Half British and Half Thai chef, John Chantarasak draws influences from both his heritage. Having spent time living and working in Bangkok, John returned to his British homeland in 2014 to work at the award winning Thai Restaurant, Som Saa where he became an instrumental member of the team.
In 2018, John decided to leave Som Saa to focus and open his solo venture pop-up AngloThai fusing traditional Thai recipes and flavours with modern techniques incorporating the best of British produce and ingredients to create dishes of unique nature. Driven by his passion and dedication, John has been shortlisted twice for Young British Foodie ‘Chef of the year’. Mot recent, John appeared as a competitor on Great British Menu.
– QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH JOHN CHANTARASAK –
1- How do you define your style of cooking and philosophy behind your pop-up concept, AngloThai?
AngloThai draws influence from both sides of my heritage, on one side, my mother is English and on the other side, my father is Thai. I was born in Liverpool and spent majority of my life growing up in Britain but since discovering Thai cuisine, I’ve been fascinated by Thailand’s food, ingredients and culture. The food I cook is based on dishes I have eaten in Thailand or sometimes, versions of dishes my grandmother cooked for us as children. The difference being the use of seasonal British produce in favour of imported ingredients. I’m big on nose-to-tail cooking and where possibly try to utilise all parts of an animal, fish, vegetable or fruit in my dishes. By default, there is a certain level of fermentation and preservation in my cooking to live this ethos of little waste.
2- What will/should your diners expect when they dine at one of your pop-up lunches/dinners?
I want the eating experience to be relaxed and casual, I’m not really about set menus and white table clothes when dining out. I’m a big natural wine fan and spend most of my free time drinking in wine bars, trying new bottles and eating small plates to accompany the juice. I try to bring this style of eating to AngloThai – all food is designed to be had with wine and guests are invited to have as many or as few plates as they wish. AngloThai takes influence from some of my favourite wine bars in London and the long term goals is to split the focus equally across the food and wine offering.
3- When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? Who and what inspired you to cook?
My professional cooking career took off fairly late in the day, I previously worked in finance and before that, I was a musician. I felt very disillusioned by London life in 2013 and embarked on a road trip across America from some soul searching, during those months on the road, I realised majority of my decision making for destinations in the states were based on restaurants I wanted to visit and dishes I needed to try. Long story short, I didn’t know if I could cut it in a professional kitchen environment so I enrolled in a catering college in Bangkok, and from there, I found myself working in Thai kitchens in my downtime. One of those kitchens was the world famous Nahm run by David Thompson. When I left Thailand to return home, David advised me to make contact with Andy Oliver (Owner/Head Chef- Som Saa). Two weeks after meeting Andy, we opened Som Saa as a pop-up in London Fields, which led to us crowdfunding the now bricks and mortar restaurant in East London. Andy’s probably the most inspiring chef I’ve worked with, really selfless and completely transparent with his knowledge – I learnt so much in the five years I was at Som Saa.
4- Thai food varies from regions to regions. Food from the central of Thailand, South, North and the Northeast are different and very unique on it’s own. Can you tell us more about the food and how it changes and varies from region to region?
I would hate to generalise as this is such a vast topic of discussion. But from what I’ve experienced and understand, the South tends to be rich and hot from the plentiful of chillies, turmeric and coconut cream – due to the abundance of coconut palms growing in this area of the country. Fresh seafood is used liberally and the dishes tend to be complex in flavour and profile. Food is spicy and pungent in this region, with prime examples being Gaeng Tai Pla (fermented fish innards curry) and Kua Kling (dry fried curries pork with turmeric, lemongrass and chillies).
Northeastern Thailand, commonly referred as to Issan tends to be spicy from chillies and pungent from the use of nahm pla raa (fermented fish sauce). In Issan, som tam (pounded green papaya salad) and laab (hand minced meat salad) are king, with hundreds of different varieties available. Food here is typically acidic, from lime juice and tamarind water, and salty from fish sauce and nahm pla raa, with little to no use of coconut cream and sugar.
North Thailand dishes are generally less hot and spicy than those typically found in Issan and the south. I recently got back from a trip to this region and found the taste profile of dishes to be umami and meaty with liberal use of fresh herbs – not only give aromatic freshness but also bitterness and astringency – which are prised flavouts in the North. There is an indigenous dried spiice called makhwaen (prickly ash) – a relative of Sichuan peppercorn that can be found in a lot of dishes from this region. Makhwaen and other interesting dried spices like Javanese long pepper and Malaep form the backbone of a spice mix called prik laab that gives a deep complexity to the laab from this region.
Central Thailand tends to be a melting pot that draws influences from all over the country, The dishes are more rounded and refined that found regionally. The use of coconut cream and sugar is more prevalent and the influence from china is apparent in wok technique dishes – the most famous being pat thai. But as I say, this is a massive sweeping generalisation and one should go explore first hand to gain a comprehensive understanding.
5- What do you think are the most understood aspects and views of Thai food outside of Thailand?
