We first met Thai-born chef Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava, better known as Chef Bo and her Australian chef husband Dylan Jones — protégés of the legendary master of Thai cuisine, David Thompson, at Nahm London — after eating a very memorable meal at their restaurant Bo.lan, just after it opened in Bangkok.
In the last 18 months or so, Bangkok’s dining scene has been transformed by a new wave of chefs who are feeding foodies more refined, more creative, and more adventurous cuisine — everything from street food-inspired Thai and Thai-French fusion to molecular Thai and ‘Progressive Indian’. We can probably credit Bo.lan for kick-starting this movement.
Chefs Bo and Dylan were the first chefs to serve up contemporary Thai cuisine in Bangkok, which, perhaps ironically, is based on Thai heritage cuisine — dishes created from traditional Thai recipes, many from old cookbooks, which, incidentally, is also David Thompson’s passion.
What makes Bo and Dylan’s food contemporary is its delivery in a form that is all at once a modern degustation menu and traditional Thai family-style; careful presentation that results in elegant small plates that boast both modern and traditional touches; and an emphasis on quality, local, seasonal Thai produce and an integrity of flavour (especially when it comes to spice levels!) that Dylan admits is “uncompromising”.
By taking this risk they reinvigorated an interest in Thai food that extended beyond the standard dishes that were on every menu across town, exciting palates already familiar with the food they are serving up, while educating those that aren’t, and at the same time they also seemed to inspire a swag of chefs to also take similar chances.
Ordinarily, you’d expect this to all happen in a posh restaurant in a sumptuous five star hotel, with exorbitant prices to match the ritzy location, but Bo and Dylan work their magic with their team of chefs in a sweltering kitchen at the back of the stylish dining space they created in a lovely old home on a shady lane.
There’s a spirit house and a couple of dogs in the tidy garden, alfresco seating for those able to brave the heat and humidity, a small shop selling the organic products that Bo is so passionate about, and, inside, paintings by local artists hanging on the walls. The vibe is casual-chic and the prices reasonable, all of which makes it the kind of restaurant you can return again and again.
We ate at bo.lan again when we first arrived back in Bangkok this year, and returned a couple of times to interview Bo and Dylan and for Terence to shoot their portraits for magazine stories. When we started to discuss who to interview for our Local Knowledge series — and because food is so much a part of the Bangkok experience — Chef Bo seemed the obvious choice.
Q. What do you most love about your work as a chef?
A. It’s the ability to create and produce delicious food for people and make them happy. Now I can also use this occupation to help change the world, by supporting local farmers and helping them to develop better agricultural practices for the environment, and, therefore, better quality of food for human consumption and care about the earth.
Q. Why should people come to Bangkok?
A. It’s a city of paradoxes.
Q. 3 words to describe Bangkok?
A. Uncontrollable, frenetic and absurd, in a good way.
Q. And the people of Bangkok?
A. Extreme, hyper-energetic and adaptable.
Q. Your top recommendations for visitors?
A. Visit Bangkok Art and Culture Centre — the city’s contemporary art museum, just opposite MBK and the National Stadium BTS (do your sightseeing of the city by BTS), as it’s a very cool way to touch the soul of Thailand through contemporary art, right in the heart of Bangkok.
Go to Talat Nat Rot Phai — the Railway Market next to JJ Market, to browse Thai urban antiques that are not too pricy and handicrafts that are not too touristy.
Do a customized canal tour in a bullet boat — it helps you to understand the way of life in Bangkok fifty years ago.
Q. Best souvenir from Bangkok?
A. A mortar and pestle — just a small one — so that you can pound chilli paste for every occasion when you get home.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Bo.lan — for well thought-out Thai food that shows off local produce from a range of biodiversities.
Klong Toey Market at midnight — to see where your food comes from and how and why; it’s a good opportunity to look at different ingredients that you hardly see or will be served in the context of a Thai restaurant in Bangkok.
Fresh pressed coconut cream — buy it from a reliable coconut cream shop; look for a water filter and make sure there are no jars of preservatives around.
Q. You support the Slow Food movement: what does that mean and where are the best places to experience Slow Food in Bangkok?
A. The Slow Food movement is about clean, good and fair food for everybody. It is about eating in a more sustainable manner where both the cook and diner care where their food comes from and how it is prepared, to safeguard our food heritage and support the biodiversity of plants and animals locally. Basically, it’s about enjoying food with a social conscious. The local wet markets or green markets are probably the best places to experience it, and at bo.lan we have started a bio-diverse garden.
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Bangkok?
A. Don’t drink the tap water, even when they say it is okay, eat street food, and, oh!! — cars do not stop at zebra crossings, so watch out!
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Thai?
A. Kor rot chat beab Thai, which means “can I have it as a Thai would eat it?” So that you can experience the real Thai flavours and eating style.
Q. Any other advice?
A. Walking is great way to explore the city, but just keep in mind that the footpaths can be uneven, so be careful, especially at night time when you should look out for uncovered drains on the street.
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