Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 5, Episode 3 - Bo Songvisava - full transcript

Chef Bo describes her path, involving training in London, finding organic produce, and the difficulties of opening an authentic Thai restaurant in the capital of -- Thailand.

When it rains, do the small
shrimp come out a lot?

Thailand is a hospitality country.

Whatever you ask, it's "Yes.

I can do that for you."

Thais have been serving
what the customer wants.

They dumb down the flavors.

But at my restaurant,
we're not gonna do that.

We want to show them the real thing.

We keep the flavors as traditional Thai.

We're not gonna make it less
spicy because you can't eat spicy.

People walk out from my restaurant.

But... we are happier if
they decide not to eat.

Because if the mind is not going
to open from the beginning,

like, it's not going to work.

Most people think that Thai
food is a curry or a pad thai.

But it's so much more.

Great Thai food is one of
the hallmarks of humanity.

Many people don't realize how
complicated and sophisticated it is.

There's a diversity of ingredients

and a provenance of recipes.

It's artisanal.

It is irrational.

And it has a great heritage.

Thais are beginning to articulate
their own understanding of Thai food.

And it started with Bo.

You have Thai food all over the world,

but Thai food at Bo.Lan
is real Thai food.

Bo's working with her partner, Dylan,

together, producing amazing food.

Bo.Lan is the first Thai restaurant
to do things as it should be done,

instead of recreating it
for the tourist palate.

Every single curry paste is pounded out.

Chili paste is made from scratch.

The food is appreciated more
so by the older generations

because it's very similar to the way that
their grandmother used to prepare it.

Old-fashioned Thai food has disappeared,

apart from in the heads and
restaurants of a few mad fools.

Traditionally, in Thailand,
when somebody died,

the family wrote a
eulogy including recipes.

Bo and Dylan based a lot of their
recipes on these older ideas.

Also, Bo has that desire to
be as ethical as possible,

which means their restaurant
is as sustainable as possible.

For Bo, it ain't about
awards and accolades.

It's about doing
something you believe in.

In Bangkok,

when you ask people simple
questions about Thai food,

people hardly can tell
you the correct answer.

People in Thailand don't know how
to cook things from scratch anymore.

They use all industrial,
processed products.

Canned coconut.

Packaged curry paste.

Processed white sugar.

The roots that we have are disappearing.

If this continues...

we would become industrialized.

All the curry pastes
made from one company.

Traditional Thai cuisine...
is gonna disappear.

And it's like, "Shit."

What, as a cuisine, are we gonna be?

I feel this responsibility in keeping
Thai cuisine the way that it should be.

I have to fight for Thai food.

New order.

Fish, yes. Quail, yes. Duck, yes.

Barbecued pork neck, no.
Can we do duck instead?

Forty-eight, two minutes.

Yes, Chef!

Bo has tenacity. She's
absolutely fearless.

She will pick a fight
despite being wrong.

And she'll cut off her
nose to spite her face.

Me and Dylan end up
fighting all the time.

We fight on how we gonna cook
this, what we gonna put in first,

how the flavor profile should be.

I don't get his point.
He doesn't get my point.

It's probably the same point
we see from different angles.

We throw things at each
other. I splash his preps.

He just picks me up and
puts me outside the kitchen.

That is physical
violence. You know that.

She wiped some curry paste on me.

Yes, Chef.

It was because I poured a whole
bowl of coconut cream on her head.

But she poured dirty,
dirty dish liquid over me.

And then we didn't speak
for a month and a half.


For the next two weeks,

it was like, "Yes, Chef,"
"No, Chef," to each other,

and just being uber polite
in a work environment,

so that the other staff
weren't getting too upset.

Add potatoes.

No, you are a Westerner.
That's why you love potatoes.


Taste good?

- I am a Westerner. I love it.
- Westerner.

I don't know how staff cope with us.

But I think the fighting makes
the relationship stronger.

And it's not superficial love.

And it gives that passion to our food.

And that makes it better.

Wait. Can you hold it, please?

Ethan. Ethan.

- Fast.
- Can you put salt in for Mommy?


What's that?

I was born in Bangkok.
Grew up in Bangkok.

I grew up in quite a big family.

One of five.

We grew up with food on
the table all the time.

