13.7563° N, 100.5018° E
‘Bangkok has a very vibrant culture. Everywhere you go, 24/7, there's food around the corner.‘
Gems in this
Pichaya Soontornyanakij, known in the industry as ‘Chef Pam,’ is one of Thailand’s most innovative chefs. Born in Bangkok, Pichaya grew up helping her mother cook for her Thai-Chinese-Australian family, which first ignited her passion for food.
After four years spent working in New York with industry icon Jean-Georges, she returned to her hometown, where she has since opened Michelin-starred restaurant POTONG. Never one to sit still, she is now working on expanding her culinary empire with new venues, while also providing pathways and mentorship for young female chefs. We caught up with her to uncover her Bangkok Travel Playbook of the best places to eat — from comfort food to fine dining — hang out with other local chefs, and shop for ingredients.
On your Thai-Chinese-Australian background
My mom is Chinese but born in Thailand, and my dad is Thai, Chinese and Australian. It's very interesting because when my family has food on the table, there's always a mix of Thai-Chinese food, as well as European food.
On a childhood spent in the kitchen, developing your passion for food
My mom was always the one who cooked for the family. Growing up, the kitchen was the room that I spent the most time in — I hung out with her all the time and helped her. During that time I didn't realize that I liked cooking, but when people ask me ‘How did you start cooking?’ I think back to those memories.
‘I think food can be a spiritual moment when you have great company and the food is just right.’
On food being a spiritual experience
For some people food might be something that fills them up every day and is very simple, but at POTONG what we're trying to do is not just serve food — it's more of the experience. I think food can be a spiritual moment when you have great company and the food is just right.
On training under industry icon Jean-Georges in New York
I love New York. Working there taught me a lot, because New York combines passionate people from every sector. People are very competitive. I learned so much from cooking in New York and working under chef Jean-Georges — it made me the chef that I am today.
On creating a program to support young female chefs around the world
I'm working on a program that supports young female chefs with the American Women's Club of Thailand. I call it Women For Women. Sometimes young female chefs don't have the opportunity to work in good restaurants to gain experience. And I think it’s very important for a young chef to grow, and see what's going on around the world. So each year, I give a female chef an opportunity to work at POTONG for one year, and then I'm working with other restaurants around the world that are helmed by female chefs, and the chef can choose where she wants to go around the world. I'll support the living costs, the travel, and the apartment.
On your favorite city to visit for food
Lebanon was my favorite. I traveled there because I was invited to do Top Chef. I love sour and fresh food, and the food there really captures that. The culture of eating is very important there — I remember the server was telling me that people spend four or five hours eating. And they have a lot of food on one table — I went to one restaurant and there were 10 to 20 small dishes, just for my husband and I to share. I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ but everything was really good and had such bold flavors.
‘Thai people live around food, so it's really inspired me to create something that is bold in flavor.’
On a window or aisle seat
Window because I don't go to the bathroom often so I don't need the aisle, and I don't have to stand up for anyone.
On one thing that’s always in your carry-on
A neck pillow. I have one that's my favorite but I don't know the brand. You can fold it really small in a bag, and when it pops up it can hold its shape.
On the food scene in Bangkok
We have a very vibrant culture. Everywhere you go, 24/7, there's food around the corner. Thai people live around food, so it's really inspired me to create something that is bold in flavor and also represents my heritage. Around five to 10 years back, fine-dining restaurants were usually in hotels. But now, a lot of young chefs and entrepreneurs have seen what other people around the world are doing, so restaurants have more specific concepts — not just international or French cuisine. It goes deeper: like which part of Thailand, what kind of French? People are more serious about what they’re doing and do more research, and are also educating the diners about what they’re eating. It’s a great thing. It’s all about storytelling, memories, the little things.
On your Michelin-star restaurant
Right now I'm into the Song Wat area, the old town. POTONG is my restaurant, and it's kind of a hidden gem. It's in the middle of Chinatown, which I would say is a weird location for fine dining, but people like it. POTONG is the only Michelin-star restaurant in the area. The building belongs to my ancestors, so it was the best location for me to do my dream restaurant. And then there's Opium, which is our bar on top of POTONG. If people want to go to the bar, they have to get into a small elevator through POTONG. It's quite an experience.
‘We’re trying to get other creative people to land at Songwat, because for me, you don’t grow alone — you have to grow as a community.’
On where to get some comfort food
One of my favorite restaurants around the Old Town is a Thai-Chinese restaurant where they sell stewed goose. My mom always brought me there whenever I went shopping around the city. Not a lot of people know it, but it's in a really small alley between buildings, and you have to walk inside and sit at the back. It's called Lao Tang. The best thing about the place is stewed goose, and you just eat it with rice and some pickled sauce. Really simple but it’s comfort food for me.
On a fresh café
There are really good cafés around Song Wat area. The café that I like is called FV. The interior is very interesting — it’s like an old, wooden Thai house inside a shophouse. They’re really serious about sustainability and using fruit from farmers, so the menu always changes.
On where the local chefs hang out after work
People come to see me at Opium and drink there. Mayrai is Chef Ton’s wine bar. It’s quite small and also near POTONG. It’s not stiff, so we can just go with chef jackets and it's very easy. On top of Mayrai there's a restaurant called Nusara, which also belongs to Chef Ton. It's a really small chef’s table restaurant. They sell really good Thai food, and it’s hard to book. That's a hidden gem.
On where you shop for ingredients
There's no name but we call it Talat Kao, which translates to ‘the old market,’ in Yaowarat Road. I'm very connected to that road, because I've walked through that alley hundreds of times: when I opened the restaurant, with my mom when I was young. And every time I go, there's always something new. The market sells a lot of Thai and Chinese ingredients: there’s tea, seeds, sauces. For me, it's like Disneyland. It’s open every day, but they close early, like five o'clock, because they open early.
On building up the community in Songwat
I was part of the original group that created an organization called Made in Songwat. It’s comprised of entrepreneurs and owners who come together and do meetings and activities every month. Last time we did Songwat Week, where people could buy vouchers and have a tour in the old town. We want to build the community and we’re trying to get other creative people to land at Songwat, because for me, you don’t grow alone — you have to grow as a community. I think a lot of creative people are moving there, because the buildings are very old and unique, and the younger generations want to turn them into something. Hopefully a lot of young people come in and open something around us, so travelers can come and know that they have fine dining, cafés, things to look at in one place.
‘The city is full of fun; full of light; full of people and diversity; full of flavors.’
On your relationship with Bangkok
I fell in love with it. When I was younger, I didn't have this feeling. But then I moved to New York to study and work, and once I moved back, I missed the city so much. It's my home. I don't want to live anywhere else.
On a song that reminds you of Bangkok
Every time I listen to this song, it brings me back to the memory of Bangkok and the work that I do. It's called ‘Alarms’ by F.HERO, a Thai rapper.
On Bangkok in one word
Adventurous. The city is full of fun; full of light; full of people and diversity; full of flavors.