Reimagining Thai-Chinese Flavors: Chef Pam’s Vision for Potong

Chef Pam Side 002
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This has been a remarkable year for Pichaya “Pam” Soontornyanakij, the owner of Potong restaurant in Bangkok. In February, she was honored as Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2024. Potong, her acclaimed restaurant, currently holds one Michelin star and recently climbed to No. 17 at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards.

Chef Pam’s journey to a culinary career began after completing her journalism studies, realizing she didn’t see a future in that field. Instead, she ventured into the world of gastronomy, moving to New York to enhance her culinary skills. She trained at the Culinary Institute of America and staged under the renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Returning to Bangkok, Pam's career milestones included judging on "Top Chef Thailand" and establishing "The Table," a restaurant offering a unique private dining experience.

A pivotal moment came in 2019 when the 120-year-old family building in Chinatown was vacated by a previous tenant. Pam often reflects on how rediscovering this family treasure ignited her desire to transform it into her restaurant’s home.

Bangkok’s Chinatown, established in 1782, is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. Potong resides in a majestic five-story building so tall it’s challenging to fully appreciate from the narrow, bustling streets of Yaowarat Road below.

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Potong opened in 2022, a "Tiger" year, which holds special significance for Chef Pam. Her great-great-great-great-grandparents, who built the building, were both born in a Tiger Year.

The building, a century-old family drugstore, has been meticulously refurbished, preserving its original elements and design. Each of the five floors has a distinct concept, making it an attraction in itself. Chef Pam, alongside her husband and business partner Tor Boonpiti, spent two years renovating the space with impeccable attention to detail. The decor includes century-old Guan Yu and Zhang Hui drawings and wooden dividers hand-painted with eight hidden tigers. Pam’s family historically lived here while producing Chinese medicine under the name “保坤益母藥” (Bǎo Kūn Yì Mǔ Yào).

The first floor, which used to be the storefront for the medicine dispensary, now houses the SINO bar. This bar, displaying antique elements like a dipper used for measuring liquids, welcomes guests before they proceed to the main dining room, where they are offered homemade kombuchas.

Guests then ascend to the fourth floor, where they can enjoy a selection of homemade charcuterie paired with champagne in the private area called “BLACKJADE.” This space draws inspiration from the family’s cherished piece of black jade jewelry, symbolizing power, protection, and wisdom.

The main dining room on the second floor is adorned with old-fashioned dividers and windows and features a small exterior balcony.

Chef Pam’s tasting menu at Potong is based on the 5-Element philosophy of “Salt, Acid, Spice, Texture, and Maillard Reaction.” She emphasizes nostalgia throughout the menu with storytelling and plating style.

The upper floors embody the late-night spirit of Chinatown, Bangkok. Here, Italian native Matteo Cadeddu, the head bartender, offers unique mixology experiences. After working in Amsterdam and developing his mixology career in Australia, Singapore, and Mumbai, Matteo settled in Bangkok at the helm of Opium Bar. Joining him on the floor of Potong is fellow Italian maître Sacha Di Silvestre. Before moving to Bangkok, he briefly worked as a sommelier at Casa Maria Luigia in Modena.

We met with Chef Pam to learn more about her approach to cooking, her relationship with local food producers and farmers, and her involvement with the Asia Women’s Center.

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Challenges in Obtaining Top-Quality Products and Government Support for Small-Scale Producers

All the vegetables, garnishes, and meats are from local small producers.

Duck – We source our ducks from a farmer in Cha Choeng Sao, as Pam requires a specific size of 2 kg only (about 42-45 days old) with a certain fat ratio. Initially, we sometimes faced sourcing problems due to these specifications, but after working together for a long time, this issue has significantly improved.

Catfish – We source our catfish from two selected local fishermen in Chai Nat and Lopburi. These catfish are line-caught. Pam usually provides specifications for the size of the fish. Our catfish are wild, not farmed, and live in certain rivers. Catching them requires a specific skill set and is more challenging. The result is meat with less fat and gelatinous skin. While this ensures the right size and fat content according to Pam’s specifications, the challenge lies in the quantity and price, making them difficult to source. Therefore, we rely on two locations to meet our demand.

Vegetables/Garnishes – We work with many local and sustainable farmers in Thailand for all our vegetables and garnishes, such as Green Garden (from Chiang Mai) and Preecha Farm (from Samut Prakarn). The main issue here is the scarcity of produce; sometimes, they cannot produce enough. To ensure quality, we have another selected farmer we work with. Prices are also higher than for normal produce available in markets.

Wines – We collaborate with ISSARA Wine Estates, an artisanal winery that produces a maximum of 15,000 bottles per year for all their products combined. We select 2,000 of their best bottles from their top grapes for our wine collaboration. Since we are the only ones with this selection, we sometimes sell more than 2,000 bottles toward the end of the year. Therefore, we need to manage the quantity wisely.