All different types of food:

a lot of Chinese food,
a lot of Western food.

But I loved Thai food the most.

I spent a lot of time
cooking with my dad.

I had so much good time
with him in the kitchen.

He let me do whatever I wanted to.

It was fun.

And that's how I
started to love cooking.

After high school, I wanted
to apply to cooking school.

When I told my mom that
I really want to cook...

Mom's just like, "No, no."

My parents, they don't allow that.

You have to have a degree.

Negotiating with my mom,

I chose a bachelor of business in
restaurant and catering management,

because that is the closest
to cooking with a degree.

At Bo.Lan, our tasting menu

lets the customer understand
how Thais used to eat.

And for me, that really showcases

the intensity and the integrity
that we know Thai food has.

Hello! Have you eaten yet?

Welcome, guys. Please come
in. How are you today?

Hello! Welcome!

Welcome to the kitchen.

In the kitchen, we offer our first bite.

It literally means
"Turn over. Add salt."

It's got only three ingredients.

You've got salt, palm sugar
and toasted teenage coconut.

For us, it really emphasizes
and encompasses what

Thai cuisine is, and what
important produce is.

In Bangkok, a lot of the time,

it's all about importing the best
ingredient from here or there.

Whereas, at Bo.Lan, we're only using
product that comes from within Thailand.

Our organic rice from Yasothon Province,
from the northeastern side of Thailand.

It's like the "chili and salt"
my family ate when I was a child.

Exactly what I used to eat.

- I'm so glad. Phew.
- What a relief.

And the ingredients are the most
important part of any Thai meal.

But it doesn't matter how
good our ingredients are.

They have to be cooked with
the traditional method.

To make the curry paste,
you can't blend it.

You can't puree it. You can't juice it.

It's not gonna work.

The proper way in making the
curry paste is pounding it.

When you pound it together,
the flavor's different.

It's more intertwined.

And it tastes the way Thai
cuisine used to taste.

It's not the hard way.
It's the right way.

With a Western tasting menu, you
get one dish, one dish, one dish.

We don't do that here at Bo.Lan.

For the main course, we give
them seven dishes at once.

From the framework of Thai cuisine,

you need to have at least a curry, a
soup, a salad, a stir-fry and a relish.

Through that interaction, people start to
understand the complexity of Thai cuisine,

and that they can actually eat
Thai food as it ought to be eaten.

Is Brother Pe's delicious?

It's because the durian is
sweet, but the taro is not.

But this is too sweet.

Really sweet.

The color shouldn't be this clear.

If it's this clear, then it's too
sweet, like dessert sticky rice.

After I finish my bachelor,
I try to find any job at all.

And I tell them I do
whatever in the kitchen.

No one wants me.

Bo is an intelligent woman and
couldn't find a job in the kitchen.

When I met her, she was eager to learn,

but she wasn't cooking Thai food.

She was cooking in my
Mediterranean restaurant.

Bangkok back then, it was hard to
find good Thai food in a restaurant.

One day, a foreign chef
comes into the kitchen.

They want to know about Thai
food, because they're in Thailand.

And I don't have that knowledge at all.

It's like, "Shit, why don't I know?"

So, I asked my sous chefs, who are Thai.

And they don't know
anything about Thai food,

because they've been working
with Western food, as well.

So, I ask around.

I just found that Thai people don't
know about cooking Thai food anymore.

It's sad. It's shocking.

I decide that I really,
really have to dig into this.

I have to learn Thai food.

In Thailand, Thai food is not a
food that works well in restaurants.

It's food that's eaten at home.

Many Thais don't eat Thai food out.

Or, if they do, they'll eat it out
on the street, and it is very cheap.

If they're affluent enough
to eat in restaurants,

they'll have a maid or two that'll
cook Thai food for them at home.

So, restaurant food in Thailand
is expensive foreign food.

One of the biggest
pressures on Thai food

is people's expectation
that it should be cheap.

Only way you can cut
the costs of the food

is by reducing the quality
of the ingredients.

So, many Thais are using
shoddy ingredients,

reducing the quality of the food.

The taste of Thai food is disappearing,

'cause quality ingredients
are disappearing.

And that's a great shame.


Shallots. We still have a lot.

