Thailand – and Bangkok in particular – is rightly known for its awesome street food. It’s everywhere! But as good as it is, the city has never really been known for its international cuisine. However, over the last half dozen years, this has changed dramatically. Indeed, one of Bangkok’s restaurants was recently named the best restaurant in the whole world by British media company William Reed (the amazing Gaggan, which has to be tasted to be believed). Quite a change from the days when pizza was about as exotic as it got.
The first hint that something was going on behind the scenes popped up about 5 years ago, when local newspapers reported on the controversy of foreign chefs opening Thai food restaurants in Thailand. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much, except they started winning awards. This all kicked off when David Thompson’s Michelin-starred London restaurant Nahm opened a Bangkok branch, causing some food critics to proclaim “A foreigner, cooking Thai food? Preposterous!” (For what it’s worth, Nahm was #22 on the William Reed list mentioned above).
Jess Barnes, chef/owner of Opposite Mess Hall and Daisy Matthews and part of the crowd of gastronomic innovators responsible for the shakeup, says “When I came here in 2009, the best restaurants were in hotels. Western produce grown locally was poor quality, and restaurants were heavily dependent on imported produce. A lot of the hotels saw restaurants as an amenity, like a gym, only there for hotel customers. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, but that’s a quick snapshot.”
Jess says that what happened is that, slowly but surely, access to good local produce became easier. Producers and suppliers from all walks of life saw opportunity to make a business here. Organic lifestyles became hip, kids and young adults traveled abroad more often and brought back ideas and skill sets learned overseas – chefs, cafe owners, baristas, farmers, and bakers. “I feel that Thailand is currently having a sort of renaissance – an artistic and cultural revolution, in food and many other fields,” he says. “People know what pho is in Bangkok now! The difference between Roman and Napoli-style pizza! What a sourdough should taste like! Now is the right time to be in Bangkok if this is your thing.”
Indeed, there are now more choices than ever when it comes to tantalizing international cuisine. You can pick molecular cuisine of all kinds, handmade British meat pies, cheese, and bread. You can have authentic Tex-Mex, Thai haute cuisine, amped-up cafes with dynamic menu items from around the world, and Roman food that will knock your socks off. There are plenty we didn’t mention, but you can read about a few of them on CNN’s recent list of Bangkok’s ten best new restaurants here.
The bottom line is that Bangkok is an exciting city in terms of cuisine right now, and the trend is growing and evolving to bigger and better things. As Jess says: “These things take time, but we are off to a great start.”
(Photo: Opposite Mess Hall)