals such as 80/20 and nearby gin bar Teens of Thailand. "It's a challenge, because the Thai-Chinese people have been here for ages and we're just the newcomers," says John. They're wary of the label "hipster," even if some of the restaurant's wrought iron furnishings, funky murals, and exposed light fixtures fit the profile. "We want to be a part of this community. In other parts of town, it's really competitive, but over here we're trying to work more with our neighbors. We want to support the local businesses wherever possible."
Evidence of that effort can be found both on the plate and the walls, which display vintage pieces by Chinatown's artisans. The team insists they have no intention of displacing their neighborhood noodle stands or herbal remedy shops, but rather to learn from them and, in the process, broaden existing definitions of what constitutes contemporary Thai food.
"We want to rediscover Thai cuisine," says John. "You couldn't find some of these ingredients anywhere else in the world." Nor would you or could you find a restaurant like this anywhere but in the Bangkok of today.