Okay, that's enough for now.

Traditionally in Thai cuisine,
grilled shallots aren't used.

Back home, my family doesn't
use shallots for this dish.

No shallots at all, right?

- Where are you from?
- From Rayong.

Yes. They only add garlic.

When she was cooking in my
Mediterranean restaurant,

Bo was quite keen to learn
more about her own cuisine.

And that wasn't gonna happen in Bangkok.

And I was like, "Why
don't you just get out

and go and work for David
Thompson in London?"

David was taking Thai
food to the next level.

No Thai chefs were really doing that.

I mean, it was a shame that it was
an Australian guy living in London.

David gave the rest of the
world access to Thai cuisine.

It was real Thai food
outside of Thailand

that I don't think anybody
had really seen before.

David needed Thai people in the kitchen
to add, like, a little bit of Thai accent.

Amanda introduced David to me.

So, I landed in David's
kitchen, Nahm, in London.

First week in London, I'm loving it.

I love the architecture.

I love the road. I love the bus.

I just love London.

Yeah, and then the work start.

And then you never see London again.

After working with David
at Nahm for two years,

Bo was the first Thai person in the
kitchen that we'd ever worked with.

In the kitchen, I'm, like, the slowest
of the slowest that they ever met.

They throw me a box of prawns,
and then I have to shell it.

People do it in 15 minutes, and it
would take me three hours to do it.

People are just like, "What?
You still doing that?"

Kitchens are hard places to work.

You're lifting 20-liter stock pots.

It's physically demanding all day.

It's harder for, especially a young woman
who's still learning, to try and keep up,

and she wouldn't ask for help.

She wouldn't go, "Can you
help me pick up this pot?"

No, she would just try and lift the pot.

She would do everything herself.

I'd get cut, like, all the time.

I used all the bandages in the kitchen.

And I end up in the
hospital a lot of times.

When you're that young,
when you're that ambitious,

you think you can do everything.

You make it happen.

Eventually, her skill
level got to a point

where she could compete in the kitchen.

From then, she started to
really surpass other people.

When you catch up with
other people's pace,

I'm now part of the team.

Is this the water lily flower?

No, it's the water
hyacinth flower, isn't it?

No, that is Monochoria hastata Solms.

Monochoria hastata Solms?

Can you eat it?

No, you can't. It's a type of weed.

Bo eats everything.


No, I don't.

As a cook...

I'm not a superhero.

I need good ingredients.

If I cannot have a good ingredient to
start with, I can't make good food,

especially with Thai food, when every
single component has to combine together.

What's sometimes misunderstood
about Thai cuisine is

there's a lot of sugar in
everything, not just desserts,

because there's a balance
of flavors happening.

So, in a lot of savory items,

salad dressings, curries,
soups, you'll have sugar.

The sugar is so cheap in Thailand,

because it's industrialized

and because the government
subsidized the white sugar.

But palm sugar is traditionally
used in Thai cuisine.

Palm sugar offers this complexity
that other sugars can't.

Cooks with less integrity will start
using white sugar because it's cheaper.

Aunt Jiang and Aunt Toom,
our palm sugar producer,

use a traditional method
of making palm sugar.

A more industrialized farm will have
chemicals in the receptacle they use,

and they will go up the trees
twice or three times a week.

Aunt Jiang and Aunt
Toom climb twice a day,

since they don't use preservatives.

And it's the best tasting
sugar you'll ever try.

By sourcing the ingredients like this,

Bo is putting the power back
in the hands of the producers

and the people who are
cultivating our foods.

This is the natural way.

Mmm. Very much.


We are dealing with the
smaller scale farmers,

so they can grow organically.

If you still support the industrialization
of food industry in general,

we are gonna go nowhere.

So yummy, Auntie!

Wings, legs, intestines. Stewed.

Wings, leg, intestines. Extra blood?


Rice noodles with chewy gizzard only.

- Only the gizzard?
- Only the gizzard.

Thank you, sister.

The second year in Nahm, in London,

we start seeing each other.

Dylan asked whether, like, "You
want to check out the Tate Modern?"

I was like, "Oh, yeah, not
bad. So, yeah, why not?"

I didn't realize there was
something happening between us.