Chef Pam Side 002

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Governmental Support for Small Farmers

Honestly, there isn’t much direct support from the government for small farmers. Government assistance typically focuses on addressing actual disasters or supporting larger-scale farmers, such as during disease outbreaks. There is some support for certain crops, like rice, because it’s crucial to Thailand’s economy. However, it’s mainly chefs who seek out and support local farmers and fishermen. I believe it’s our duty as chefs to support these local farmers, fishermen, and small-scale producers so they can continue their important work.

The Rise of Thai-Chinese Cuisine

To understand "Progressive Thai-Chinese" cuisine, it’s important to look at its history and heritage, rooted in 400 years of Chinese immigration to Thailand. “Thai-Chinese” cuisine is not a new concept, and many restaurants serve it traditionally. However, we were among the first to revive and innovate "progressive Thai-Chinese cuisine."

My cooking is about respecting traditional “Thai-Chinese” methods, which is key to creating the best dishes. I always learn the traditional ways before applying anything new to them.

"I believe the heritage of Thai cuisine is something the world should know. We have a rich cultural mixture that has developed over hundreds of years. Often, certain dishes, while definitely 'Thai,' reveal traces of different historical periods through their cooking methods and final presentation. I find that fascinating."

Today, there’s a growing awareness about understanding what you eat. Many guests want to learn more about their food, making chefs more relevant as they convey these messages. We have the opportunity to communicate and inspire changes that can shape the future supply chain of our country.

Asia Women’s Center

While I don’t typically distinguish between male and female chefs, the numbers show fewer women in the industry. In Asia, good home cooking is often associated with mothers, while professional cooking is often linked to male chefs. This disparity is influenced by various factors, such as childbirth and household responsibilities. Women are underrepresented and have fewer opportunities in the industry, but I’m optimistic this will change. I’m happy to be part of the wave of changes promoting greater opportunities for women in the culinary world.

My involvement with the AWC (Asia Women’s Center) began with a small fundraising event we organized at POTONG during its first year of operation. I was deeply moved to learn that 6,000 THB could significantly impact the life of a female student living in rural Thailand. This realization motivated me to contribute more meaningfully to this cause. It took about a year to develop the project, and I am now fully committed to supporting young female chefs and promoting gender equality in the culinary industry.

To this end, I founded the **WFW (Women for Women) Scholarship & Internship Program** in collaboration with AWC Thailand, a non-profit organization. This program provides financial assistance to young women in rural Thailand who are passionate about pursuing careers in the culinary arts.

Although my role in the industry might be small, I believe that if each of us starts making these small changes, collectively, we can create a significant and positive impact, helping to shape the industry for the better.

Recently, I discussed expanding the WFW program overseas with Chef Vicky Lau, who holds two Michelin stars and was Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015. We aim to launch the expanded program on January 28, 2024.

Signature Duck Dish at Potong

Undoubtedly, the most talked-about dish at Potong is our main duck course, featuring roasted duck brain, duck leg with grilled eggplant, and house pickles.

Our duck preparation combines traditional and contemporary methods. We select ducks of a very specific size to ensure minimal fat under the skin. The inside of the duck is marinated with five-spice, and we partially cook the skin with a vinegar mix. Afterward, the duck is hung for 14 days, allowing the skin to dry and the meat to tenderize. We employ traditional Chinese techniques for bathing and drying the duck skin, followed by a modern French method of roasting in a high-temperature oven for 13 minutes. This process results in tender meat and a very crispy skin.

The duck head is also dry-aged for 14 days and then roasted. We open the head to reveal the brain, which is glazed with a black bean sauce. The duck heart is marinated with soy sauce and sugar, sous-vided for two hours to ensure it is tender and not overcooked, and then grilled on binchotan charcoal to impart smoky flavors. The leg is dry-aged, ground, sautéed with a secret sauce made from Sichuan pepper, fermented bean, and chili, and served over hot chawanmushi.

Adapting Flavors for an International Palate

Currently, our clientele is about 55% international and 45% local, with reservations available online. Interestingly, we receive similar feedback from both groups.

When we first opened in September 2021, just after the COVID-19 lockdown, we welcomed many local guests. As international travel resumed, we started receiving guests from Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and the US. Now, our guests come from all over the world. We haven't adapted our flavors for international tastes; instead, we stay true to what we want to offer, cooking primarily what I love to eat. We've received very positive feedback from both local and international guests, particularly with our recent course menu launch.

Just a few days ago, guests from Australia and Singapore told me it was the best meal they ever had, which made my day. Guests from Singapore and Hong Kong often mention how their memories of old Chinese shophouses connect with my heritage. It's incredible how my food can resonate with guests from different parts of the world.

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@gastrofilm The duck course at Potong

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