100 Mahaseth restaurant chef Chalee Kader and partner Chaichat ‘Randy’ Noprapa are responsible for one of our new favourite Bangkok restaurants – a nose-to-tail joint in hip Charoenkrung specialising in wonderful Northern Thai and Northeastern Thai food that is laidback, fun, and eco-friendly.
While Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand are familiar to most travellers to the country, the off-the-beaten-track Northeastern Isaan region, which encompasses a third of Thailand and is home to around a third of its population, sees just a fraction of foreign tourists exploring its far-flung attractions, such as the silk-weaving villages, mask-making town, and Angkor temples of Prasat Hin Phimai and Prasat Phanom Rung near the Cambodian border.
Yet the Northeast’s fiery Isaan cuisine has been becoming increasingly familiar to food loving travellers thanks to the massive migration of Isaan natives to the Thai capital, where many find work in restaurants and hotels or set up street food stalls and mobile snack carts. Isaan food is a highlight of all the best Bangkok street food tours.
During Bangkok’s first restaurant revolution, which sparked in 2009, establishments such as Soul Food Mahanakorn, Som Tum Der, Supanniga Eating Room, and, later, Err, elevated Isaan food from rustic street fare to casual dining by taking Isaan specialties such as the lip-scorching som tam (spicy papaya salad) with rice paddy crabs, and the sour fermented pork and sticky rice sausages, to a whole new level.
We’ve been big fans of Isaan food since that period, our passion for it cementing on our first Isaan road trip seven years ago, especially during time in Khon Kaen and Khorat when our driver took us to som tam and gai yang (barbecued chicken) joints for lunch – and we’ve been lovers of Chiang Mai’s Lanna cuisine since we first covered that region for a guidebook in 2007, an affair reignited when we spent a month in the area for another guidebook a few years ago.
So we were bound to fall head over heels for 100 Mahaseth. If we were still living in Bangkok, it’s the kind of place we’d be dining at weekly.
The 100 Mahaseth menu covers the gamut of Northern and Northeastern specialties, with a couple of fermented noodle dishes, a handful of herbaceous salads and a few som tams (you’ll notice the soundtrack of the pounding pestle against mortar during your meal – that’s typically the papaya salads being made), and a long list of soups, curries, and barbecued meats and bits and pieces.
It’s the bits and pieces – the beef entrails and pork offal in the spicy soups, the pig’s brain in a coconut curry, pig’s ear in a salad, tripe twice-braised, dried, grilled, and fried into incredible crunchy crackers – that endears 100 Mahaseth to me even more. I’ve a soft spot for sustainable restaurants and nothing goes to waste here. Discarded stems are turned into fuel for the grill, bark is infused in house-made moonshine. You’ve got to love that.
We met co-owner/chef Chalee Kader in August when we were at 100 Mahaseth to do a shoot and chat for a story on Bangkok’s new wave of chefs that triggered a second dining renaissance, publishing in DestinAsian magazine next month. (It takes a similar format to our piece on Siem Reap’s young chefs elevating Cambodian food). I also featured 100 Mahaseth in this post on Bangkok’s Most Sustainable Restaurants, and in Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, a new global guide to good restaurants, for which I was Southeast Asia editor.
We chatted to Chalee again when we returned to dine on our last day in Bangkok and again in an online conversation. Do look out for our DestinAsian story but in the meantime we hope you enjoy the bits that didn’t get used from our fascinating chat with Chalee Kader of 100 Mahaseth.
100 Mahaseth Restaurant Chef Chalee Kader on Northeastern Thai Food and Getting Creative with Traditional Dishes
Q. You’re Thai-born of course, but your mum’s heritage is Chinese and your dad’s Indian. Did you grow up eating Chinese and Indian? Was Thai food a part of your childhood?
A. We had Thai food at home. My mother would make that herself. Mom and dad were both good home cooks and they love to eat good food – and they also complained a lot when it was not good, my mom especially. Dad always cooked South Indian on the weekends and mom would be on duty for the weekday staples of Thai-Chinese stir fries, soups, curries, and salads. They influenced the way I eat and when you hang out with people that know good food it just transcends to the next generation.