Like most guys, I'm pretty
obtuse when it comes to women.

This is the better soup. Try.

We started hanging out
more outside of work.

This one is saltier.

From then on, it's like...

coffee before work, and
things like that happened.

It was a friendship, and then it
developed into something even more.

It wasn't, like, this moment of...

like, the sky opened up, and I heard
crickets and birds chirping and whatnot.

It was a gradual thing, and next
thing you know, we're together.

Another one.

Another one coming up.

- It's a barracuda.
- Barracuda?

It's big.

Careful with the teeth, Dylan.

Yeah, yeah.

Chop the mango like a guava.

Then continue from this one. Like this.

It has natural characteristics.

It's already good.

Great Thai food relies upon
instinct inherent in the cook.

And it's not something that's trained.

It's just a natural style
that they have themselves.

Bo, indeed, has that.

You have to add a little
bit more tamarind water.

The flavor isn't working
at all. Not at all.

Bo's taste is absolutely outstanding.

In London, other people
in the kitchen trust me

to taste their food before the
chef comes in and taste it.

I can tell people,

"This is yummy already.
You can serve that.

This is not yummy."

- This, add fish sauce.
- Okay, Chef.

After two years,

David gave me the foundation
of Thai food that I need.

But I realized there is
something lacking in me.

I don't know what, but I know
I have to find out about it.

I have to quit.

And I have to go back to Thailand.

Me and Dylan move to Bangkok.

More like me dragging him here.

I love how they use
my head as a headrest.

- It's hard when you walk.
- Or a handrest.

We want to showcase
Thai food in Thailand.

I want to show the foreigners
traditional Thai cuisine,

and to show Thai people that you
can be proud of what you got.

Reality check is when no
one thinks it's gonna work.

Everybody's like, "If you want
to open a Thai restaurant,

you open in... in Sydney,
in Melbourne, in LA...

not in Thailand.

Why would you like to
sell ice to an Eskimo?"

But at the back of my heart, I
know that it would have to be Thai.

I have the conversation with my dad.

I asked him, "But what
happens if I fuck up?"

And he said, "You decide
that you want to do business,

it's either fuck up or make profit.

If you fuck up, you fuck up."

Next is reservations.

We have 35 reservations for today.

We have a table of three at 6:00
p.m. Two adults, one seven-year-old.

I still see guests eating just soup.

You have to be more clear with them.

Tell them... "If you like,
you can start with soup,

but then move on to
other things, as well."

Then encourage them to use
their hands to eat the quail.

Don't forget to tell them
that the quail has bones.

There will be guests that try to use
a spoon and fork to remove the bones.

Some will gnaw on it. Others won't.

That's their problem. Our job is to say,

"This one have bone."

Are there any more questions?

Okay. That's it, then.

- Thank you.
- Thank you.

When we first opened the restaurant,

a customer came in and is like,

"Yeah, there's nothing
special about this."

The first six months...

it's sleepless...

because the restaurant is mostly empty.

You don't know, not only whether
you're going to have customers in,

but whether your staff is
gonna show up or not tomorrow.

When we first start, I tell Dylan,

"Do not yell at the staff the way
you yell at the staff in London,

because we are Thai, and
we are not gonna take that,

and they're just gonna walk off."

Waan, you can put a bit more
oil in this, the prawns.

Got it.

I end up being the one
who yells at everybody.

This isn't spicy enough, dear.

This, add a little bit of stock.

- Add stock and see how it tastes.
- Yes, Chef.

To recruit people
professionally to work with us,

it's, like, almost zero chance.

Because if they're good, they
want to work with a hotel.

There's one incident.

The cook, he overcooked the squid.

I'm just like, "Can I show you
again how I would like it?"

- Like we did yesterday.
- Yes.

Not enough water, dear.

He said, "Your food is
too detail-oriented."

"I have been nice three times already.

I have explained to you what I want.

I'm not gonna be nice to you anymore."

He says, "I quit."

This is Thailand.

But I have to groom whoever
agrees to work with me,

to share the knowledge...

because I have to fight for Thai food.

Wow, you have Cambodian garlic?

Cambodian garlic. One
hundred baht per kilo.

Peeled Chinese garlic, 70 baht per kilo.