Ask most people, perhaps even those fairly well travelled, what they recognise as Thai cuisine and I’m sure any will site pad thai and green curry as their understanding. It’s not that those dishes can’t be delicious but most perceptions are a far cry from the versions you would find in Thailand, with these dishes misrepresented when cooked on foreign soil. Perhaps, it’s because I’ve chosen to venture down the rabbit hole of discovering with Thai cuisine, but I feel there are countless numbers of dishes that exist in Thailand just waiting to be discovered. It has to be one of the most vast cuisines in the world so to be represented globally by just a handful of dishes is a great shame.
6- Having just spent some time in Thailand, what have been the most eyeopening experience and enlightening moments during your trip?
I was fortunate enough to stay with the villagers from the Ahka-er and La-hu tribes in Chiang Rai Provence of Northern Thailand on this trip. It was a completely humbling and rewarding experience for so many reasons. The generosity shown by these people was astonishing, not only with their hospitality, but with their transparency passing on knowledge for their regional cuisine. Meeting locals and soaking up local knowledge is essential in these experiences, the amount you can learn in just a short period of time is amazing. Although, you do need to hit the brakes on the big city pace of life to allow yourself to fully gain an immersive experience.
7- Thai food by nature is perceived as a cheap cuisine and many people who might not realise the time, cost and labour that goes behind each dish. They might opt for cheaper restaurants where shortcuts are taken and tinned pastes/coconut cream are used. What are your thoughts of this and why you think people should be spending more money on restaurants that are retaining and preserving the art of preparing and making things from scratch.
Personally I think it runs deeper than just disagreeing with the use of these mass produced and commercial products in restaurants. I understand that families need to balance how they spend their income and unfortunately that often means compromise in quality of food. Thai cuisine isn’t the indigenous food of Britain and if anything is still fairly new and exotic, therefore freshly made curry paste and pressed coconut cream aren’t readily available from the local market or store like in Thailand. The cheaper, more accessible option is going to be Thai food cooked using commercial products at a commercial price. I do agree though that the customer needs to understand that sourcing of quality ingredients, labour and sustainable ethos comes at a price that is not always in conjuncture with ‘cheap’ spending. However that’s the same with anything from food, drink, clothing and beyond. Quality comes at a price.
8- Can you explain to us the creative process when planning a dish, making it from start to finish?
Seasonality has become more and more important to me so I tend to start forming a dish by looking at what’s local and seasonal right now. Once I have that in mind I think how those ingredients can be interpreted into Thai cookery. An example of this would be during our rhubarb season in the UK I try to introduce this acidic ingredient into classically Thai dishes – think rhubarb dtom yum (hot and sour soup) that uses fresh rhubarb juice as its souring agent instead of lime juice. Most of the dishes I cook usually derives from Thai dishes that I’ve either eaten or previously cooked, with the introduction of British ingredients that change with the seasons.
9- Have you got a mentor or figure that you particularly admire/respect throughout your career as a chef?
As mentioned previously I would site Andy Oliver (Som Saa) as a massive inspiration – not only as a boss but a mentor and a close friend. Andy’s seen me at my finest and at times my worst. Kitchen life can be extremely tough and sometimes you need someone with experience to offer support and pick you up when you’re feeling down and out.
10- Top 5 ingredients to have in your pantry.
John Chantarasak –
Garum – Basically an old Roman method of preservation that can be likened to fish sauce although some very forward thinking kitchens these days have made garum from all manner of ingredients including plants and vegetables. I combine leftover fish bones, guts and trim with British sea salt to produce a sort of anglo tasting fish sauce that I use to season dishes.
Horseradish – l use fresh horseradish root in replacement to chillies at times to give heat and spice to dishes.
Makhwaem – indigenous spice to Northern Thailand, slightly spicy, numbing and citrus – relative of Sichuan peppercorn.
Animal fat – I love the depth of flavour animal fat can give to your food, be that beef dripping, rendered pork lard or some good quality chicken fat. You can get the flavour and mouth feel of protein without actually using meat protein.
Chillies – Despite using horseradish nothing beats the real deal sometimes, dried or fresh, chillies feature heavily in all of my food. Some top chillies are being grown in the UK these days to feed our addiction to this exotic ingredient.
11- Top 5 favourite produce to work with.
Local and seasonal produce. I particularly love cooking with fish and seafood, of which the British Isles has a whole plethora – some of the best in the world!
12- Favourite kitchen tool?
In a Thai kitchen it’s for to be the pok pok (pestle and mortar), in the western world I’m a total sucker for a classic scarlet handled maurice spatula. I use both of these tools daily in my preparation of food. Every cook should also have a decent chef knife. Look after it, keep it sharp and it’ll improve your cooking infinitely.
13- What has been the most funky Thai ingredient or dish that you cannot get your head around.
