Chef Sujira Pongmorn of Saawaan Restaurant Bangkok speaks to us about her early food memories and inspirations, her first restaurant experiences and biggest influences, how she conceived her first restaurant Saawaan, and Bangkok’s dining scene. Meet one of Thailand’s most exciting chefs.
There was no smoke and flames, no clank and crash of metal as woks hit the burners. There wasn’t even a stove in the open kitchen of the cool, dramatic, black-walled interior of 24-seater Bangkok restaurant, Saawaan. Yet Thai street food had been the main inspiration for 31 year-old owner-chef Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn and her exquisite 10-course tasting menu of contemporary Thai cuisine.
We may have met chef Sujira Pongmorn earlier in her career when she was working at some of Bangkok’s best restaurants, including chef Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club and chef Henrik Yde Andersen’s Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, which we’d covered extensively when we were based in Thailand’s capital on and off between 2009 and 2012. But chef Sujira Pongmorn, soft-spoken, a tad shy, and modest, had probably slipped into the dining room to pop a dish in front of Terence’s camera and quietly slipped out again.
It wasn’t until April 2018 when chef Sujira Pongmorn opened Saawaan (which means ‘heaven’ in Thai), with her former boss turned business partner, restaurateur Fred Meyer, that we excitedly read about the restaurant and knew we had to include her in a story for DestinAsian travel magazine that we were working on. The story was on a handful of creative chefs who were shaking up Bangkok’s already adventurous dining scene, including chefs Napol ‘Joe’ Jantraget and Saki Hoshino of 80/20 restaurant, Chalee Kader and Chaichat ‘Randy’ Noprapa of 100 Mahaseth, Riley Sanders at Canvas, and Deepanker Khosla’s Haoma.
Prior to opening the fine diner in the beautifully renovated Suan Plu shophouse, chef Sujira Pongmorn was at the woks at business partner and co-owner Fred Meyer’s Baan Phad Thai in historic Bangrak, where her mission was to create the perfect pad Thai. Chef Sujira Pongmorn had also been sous-chef at Meyer and Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club and learnt molecular techniques at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin.
However, when we finally got to dine at Saawaan and she prepared a dish at our table, chef Sujira Pongmorn confessed that it was the home cooking of her father and aunt that had left the biggest impact. While they weren’t professional chefs, they cooked for a large family and neighbours and their comfort food dishes and the never-wasted leftovers were an inspiration when Pongmorn began to develop her own dishes.
When Thai people feast ‘family style’ with an array of dishes on the table, there’s typically something raw, something boiled or steamed, a stir-fry, and perhaps a curry on the table, to ensure balance. At Saawaan, chef Sujira Pongmorn presents each of these cooking styles progressively in her ten-course tasting menu – the first dish is raw, then there’s a dip, something fermented, later a dish cooked on charcoal, a curry, and so on. Each is dainty, delicate, but packed with flavour, beginning with the amuse bouche, a sous-vide egg with tamarind and chilli oil, all at once Asian and European.
That meal was easily one of the best we’d ever had, not just in Bangkok, Thailand or the region. Saawaan would later go on to receive a star in the Thailand Michelin guide. Here’s the full interview we did last year with chef Sujira Pongmorn of Saawaan restaurant, which we’re filing in our Local Knowledge series.
Chef Sujira Pongmorn of Saawaan Restaurant Bangkok on Food Memories and Inspirations
An interview with chef Sujira Pongmorn of Saawaan restaurant in Bangkok.
Q. What’s your earliest memory of a dish?
A. I haven’t tasted any kanom jeen nam ngiao (a noodle soup of minced pork, pig’s blood, tomato, and herbs) more delicious than my father’s. He is not from Northern Thailand but his northern native friend taught him how to make it. The dish is bold and balanced, resulting from everything made from scratch: from pounding his curry paste and grilling thua nao (Thai natto) fermented soy bean to frying chili and garlic. He always made a big pot but we only kept a bowl or two for ourselves and shared the rest with neighbours – including the friend who had taught him.
Q. Has that dish or other dishes from your childhood stayed with you as you’ve developed as a chef and served as inspiration?
A. Because my aunt had many of kids, she always cooked a lot of easy comfort food dishes. And there were always some leftovers. And those were a great inspiration for me when it came to creating new dishes. I’ve cooked my aunt’s grilled chicken, inspired by leftovers, for Fred (Sujira’s business partner) and some of my cooks and everyone loved it.
Q. You worked at some of Bangkok’s best restaurants before opening your own restaurant. Which have been the biggest influence on you and why?
A. Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin influenced me a lot. It was the first place that I got my hands on molecular Thai food. Back in the day, it was a very new thing. No one else was doing it here. I learned a lot about the science of cooking and food.
Issaya Siamese Club taught me the most. It was my first time moving over from a hotel restaurant to a standalone restaurant. I joined the opening team there as sous chef and I was responsible for everything from purchase-receive, admin works, staff food, real cooking, and coming up with set menus to contacting suppliers and costing etc. Most of those things I did for the first time without any training. It was really challenging for me at the age of 23. We had a lot of customers from the early days. I had to decide a lot of things. It felt like opening my own restaurant.
Q. When did the idea for Saawaan restaurant come to mind and how did you make it happen?
A. My business partner, Fred Meyer, saw my potential from the days at Issaya. We agreed that we both wanted to open a Thai restaurant that served only a set tasting menu and that the food should reflect my personal favourites, which are street food. And I also wanted to highlight some ingredients that people often overlook, like pak kayaeng (rice paddy herb), som saa (Thai calamansi) and rice paddy crab.
Q. Now that the restaurant is up and running, what most inspires your cuisine?
A. It is still my much-loved street food and easy comfort food. I am passionate about introducing it and elevate it for diners. Some people like to think that Thai food is untouchable. They always worry that it’d be disrespectful to the recipes. But I see it differently.
Q. How do you see it?
A. If no one dared to touch it, Thai food would not progress. But if someone starts to look at Thai food from a different perspective and makes it easier to access, it will be more widely known. We just need to remember to keep the essence of each dish and to respect it.
Q. Any other inspirations?
A. I am also inspired by my interaction with diners who give me feedback. They will often say “Chef, I want to eat this dish. Why don’t you recreate it?” or they’ll ask me to introduce interesting new ingredients.
Q. What do you think of Bangkok’s dining scene?
A. I think it’s great. It creates a new dynamic in the industry as a whole. The newer restaurants and their new style of food have got people excited and wanting to try them. They have educated people’s palates and increased their knowledge of food.
Q. Can you expand on that?
A. Now people understand more about Thai food and are willing to try more. Culinary professionals have also gained much more respect than they had back in my day. It was looked at as an easy job that anyone could do, not well paid, and not worth doing, unlike being a doctor or lawyer. That has changed, too!
Have you eaten chef Sujira Pongmorn’s food at Saawaan restaurant Bangkok? We’ve love to hear how you liked it in the comments below.