Thai garlic, 130 baht per kilo.

- How does that work?
- I don't know. Because obviously...

Is Cambodian garlic
good? Or is Thai better?

- Thai is more aromatic.
- Thai is more aromatic, right?

I'm glad Thai garlic is more aromatic.

No, we're gonna have some growing...

When we first opened,

we said we're gonna use
everything 100% local,

make everything from scratch,
and we're gonna be 100% organic.

The reality hit.

We can't get organic produce.

For six months, we went
from market to market,

getting up at 6:00 in the morning
to go to Or Tor Kor Market,

and then go to the next market.

And then we'd go to Khlong Toey
Market in the middle of the night.

Asking, "Where are you getting
this? Where are you getting that?"

And half the people selling our
produce was like, "We don't know."

How do you cook this?

- Just poach it.
- Poach?

- It's good to dip in chili paste.
- In chili paste?

- Is it good boiled?
- It's the same as poached.

And a lot of the ingredients
that we're finding,

we say, "What do you do with
that?" And they say, "Boil it."

And that was the standard answer for
any ingredient they didn't know about.

We almost gave up.

We thought, "This is ridiculous.

There has to be organic
produce available in Thailand."

So, we decided to visit the
farms to see what's going on.

We want to see different farms

to see how they produce their food.

So, we drive everywhere in Thailand.

Is it mostly vegetable farms here?

You can eat this one raw.

It's sweet and delicious.

You can tell from the
farms, when we first arrive,

whether they use any chemical.

And we learned that organic suppliers
are disappearing in the society.

Then, we finally find someone who
wants to sell us organic produce,

so we hang on to them, and
we develop a relationship.

These farmers have so much
good knowledge about Thai food.

There is some sap. We prefer not
to eat it raw. We cook it first.

- Okay.
- It's tasty.

It's also high in protein.

This is excellent for vegetarians.

At the farm, we learned
that ingredients in Thailand

are the secret in real Thai cuisine.

Suddenly, everything became clear.

So, we change the menu to emphasize
the flavor of all the Thai ingredients.

And because we use organic produce,

because we cook everything from scratch,

because we use artisan products,

the food tastes better.

More and more people come to Bo.Lan
to experience the real thing.

Over time, we find the
small-scale farmers,

small-scale fishermen,

artisan producers.

And we were able to make
Bo.Lan 100% organic.

Talking to farmers,

I learned that industrialized
ingredients are hurting the environment.

If you do things not
sustainable to our farms,

they will disappear.

I realized to have traditional
Thai food in Thailand,

you really have to start
caring about the environment.

If we don't make any changes now,

there won't be food for us to eat,
like we know it, in the future.

So, we have to look after the
soil, look after the ocean,

the environment around us.

So, we've decided to really focus on
those aspects within the restaurant,

making the restaurant as
sustainable as possible.

And we're trying to achieve zero carbon.

When Bo was awarded the
best female chef in Asia,

she used that as a platform.

She's speaking about

the environmental issues
we're facing today,

educating people on why it's
bad to use single-use plastic,

why organic farmers
are really important.

And Bo will stand up and fight

for something she believes
in until her last breath.

I decide to use

my power,

as a chef,

to change the world.

We have to fight for our food,

our Thailand,

our whole world.

Bo was always destined
for amazing things.

She has emerged as the
authentic Thai food expert.

She is keeping Thai food alive.

I don't see her slowing down at all.

She won't stop.

Bo's food galvanizes people.

There's this wonderful mash of
culture, of custom, of chaos,

of serenity, of taste, of spice,
of confusion, and of charm.

Like Bangkok itself.

Bo is the leader of Thais
controlling Thai culture.

Dylan and Bo believe
in what they're doing,

and they'll continue doing it because
they have that profound desire

to do something they believe in.

This one is not hot anymore. Try.

Before, I'd feel this responsibility
in keeping Thai cuisine

the way that it should be.

But... learning about the environment

and what we do with it in the society...

reorganized the priorities
of what is important in life.

It's not only cooking.
It's not only eating.

It's how you live your life.

Not only affect you,
but the next generation.

Now, I feel this responsibility to
preserve and pass on our planet.

If you choose the sustainable approach,

it will last to the next generation.

It can be a way of life.