To be honest I’ve got a ‘funkier the better’ attitude when it comes to all food, not just Thai cuisine. Saying that, it took me a little while to get to grips with pla raa (fermented fish sauce) but I think once you master using this sort of umami ingredient you have a level of seasoning that isn’t often apparent in other cuisines. At times I also find it hard agreeing with the vast array of astringently bitter herbs and vegetables found in Northern Thailand, but if eaten in the correct context as part of a balanced meal they become a lot more agreeable
14- Have you got any advice to young chefs or any chefs that are dwelling into the world of Thai food?
Explore, taste, explore some more and taste again. Don’t be afraid to embrace flavours, ingredients and techniques that first appear foreign, these are often the most exciting things about Thai cuisine. Reading and cooking from Arharn Thai (Thai Food) by David Thompson is a very good starting point. David’s book not only breaks down and explains all manor of dishes but it also goes in the deep history of Thailand and its connection with food. Other good resources are The Food of Northern Thailand (Austin Bush) and Pok Pok (Andy Ricker) which help to bridge the gap between the often confusing world of Thai cookery with that of the western world.
15- What is the secret to training/attaining a Thai palate.
You need to cook and taste constantly. Over all the different cuisines and kitchens I’ve cooked in I still find that Thai cuisine holds the greatest demands on tasting and adjusting as you cook. It’s a constant building and layer of flavours whilst also balancing the salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and umami.
16- There is a much greater coverage and understanding of Thai food compared to many years ago. With Michelin arriving in Thailand and more Thai restaurants featured on the Asia’s 50 best list. What are you thoughts of the Thai culinary scene in the upcoming years to come?
Positive. I felt on this recent trip that the wealth of restaurants now pushing the cuisine has grown dramatically. In Bangkok you of course have Bo.lan and Nahm but now there are places like 100 Mahaseth, Sorn and 80/20 which are looking to challenge the younger generation of Thai cooks out there to cook their domestic cuisine and showcase it to the world. Working as a chef or in a kitchen is no longer seen as a low tier job anymore and it’s positive to see that there are young Thai chefs aspiring to cook at the highest level. I was also fortunate enough to visit Chef Num in Udon Thani and to eat at his restaurant Samuay & Sons on this trip. Num is an extraordinary character with a wealth of knowledge about Thai cuisine and a focus on sustainability. It’s people like Num that the culinary scene needs in Thailand right now.
17- Where are your favourite restaurants to go to in London? Or anywhere in the world.
London – Som Saa, Black Axe Mangal, P. Franco, A Wong, Kiln, The DairyOuter London – Coombeshead Farm (Cornwall), Carter’s of Moseley (Birmingham), The Sportsman (Whitstable)Rest of the world – Relae (Copenhagen), Burnt Ends (Singapore), Bo.lan (Bangkok), Osteria del Mirasole (Bologna)
18- What are the future plans for John Chantarasak and AngloThai?
Since leaving Som Saa at the end of last year I’ve been cooking a whole bunch of pop-ups around the UK, Europe and Asia. I’ve got a few more of those style events lined up for the immediate future and then I’m looking to take up a long term residency here in London for the summer months, with a long term view to opening something next year. That’s at least the plan but the goal posts continually shift so ask me again in six months time!
19- Can you share us a recipe for one of your dishes?
Heritage Tomatoes with Preserved Soybeans & Sawtooth Coriander. (This is a simplified version for home cooks.)
Heritage Tomatoes with Preserved Soybeans and Sawtooth Coriander
Yellow Soybean dressing
- 6 Tablespoons Vegetable oil (grapeseed oil)
- 6 Tablespoons Yellow Soybean sauce (healthyboy brand)
- 1 Teaspoon white caster sugar
- 400gm Tinned white soybeans – drained weight (white butter beans can be substituted)
- 1 Tablespoon Fermented Soybean paste (Korean doenjang paste)
- 2 Cloves of garlic – pounded into a rough paste and deep fried until golden and crispy
- Vegetable oil (grapeseed oil)
- 300gm Mixed heritage/heirloom tomatoes – A contrast of colours and sizes is best
- 4 leaves Sawtooth coriander – thinly sliced
- Deep fried Garlic
- Tua nao powder – Tua nao discs lightly grilled until fragrant and blitz to a fine powder
- Make dressing by emulsifying the yellow beans with the oil, adding the oil gradually like you would make a mayonnaise. Be careful not to split the dressing. Blend very smooth then add sugar. Taste should be salty but rounded with sugar.
- Blend the soybean puree ingredients together until completely smooth, start with enough oil to cover and blend, then add slowly to ensure the puree does not split. It should taste very umami and slighty nutty.
- Clean and slice all the tomatoes into irregular and different shapes. For example, half cherry tomatoes, slice large beef tomatoes, quarter regular tomatoes etc.
- To a mixing boil, add a selection of tomatoes, a pinch of sawtooth coriander and deep friend garlic, then dress with the shaken yellow soybean dressing. Mix together well.
- Carefully pour soybean puree into a squeezy bottle and pipe some soybean puree on a plate. Add the dressed tomatoes and garnish with additional sawtooth coriander, deep fried garlic and tua nao powder.
– FURTHER INFORMATION –
CHEF : John Chantarasak
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