Not long ago, we had the chance of a tête-à-tête with three of the best chefs in Asia, that’s not just our bias, the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list is a testimony to that as well. We grabbed the opportunity to get an insight of what makes them the best and of course, we got some recommendations as well.
At the Asian Invasion, we spoke to Chef Tonn of Le Du, a fine-dining Thai restaurant in Bangkok which took the number one spot. Also, on the panel was Varun Totlani of Masque, one of the most famous restaurants in India, which is on the 16th spot on the list. We also got the opportunity to speak with Chef Pam, whose restaurant Potong is at number 35.
Here’s what the best chefs of Asia had to say to us
Chef Varun Totlani of Masque
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Which Indian dish according to you is the most versatile and can be created with a lot of spins?
I think Indian food is like that, it has never been documented in that detail. You know Garam Masala is not like 5 gm of this and 5 gm of that, everyone has their own versions and that is what I would say is the speciality of Indian cuisine. It can be unique depending on the region you are in, depending on culture and depending on where you are born and brought up. There are a lot of factors.
Which Indian dish is the most overrated?
I am not really a fan of greens so I don’t like Sai Bhaji, people tend to love it, but for me, it is just a mix of all green things.
Where do you find inspiration?
For me, inspiration is everywhere, we travel a lot and every time we go on a research trip, we try a lot of food and we find inspiration in that or we find inspiration in people. It can come from anywhere, it’s all about how you connect, like people who cook traditional food for you. At Masque, we have this series where we let home cooks take over, they are the major source of our inspiration.
Barbequed Pork happens to be one of your signature dishes, what is the one element that makes it stand out?
I would say the whole process, a lot goes into it. We first brine it for two days. The spice mix and the ratio of the brine is something that we have worked on as a team since the last seven years and are still working on it. Then there is another seasoning that we put on it. There is a customised smoker that we built seven years ago, especially for this. Everything together makes it what it is. The process is what makes it unique.
What inspires you to cook every day?
Which is your favourite culinary destination?
Japan, I have never been though, I still think it’s my favourite and I have been dying to go.
What is your soul food?
Pav Bhaji, but I am not a fan of the one that is cooked at home, I enjoy Pav Bhaji at Sukh Sagar, which is in Chowpaty. Bombay.
Your favourite restaurant – Sukh Sagar
Your favourite bar – ZLB in Bangalore
Your preferred street food – Pav Bhaji/Dahi Poori
Your favourite place to shop – Can I say supermarket? I was in Singapore recently and I went to a Japanese supermarket where I bought myself Ramen and some Japanese sweets. That is the only shopping I did.
Chef Pam Pichaya Soontornyanakij of Potong
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Owing a barbeque delivery service to hosting a cooking show, what is the one thing that is constant in all your endeavours?
My love for food and passion for cooking are constant. I grew up with my mom in the kitchen who loves cooking, I just enjoy in the kitchen, it’s not work and I love the adrenaline in a professional kitchen. It feels like it is my zone, my happy place.
Potong is situated in your family home which is a 120-year-old building, so how does the history of that building influence the menu?
Actually, the building influences many aspects of Potong, from the storytelling where we talk about the heritage and where my family comes from to the cuisine which is progressive Thai Chinese. We are the first Thai Chinese restaurant to do it on a fine dining level because it is generally Thai cuisine or Chinese cuisine but from me, Thai-Chinese is a cuisine of its own because of the long immigration of the Chinese people who came to Thailand over 200 years ago and they brought their food and intertwined with the food here. The building and the history of my family, I try to portray and tell the story through food.
Which is your favourite cuisine, apart from Thai?
Apart from Thai cuisine, I am a fan of Japanese and Italian and I love Indian food too. It’s very hard for a chef to pick. I loved eating dosa and sambhar.
Which is your favourite culinary destination – In Bangkok, I love to go to Yaowarat Road, in Chinatown. It is around a one km long walking street which is full of street food.
Your soul food – Pad kra pao – It is a simple stir-fried protein, with some basil, garlic, lots of chillies, rice and fried eggs, it is delicious.
Your favourite restaurant – There is Lao Tang in a very small alley near my restaurant so I can walk there any time. They sell roast goose and it’s not very famous so there are not a lot of tourists and it has been open for over 50 years and I know about that place because I used to go there with my parents when I was young.
Your favourite cafe – I don’t go out to cafes a lot because most of the time, I am in the restaurant but if I have to pick one, there is this one in the Samphanthawong area, it’s called FV cafe, it’s a small cafe but in that cafe they bring the whole Thai house in the cafe.
Your favourite bar – Bangkok Social Club
Your preferred street food – There is this noodle restaurant near my house where they put a lot of chilli, lime and minced pork but there is always a long queue.
Your favourite place to shop – I don’t shop a lot, for me shopping means Kitchen tools. I like to go to kitchen tools market, the latest one I went to was in Japan – Kappabashi – it’s a whole road that sells kitchen stuff.
Chef Tonn of Le Du
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Your list of achievements is really long and one of them is that you are a certified sommelier as well, could you share your favourite drinks that have been crafted at Le Du?
We have a wine pairing that I love, we also have a Kombucha pairing and the first drink that we give at the beginning of both these pairings is called Siam Sunrise. It’s a simple but very refreshing drink. There is no sugar and it comprises of two different kinds of organic tea from Chiang Mai in the North, which are white and green tea and infused with a few different kinds of Thai herbs and flowers. It’s a beautiful cold brew tea with a layer of herbs and flowers. It feels like you are in the forests of Thailand.
What is the one Thai dish which is overrated according to you?
I think Pad Thai is overrated. I am not saying it is bad, I feel it is just overrated. You know it is the newest dish in Thai cuisine, it is only maybe 60 years old and it was forced to create by a dictator in Thailand. He believed that we had to have a national dish so he had people come and cook different recipes and this recipe won and he called it Pad Thai. Pad means stir-fried. So Pad Thai has noodles which are from China and stir-frying in the wok is also part of Chinese cuisine, then people put in tofu which is even more Chinese. The only thing that is Thai in there is the fish sauce, I have nothing against it but I just think it is overrated.
Which is your favourite culinary destination – My favourite country to go and eat is Taiwan because I love the culture of street food and eating there, it is quite similar to Thai-Chinese cuisine. I always enjoy noticing the differences and similarities between the two. I love the people there as well, they are very genuine, it’s a beautiful country with amazing seafood. Their seafood is as good as Japan just more pocket-friendly.
Your soul food –I love Pad kra pao and pork noodles.
Your favourite restaurant – If I talk about restaurants around, I have to say Potong and there is also Err: Urban Rustic Thai, it’s a casual restaurant.
Your favourite bar – Opium and Mahaniyom cocktail bar
Your preferred street food – My favourite street food stall is Jay So in Bangkok, they do Som Tam with grilled chicken and it is so good.
Your favourite place to shop – I am a chef, so I love going to Samyan market, it’s where we but stuff for the restaurant as well.
Hero Image: Courtesy of varuntotlani/Instagram; Feature Image: Courtesy of Nishtha Grover