Asia’s Best Female Chef 2018 Bee Satongun Brilliantly Makes Old Thai Dishes New Again
Chef Bee Satongun at the red carpet (© Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna)
What makes a chef worthy of the title “Best Female Chef”? That’s what I ponder every year when Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, reveals which Asian female chef will be given that honor. Two years ago, it was the Philippines’ own Margarita Forés who took home the award, the sixth since the Asian version of this global award was launched. This year, it is Chef Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun of one Michelin-starred Paste in Bangkok who got the title of elit Vodka Asia’s Best Female Chef 2018. William Drew, Group Editor of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, says, “This award represents part of our wider engagement programme aiming to promote strong role models who can inspire future generations of cooks. Chef Bee is doing just that with her bold and authentic Thai cooking in one of the world’s greatest food cities.”
While the award was announced in February, it was only at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony, held last March 27 at the Wynn Palace Macau, that Chef Bee was formally presented with the prize. Being in Macau for the event, I got the chance to sit with Chef Bee to get her thoughts on this award and learn about her approach to Thai cooking. She was joined by her husband, Australian-born Chef Jason Bailey, who runs Paste with her along with their pretty young daughter, showing full well that for Chef Bee, being a chef is a family affair.
Chef Bee Satongun receiving her award from Frances Gaillard, Marketing Director of elit Vodka (© Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna)
Being a female chef
While an Asia’s Best Female Chef award is without doubt a huge honor, it begs the question as to why there needs to be a separate award for women. In truth, this award does makes sense in the context of a restaurant industry that has traditionally been dominated by men, with little or no representation by women. For example, of the 50 restaurants on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best list, only two have female chefs, including Chef Bee’s Paste at No. 31. Chef Bee, however, takes this in stride, acknowledging the extra burden for women in the professional kitchen. She simply states, “When you are in the kitchen, whether you are a male or a female, you have to work the same. But because it’s really hard work…you need to learn how to cook with the heat and it’s long hours…You have family that you have to look after, so how can you manage the time to do everything.”
But there’s also another way of looking at this award. After all, while today’s industry has been dominated by chefs, it was not always so, at least in Thailand. Chef Bee reminds us, “In Thailand, in the old days, the women did the cooking especially in the palace, because they only allowed the women to cook.” In this light, Chef Bee’s award is simply a reclaiming of the hallowed position of women in the royal kitchens of Thailand. Before the men took over, it was the women who reigned supreme in the kitchen.
Pomelo salad of char-grilled Carabineros Asian prawns
Thai culinary heritage
It isn’t surprising that Chef Bee brings up women’s traditional role in the kitchen in days past. After all, much of her work revolves around digging for heritage recipes from the past. She has been cooking with her family since she was five years old, and she remembers those flavors 30 years ago had more complexity than Thai dishes do today. To bring back these dishes and flavors, she scours markets for old cookbooks, resurrects long forgotten recipes, culls wild herbs from the forest, and convinces farmers to grow rare vegetables. She explains, “We search for old recipes because Thai food actually is not just green curry and spring rolls, there is a lot more than that. But because these old recipes are dying out, people don’t know what these dishes taste, so we do research. We try to see what a dish is going to taste like and then we bring it back to life.”
Paste located at Gaysorn Village in Bangkok
The Paste approach
While Chef Bee is passionate about resurrecting the dishes and flavors of the past, she doesn’t simply recreate them. She explains, “We keep 80% traditional and we put 20% of our creation into the dish. We really focus on the flavor because, when you are dealing with the food that has a lot of history, you have to learn the basics first and know what you have to keep and what you can change.” She cites her roasted duck on rice cracker dish, inspired by an old recipe from an aristocratic family, as a fitting example of this melding of the traditional with the creative. She describes, “When we tasted the sauce at the beginning, it tasted very strong. We tried to find out how we could change this to apply to the modern palate. People nowadays don’t want something too intense, they want very light and balanced. So we cut the heaviness by adding coriander, dill, and long leaf coriander to refresh the dish.”
She calls this “heirloom creative Thai cuisine,” a surprisingly novel approach to Thai food, one that isn’t even familiar to Thais themselves. Chef Bee reveals, “When we first started the restaurant, a lot of people did not understand what we were doing. When people see our plating, they think it will not have the traditional flavor… But when they put (the food) in their mouths, everyone says it tastes like their grandma’s cooking.” Culinary traditions, layered flavors, carefully sourced ingredients, and beautiful presentation is what Paste is all about.
Crispy smoked prawns with roasted coconut and cashew nuts
The wonder women
Chef Bee now joins an elite group of five previous Asia’s Best Female Chef awardees, starting with fellow Thai Bo Songvisava of Bo.lan, Lanshu Chen of Le Moût in Taiwan, Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong, the Philippines’ Margarita Forés, and May Chow of Little Bao in Hong Kong and Bangkok. With each year, the profile of women chefs grows as these energetic, talented, and vastly different female chefs inspire young chefs both female and male, and enrich the culinary world with their ideas, their passions, and their delicious food.