80/20 restaurant Bangkok chefs Napol ‘Joe’ Jantraget and Saki Hoshino are creating some of Thailand’s most inspired and imaginative contemporary Thai cuisine. Passionate about local produce, little known ingredients, and preservation and fermentation, the husband and wife chefs hope to reboot the evolution of Thai cuisine.
Chefs Napol ‘Joe’ Jantraget and Saki Hoshino’s 80/20 restaurant in Bangkok was recently named as one of just 19 eating and drinking spots in the world, and the only listing in Thailand, on Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places 2019, a list of 100 “new and newly noteworthy destinations to experience right now”. That’s as good an excuse as any to share this interview that we did with the 80/20 restaurant Bangkok chefs in 2018, as we think it’s pretty special too.
We first met Joe and Saki when Terence and I were doing a story for DestinAsian travel magazine on a clutch of ambitious young chefs shaking up Bangkok’s already interesting dining scene. They included Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn of Saawaan restaurant, Chalee Kader and Chaichat ‘Randy’ Noprapa and 100 Mahaseth, Riley Sanders at Canvas, Deepanker Khosla’s Haoma, and Joe and Saki and 80/20.
While the chefs hail from diverse backgrounds – some are Thai, a few are expats – and their restaurants and their cuisine couldn’t be more different to each other’s, what they all have in common is a passion for fresh local produce that is organic and sustainable, especially little-used and lesser-known ingredients, a desire to create incredibly delicious food, and, whether conscious or not, an attempt at redefining the very notion of Thai cuisine and ‘local’ food.
Earlier last year, as Asia editor responsible for selecting Southeast Asian restaurants for the new Truth, Love and Clean Cutlery guide, I had already included the same restaurants in the world’s first guide dedicated to truly good restaurants – restaurants that are ethical, sustainable and environmentally responsible.
Or, as one of the editors Alice Waters put it, “restaurants that operate morally and sustainably; that treat their workers with compassion and humanity; that value the health and well-being of their customers; and that help us all to become good citizens of this planet.” Because, as she concluded, “It is more critical than ever that we identify these sorts of restaurants around the globe.”
As far as we’re concerned, that has never been more important and it explains why we write about the restaurants we do on Grantourismo and in the publications to which we contribute. I’m going to come back to that subject soon and a recent experience that has reaffirmed our commitment to showcasing and celebrating chefs who are ‘doing good’, such as the 80/20 restaurant Bangkok chefs.
But back to 80/20’s most recent accolade: nominated by Time magazine’s editors and correspondents, as well as industry experts, the evaluation criteria for the World’s Greatest Places 2019 included “quality, originality, sustainability, innovation, and influence”, as well as “the sense that one has stumbled upon the extraordinary”.
80/20 restaurant meets that criteria, although that doesn’t explain how Norwegian Cruise Line’s 167,725 tonne, 1094 foot ship Norwegian Joy, which has a capacity for 3,804 passengers and 1,821 crew, makes the same list with criteria that includes sustainability. Those gargantuan cruise ships spew sewage, trash and fuel into the sea, create the same amount of air pollution as a million cars, and are responsible for extraordinary damage to fragile ocean ecosystems.
Time’s World’s Greatest Places 2019 list is organised by places to visit, stay, and eat and drink, and includes restaurants, bars, a distillery, and wine tasting room, hotels, resorts and luxury glamping lodgings, national parks, walking tracks, museums, libraries, theatres, a statue, and those cruise ships.
Joe and Saki’s 80/20 features alongside listings such as Nite Yun’s Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai in Oakland, California in the USA, and James Viles of Biota’s newish BARN by Biota in Bowral in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands in Australia. Aussie chef Viles is misdescribed as a “chef on the rise” despite his restaurant Biota having been awarded two chef’s hats in 2019 (the equivalent of two Michelin stars in Australia), Viles having managed 110 chefs in five restaurants in Dubai before he opened Biota in 2011, and Biota, in its first year of operation, having won a chef’s hat. It is one of Australia’s most awarded regional restaurants.
This is in no way to diminish the inclusion of 80/20 restaurant Bangkok, easily one of Thailand’s most exciting restaurants and one of our favourites, but it is an odd and rather random list of “world’s greatest places” that places restaurants such as 80/20, Viles’ BARN by Biota and Rodolfo Guzmán’s Boragó in Chile’s capital Santiago, alongside Raffles Singapore’s recently revamped Long Bar, a bakery in Colombia’s Bogotá, a grilled cheese sandwich shop, and a floating taco boat.
