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‘You can do anything in Phuket.’
Gems in this
After stints working in lively kitchens across Bangkok and New York building his reputation as one of Thailand’s most renowned chefs, Thitid Tassanakajohn, a.k.a Chef Ton, finds comfort in the calm and beauty of Phuket.
A Bangkok native, Chef Ton was inspired by the diverse and unique food scene of the coastal city, opening fine-dining restaurant Samut there. We were excited to sit down and hear about Chef Ton’s creative lens on Phuket, especially considering how busy this man is – running a portfolio of venues that is growing into a taste filled empire of Michelin-starred Le Du, six venues across Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan, a restaurant compound in Phuket and another eatery in Bangkok in the works. We uncover his favorite hangouts and hidden gems in this Phuket Travel Playbook, including where to escape the tourists and the boutique bars where local chefs spend their nights.
On how traveling to cook has made you a better person
When you travel for work you make a lot of connections. Usually I travel to cook, so I cook with different chefs in different countries. We exchange the way we see things and how we use different techniques. Personally, travel makes me more calm, and makes me see things in a more neutral way. You see so much difference in terms of the food, the people, the cultures in different regions. And you realize that people in different parts of the world do things differently — that comforts me. I’ve also become a better person: more accepting and understanding of people. I used to judge people very quickly, but when you travel a lot, you see the good sides and different angles of people.
On how your cooking journey started
My passion for cooking started when I was in college. In my second year, I went to the US with some friends to get a job for three or four months in a hotel, just to make some money and travel. Somehow I ended up in the kitchen. A lot of my friends became busboys and housekeepers, but for some reason, I got a job in the restaurant. I didn't expect to be in the kitchen, but when I was there, it became very fun. I enjoyed it. I found my life, and it's become my love ever since. I still had to go back and graduate university, and then worked in a bank, but the lifestyle was not my style, so I quit after one month. Then I decided to fly to New York and went to the Culinary Institute of America. I worked in a couple of restaurants in New York, and then came back to Thailand and opened my first restaurant, which was Le Du. The rest is history.
On your favorite city for food
I think San Sebastien is one of the best food destinations in the world, in terms of the flavors, the quality of the restaurants, amazing chefs around the area. San Sebastian has a culture of eating and cooking that is very strong and unique. That is definitely one of my favorite parts of the world to go to eat.
On a window or aisle seat
Aisle for sure. I drink a lot of water, so I have to go to the restroom very often and I hate being stuck in the window seat. Because I travel a lot, I don't prefer the view. I like to be near the exit to get out the plane as soon as possible.
‘Phuket is very diverse. There are expats of every nationality, and they have their own communities and bring their own cuisine.’
On opening Samut in Phuket
It happened during the pandemic. Before that I would go to Phuket quite often, but not stay very long. During Covid, I came back from the US, and at that time, we still had quarantine. In Thailand, they had a program called Phuket Sandbox, where you didn’t have to be in a hotel to quarantine — you could be in Phuket itself. So, I flew from the US to Phuket and stayed there for two weeks, but Bangkok was locked down, so I had to stay another month. At that time I fell in love with Phuket, because it was so peaceful. I had time to enjoy the city, the old town, and everything. And then I happened to get connected with a lot of people, made new friends, and then found this beautiful space. I was like ‘Well, it’s Covid and I love Phuket, and I have nothing to do now.’ So that's how Samut was born.
On what is special about Phuket’s food scene
Phuket is very diverse. We have a lot of tourists and visitors, and then at the same time we have a lot of expats. There are expats of every nationality, and they have their own communities and bring their own cuisine. You can find anything: French, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese food — you name it. It's super diverse. I think southern Thai cuisine is also quite different: a lot of spiciness, fresh tangy herbs, and a lot of seafood. Phuket itself also has very different food from the usual southern Thai cuisine. Phuket historically was a very wealthy trading city. A lot of wealthy merchants settled there, and a lot of them were Chinese. So the Peranakan culture is very strong. Phuket food is not only southern, but you have a very distinct influence of Chinese cuisine as well. It's become something very unique and interesting. You can find dim sum, but it's dim sum made in the Phuket style, and that’s what they actually have for breakfast.
On your relationship with Phuket
It’s almost like my second home. I was born and raised in Bangkok and still live there, but Phuket is somewhere I can get away and feel comfortable and calm. I enjoy the people, the food, and the beautiful beaches. You can do anything in Phuket. You have the peacefulness of the quiet beaches; you have busy beaches. You have department stores; the old town; all the cuisine you could ask for; walking streets. It's very convenient and special for me.
On advice for a first-time visitor
If you visit Phuket for the first time, divide your stay, because Phuket has two different sides. You absolutely have to do half of your stay in a nice hotel by the beach, relaxing the pool. They have beautiful beaches. But only for half of the time. And then you have to stay in the Phuket old town. That way you can learn more of the culture and eat amazing local food. Phuket locals usually stay in the old town, and that's where all the original, good street food is. The beaches are nice, but to be honest, the food is very shit and expensive. I stayed there during Covid and I tried to find a good local restaurant near Pa Tong, and it does not exist. All the good casual local restaurants are in Phuket Town, where the people actually live. You cannot blame them — it’s quite touristy and they can make more money.
On finding escape from the tourists
I quite like Rawai and Nai Harn, which are near Samut. It's actually the southern end of the island, so it's the furthest away from the airport. But the charming thing about it is that it’s not like Pa Tong with a lot of tourists. This one is smaller beaches, but you have a good mix of locals, tourists, and a lot of expats. So the vibe is more fun.
On where to get fresh seafood
A good spot is in Rawai beach. They have a big seafood market that comes straight from the boat of the fisherman. It’s like a seafood walking street basically — that is where we get a lot of our seafood for Samut. You can see everything alive in the tank and you can pick something, and then you go to the restaurant around the walking street, and they will cook it for you for another 100 Baht. That is the best thing you can do.
On where local chefs get a drink
Dibuk is a very nice bar that I like a lot. A very small spot where I always like to hang out with local chef friends is CLOUD MARKT. CLOUD MARKT is almost like a small grocery store that sells local drinks and natural wine, and they make local charcuteries. It was started by two young chefs in Phuket, and that's where many chefs hang out.
On where to get authentic local cuisine
For very local, southern, spicy food, I like to go to Nam Yoi. It’s a very old, traditional restaurant. They serve seafood and southern curry, like a crab curry. Very spicy, but very fulfilling. The other restaurant that is quite cool — doing modern European Australian-inspired food — is HEH. That is quite a nice spot. Casual, but very cool, with well-cooked food as well.
‘You can live in a city that’s well organized with everything in place, but then sometimes it’s just too perfect. For me, Phuket is imperfect and it's very fun.’
On a song that reminds you of Phuket
What's the name of that song, ‘The time of my life’? That is the song. You will have the time of your life in Phuket. Everyone will love Phuket if they explore it correctly.
On Phuket in one word
People see it as super touristy, with so many expensive hotels and overpriced resorts. It’s that imperfection, but then they have the beauty. You have to take some time to get used to it. And then when you know how to go around it, it becomes a city that is very nice to live in. You can live in a city that’s well organized with everything in place, but then sometimes it’s just too perfect. And when it's too perfect, you get bored. So for me, Phuket is imperfect and it's very fun.