Q. You said your mother was an especially tough food critic.
A. When we went out for Thai food, I remember it would be stressful at times, especially when it was overly sweet or not balanced. My mother would go on complaining all the meal till the end of the meal. That reminded me (and scarred me for life) that I used to tell myself I’m never cooking Thai food ever for a career, because I will never be able to please everyone from different households and with different taste buds. But eight restaurants later, here I am with my first Thai restaurant serving Isaan food. And mom hasn’t complained about my Thai cooking yet.
Q. How did the love of Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan food and Northern Thai Lanna food come about?
A. I visited Chiang Mai a lot growing up and I still do, at least ten times a year. The food is something I have always enjoyed and it made me curious about the ingredients used in their dishes. That’s probably the reason for the love of the North. The Northeastern cuisine, however, has always been a favourite, almost a comfort food and a go-to when nothing ever hits the spot. The abundance of flavours and ingredients is what is intriguing to me. Every time we had Isaan food growing up it just felt like a feast with so much to share and everything just pops. Every dish is magic.
Q. You have Vietnamese pho on the menu and said you wanted to create a pho joint initially because you and your business partner Randy loved eating the hearty style of pho you had when you were in California.
A. Yes, we were going to use so many cuts and parts of the cow for the pho to make the broth and for the toppings. The offal for other dishes and the tails and what not for different things but we could really only do that for lunch. So I had to think: what can I do to make this place bank some money for dinner and rotate this stock of beef parts? I didn’t want to do a full fledge Vietnamese joint because I had no clue what Vietnamese eat besides pho. So I thought to myself: which other cuisine uses a lot of the cow or pig in their daily recipes and Isaan was the first that came to mind. Isaan was perfect, it was something I always wanted to do but never had the balls to go for it, and this opportunity lay right in front of me. I took it and went exploring. It was a no brainer. Here we are, almost a year later now.
Q. So how do you and Randy divide the duties here at 100 Mahaseth, as you have other businesses together, right?
A. Randy and I together are partners at Mrs Wu, Holy Moly, and 100 Mahaseth. We started 100 Mahaseth together, but while we opened Mahaseth we had another project underway, Mrs Wu Hotpot, so we each took responsibilities in different restaurants. Randy did research and developed and ran Mrs Wu while I took over Mahaseth. He was more comfortable with running Wu because hotpot was close to his Japanese cuisine background and Wu is basically opposite his omakase spot, Fillets. Dishes at Mahaseth are developed with the kitchen team, who are primarily from the Northeast – and not by choice or anything, it just happened to be that way.
Q. Some of your Isaan dishes are very traditional – exactly how we’ve eaten them on our travels in Isaan or at Isaan street food stalls here in Bangkok – they’re just the best renditions of those dishes. Others have a modern twist or contemporary plating. When and how do you decide you’re going to leave a dish as is and do the best version of it you can or you’re going to maintain its essence but get creative with elements?
A. Bottom line is: does it taste better or is it just prettier, fancier, cheffier, cooler, more artistic, etc? We always go with taste, nostalgia, and memory, as clichéd as that may sound. Every member of the kitchen team has a say at 100 Mahaseth. Everyone gets to bring an idea to the table and that’s the beauty of having these guys that grew up cooking with their mothers and grandmothers. No cookbook contains this knowledge. But of course then Trai, our sous chef, and I make the final decision. Once that stage is done I formulate the flavour profile that we want to highlight of the dish and we bang it out. And if that still doesn’t cut it, I hop on a flight or take a road trip with my sous chef or we go meet chef Nhum of Samuay & Sons and we go explore these dishes at the source.
Q. Does that dish development process happen organically or spontaneously or do you set out to elevate a dish and then get creative and reinvent it?
A. We set out to do a dish as it should be first, then I decide: if I dissect this will it get better or will it stand up to its original and do it justice? But we always have to make the original way as best we can first. Then organically we will tap into what we like, enjoy or remember of the particular dish, then focus in on that and see what components around it are secondary or tertiary to the focus. An example would be the beef jerky dishes and their derivatives, and the cassia leaf curry. On the other hand, will be dishes that we reinvent like the bone marrow and the coriander salad, which have to scream Thai in flavour and ingredients but they look like nothing the customer has ever seen or come across.
Q. In one word, how would you describe Bangkok’s food scene right now?
100 Mahaseth Rd, Bangrak, Bangkok
+66 2 235 0023