By doing so, Time’s Greatest Places 2019 list has grabbed the attention that these lists do and for that we are thankful as it has shone light on restaurants that may be acclaimed locally but aren’t as well-known internationally as they should be – such as Nyum Bai in California, BARN by Biota in the Southern Highlands, and, of course, 80/20 restaurant in Bangkok.
So here’s the full interview we did last year with two of Bangkok’s most talented chefs, which goes some way in revealing why 80/20 restaurant made TIME’s Greatest Places list (and the Truth Love and Clean Cutlery book). We’re filing this in our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world. More on 80/20 restaurant and our recent meal soon.
80/20 Restaurant Bangkok Chefs on Rebooting the Evolution of Thai Cuisine
An interview with the 80/20 restaurant Bangkok chefs Napol ‘Joe’ Jantraget (NJ) and Saki Hoshino (SH).
Q. Our meal at 80/20 restaurant kicked off with pickles. You said your goal is to push preservation and fermentation even more in your new fermentation room.
A. NJ – Preservation and fermentation have been a huge part of Thai cuisine, such as nam pla (fish sauce), gapi (shrimp paste), and pla-ra (fermented fish). However, these fermentation products and a few more types are the only ones that have been used in Thai Cuisine for many years. I’d like to explore if it’s possible to produce a wider variety of types of preserved and fermented products.
Q. What do you have in mind?
A. NJ – There are many ingredients in Thailand that I can experiment with. So far, we have made nam-goong, fermented shrimp sauce, and fermented ant eggs sauce. We have worked to recreate shrimp paste using local crabs instead. I totally believe these new fermented and preserved products can lead Thai cuisine to creating new Thai dishes and move Thai cuisine forward.
Q. You’ve also been seeking out and bringing more rare, unusual and little known ingredients from around Thailand into your cooking. Where are you travelling to discover those?
A. NJ – I’m planning to explore all areas in Thailand because different parts of Thailand have different geography and different type of forests. But I personally like to focus more on the South since I’m addicted to the ocean and to sea creatures.
Q. Are you going to be doing more foraging or working with foragers?
A. NJ – Absolutely. It’s my plan to go foraging every 3-4 months. It is an important research and development part of the new lab that I want to focus on. And of course, there are no other people who know or can identify local ingredients better than the local foragers.
Q. What about new suppliers and new ingredients?
A. NJ – We are aiming to work with smaller farmers who are passionate about their farming. You would be surprised that there are lots of those passionate farmers. In terms of new ingredients, I really want to see if there are other types of edible seaweed and sea plants.
Q. For me, your cuisine is very produce- or ingredient driven, but how do you describe the cuisine that you’re developing here and the dishes you’re creating in the kitchen?
A. NJ – It’s a reinterpretation of Thai Cuisine. So far this is the best description for what we cook up in my kitchen. It is to re-approach, re-think, and re-discover Thai cuisine and Thai ingredients. The development of dishes at 80/20 restaurant starts first from the produce and ingredients, then it leads to the different approaches or culinary techniques we can use.
Q. Your food tastes Thai because of the ingredients. Yet as local as it is, for me it’s also global in the way that contemporary Australian cuisine is, due to the country’s 230-year multicultural history, which gives chefs who grew up eating everything from Chinese and Indian to Lebanese and Italian food a sense of freedom in the kitchen. I am wondering if your experience in Canada had a similar influence on you?
A. NJ – Canada is a multicultural country, which allowed me to be exposed to different cuisines by eating many varieties of food made by the people that come from that cuisine’s country. I also got to work in many small kitchens specialising in different cuisines. That allowed me to form many ideas in terms of flavour profiles and also to get to learn different techniques from the various cuisines.
When you look into the history of Thai cuisine, it has evolved, with many cuisines such as Chinese and Indian having an influence. But up to a certain point, the evolution of Thai cuisine stopped. The question I ask myself is what would have happened to Thai cuisine if it continued its evolution with the influence of other cuisines until today? Or from today? Different immigrants who move to and stay in Thailand most likely bring their authentic food and ingredients and even kitchen equipment to make their food here in Thailand. It is like how the Chinese brought their wok and noodles to Thailand in Thai food history and because of that Pad Thai was created.
Besides describing my cuisine as a reinterpretation of Thai cuisine, I can also describe it as “New Thai Cuisine as at 2019” because my food represents what can be done as Thai food today. By meeting the fundamentals of Thai cuisine in its complexity, its balance of flavours, and its variety of textures, then it doesn’t matter what techniques I use. For example, with my Fermented Bai Lieng Curry with Crab dish, I managed to use the fermented local Southern Thai greens called bai lieng, and recreated a curry-like dish by not using any coconut milk and shrimp paste as we would following the traditional way, but I created the flavours so that it has a similar taste and can remind one of the traditional curry.
Q. Now, at the new incarnation of 80/20 restaurant Bangkok you’re working with 100% Thai produce not the 80% local and 20% foreign produce that you were before. Can you give me an example of the kind of thing you’re eliminating and what you’re replacing it with?
A. NJ – I love foie gras, for instance, but that’s not such a traditional Thai ingredient. But I also love the offal of different animals. Over the years, I have tried many recipes with various animal brains and I think that they taste quite similar.
Q. Let’s move on to sweets. Saki, when you’re creating a dessert, where do you begin? Is it the ingredient that most excites you or techniques?
A. SH – Yes, seasonal ingredients definitely make me want to use them in the menu and inspire me to cook with them. Especially when I find ingredients I have never seen or tasted before. A lot of fruits and spices were very new to me when I moved to Thailand so I incorporate them a lot with other familiar ingredients to create unique flavour combinations.
Q. Do you look at Thai desserts in the same way that Joe does with savoury dishes and think how can you elevate or experiment with a dish?
A. SH – For me, I have never really tried to make deconstructed Thai desserts, unless it’s for an event that is themed or based on traditional Thai cuisine, and I have twisted the dish with modern technique or I was asked to make Thai inspired desserts. But at times when I have created desserts using Thai ingredients, people have said, for example, “Oh, this dessert tastes like Khanom Sai Sai”, especially in the case of that coconut dessert I presented to you at the old 80/20. I think it’s pretty cool that I can remind people, especially Thai people, of traditional Thai dessert by eating my not-so-traditional Thai-dessert-looking desserts. It’s like a good surprise for them to finish their meal.
Q. How much of your Japanese culinary heritage do you bring to creating desserts at 80/20 restaurant?
A. SH – Since I know more Thai desserts, I find a lot of similarities and differences between Thai and Japanese desserts. Some techniques are similar but the outcome is different, and vice versa. Or some textures are the same but the ingredients are very different or similar etc. It’s very interesting to look at them together. But many times I have incorporated Japanese dessert techniques to a part or component of a dessert but have used Thai ingredients. Or even the memories I have from Japan – either the flavours, a dessert itself, or Japanese scenery as my presentation, texture etc.
Q. Like Joe, are you keen to explore little known and rarely used ingredients?
A. SH – Finding new ingredients is fun and exciting. If I knew much about the ingredients, maybe I know how traditionally or normally they are eaten. I think because I have never tasted some ingredients, I have different ideas on what to make with them. Also going foraging in Isaan or going on a fishing trip in Southern Thailand gives me the chance to find unique ingredients as well. Not only ingredients, but also people, the way of life, etc. Things I eat outside of Bangkok or scenery itself inspire me too.
Q. At the new 80/20 restaurant you’re working with 100% local produce not 80%, what foreign ingredients have been replaced with Thai ingredients in your desserts?
A. SH – When we first opened we used foreign ingredients such as miso, some seafood and for dessert I used imported chocolate. But now we make our own miso and vinegar. Thai people are more educated about food supplies now so we found better suppliers for fresh local seafood and better quality beef in Thailand, and chocolate is now produced in places in the north of Thailand like Chiang Mai. For desserts, dairy products can be replaced with coconut milk and coconut cream. At the end of the last 80/20 restaurant, before this renovation, we were already using 90% Thai ingredients.
Q. How do you describe Bangkok’s food scene and the place of 80/20 restaurant in that scene?
A. SH – I think Bangkok’s food scene is better and diners more educated than ever. More of our Thai guests now understand what we’re trying to do here at 80/20 restaurant and are more open-minded when it comes to new Thai cuisine. When we first opened, a lot of people didn’t understand why we put different ingredients in one dish and why so many ingredients are local. For local people, it didn’t make sense that they have to pay more than street food to enjoy local ingredients. But now people are willing to pay because they know how much work each chef puts in to produce one dish. I think it’s great that in recent years more and more restaurants, such as 100 Mahaseth nearby, are using local ingredients.
Joe and Saki no longer run 80/20. We’ll report on their new projects when we revisit Bangkok in the near future.