Yes, Chef! Pam Soontornyanakij of Progressive Resto Potong
Asia/ Delish/ People

Yes, Chef! Pichaya 'Pam' Soontornyanakij of Thai-Chinese Restaurant Potong

Yes Chef Pichaya Pam Soontornyanakij of Thai Chinese Fine Diner Potong

Asia is one food-crazy continent! We take great care to pick restaurants based on culinary vibes, rankings on international gourmand guides, mentions in magazines, Instagrammability, and added hunger. Yes, Chef! features the region’s chefs’ stories of love and labour in kitchens that have made some of our restaurants the next big thing in Asia.

When we think about our fondest memories with our mother, most of us, probably, are brought back to those cosy moments in the kitchen. For Bangkok-based chef Pichaya “Pam” Soontornyanakij, one memory that resonates deeply with her is shrimp dumpling — a dish her "perfectionist" mother inspired her to master.

Reflecting on her humble beginnings, Chef Pam’s childhood has been intertwined with food, as she spent most of her time with her mother in their family kitchen, stirring up local ingredients that instilled in her a deep appreciation for Thai-Chinese cuisine. Chef Pam’s family bonding often revolves around cooking, grocery shopping, and catering food together, which sparked her burning desire for cooking.

As one of the most well-regarded chefs worldwide, Chef Pam considers French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten one of her culinary influences. But perhaps the most influential figure in her life is her mother, who imparted invaluable wisdom and traditional cooking techniques that have shaped her into the chef she is today.

This year, Chef Pam clinched the prestigious Asia’s Best Female Chef Award from Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024 edition. This award serves as a testament to her innovative cuisine and fine dining, showcasing her progressive Thai-Chinese restaurant Potong. It holds a special place in her heart as it is built in a 120-year-old building in Chinatown, Bangkok, which was once her family’s former traditional Chinese medicine shop, to pay homage to her roots while pushing modern cuisine.

The Beat Asia had a wonderful opportunity to talk with the award-winning chef to learn more about her culinary journey and commitment to empowering female chefs, especially those living in the rural areas of Thailand.

Chef Pichaya 'Pam' Soontornyanakij

Can you share your experience of winning the ’Asia Youth Hope Cooking’ contest at the age of 21, and how did it impact your career as a chef?

When I was 21, I went to one of the biggest cooking competitions and was awarded the first youngest chef of “Asia Youth Hope Cooking” in 2011 by Les Disciples d’Escoffier. I even joined a bigger event called “Youth Hope Contest World Cup,” also by Les Disciples d’Escoffier, which taught me to become more disciplined. I think in [a] competition like this, it pushes one to become better in a very short period of time, and I never regret a single moment of that even though it was one of the toughest ones.

Handling pressure in the culinary world, especially with your groundbreaking achievements at a young age, must be challenging. How do you manage expectations and stay on top of your game?

I feel thankful and motivated every time I receive these awards. It reminds me of some of the tough memories that I have experienced throughout my cooking career. I always love to challenge myself to a new task and push my boundaries. These awards make me even want to become the best version of myself.

Time and experience have shaped me as a chef today. Through the tough moments in my career, I was able to learn and discover myself and my style in cuisine. I used to think that I could mix everything and cook whatever I wanted, but today I realised that putting my memories into food is what makes food so memorable.

I don’t have any regrets when I look back; everything is a lesson for me. So, I think all these memories made me feel so motivated and gave me the urge to keep going further in my career. Some of those also influenced me to start the Potong project, [which] took me about three years. All in all, these awards just motivated me to keep challenging myself further. I just keep working; I just have to deal with it and move on. Make it happen.

Thai-Chinese Restaurant Potong
Thai-Chinese Restaurant Potong

Tell us about the inspiration behind starting your first fine dining spot, The Table, and how it has evolved over time?

My first restaurant is “The Table” which happened by chance, as it started off with a private dinner for family and friends. By using the power of word-of-mouth for three months, customers formed queues outside my restaurant. The Table became my core to develop my cooking techniques and styles.

There are many obstacles along the way, and one of the biggest challenges that I remember was when popularity hit my restaurant. I received countless messages through different channels for bookings and I couldn’t serve everyone on time. As The Table grew, I became more motivated to start working on my food and techniques that will give back to my heritage before I started the Potong project.

In representing female chefs in Thailand, what initiatives or changes do you hope to bring to the industry to further empower and support women in the culinary industry?

In addition to my cooking, I am also committed to supporting other female chefs and promoting gender equality in the culinary industry. This is why I founded the WFW (Women for Women) scholarship together with non-profit organisation AWC Thailand, which provide[s] financial assistance to young females in rural areas of Thailand who are passionate about pursuing a career in the culinary arts.

Although I’m [a] small part [of] the industry, I believe that if every one of us help each other to start making these small changes, it will finally become something impactful that could shape the industry for the better in the future.

Can you tell us more about your Thai-Chinese roots and how they influence the ever-evolving fine dining tasting menu at Potong?

I believe that many people shared the same memories growing up as Thai-Chinese like me. Looking at the history of 400 years of Chinese immigration to Thailand, we do share similar memories when it comes to food. As we all know, Thai-Chinese cuisine is not something new, and there are many restaurants that serve Thai-Chinese cuisine or what we call the “progressive Thai-Chinese cuisine.” For us, we were the very first people trying to revive the cuisine and at the same time put in new interpretations of it.

The Progressive Thai-Chinese respects the traditional Thai-Chinese cuisine, embrace[s] it, give[s] it a spin, and will keep progressively innovating and improving every time. I am also using the philosophy of five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and five elements (salt, acid, spice, Maillard reaction, and texture) throughout all my dishes to create that one-of-a-kind experience for all my guests. I believe that I can transform my memories while paying homage to my ancestors through food.

Main signature potong padthai

I think “traditional” will always be authentic, as there are usually good reasons for the origination and authenticity of the method of traditional cooking. I have always respected these methods, but at the same time, I also use my culinary knowledge to adapt and even create new methods to create a delicate balance between honouring tradition and exploring new techniques.

Moreover, traditional food and traditional cooking methods play a great and important role for me and are the keys to making the best dish. To recreate the dish using other modern methods will require an understanding of the traditional one, and I always learn the traditional ways before applying any modernity to them. I always love to come up with new ideas or something that has never been done before. I also believe that this style is reflected in my culinary method — progressive Thai-Chinese cuisine.

signature evolution crab

Given all the awards and success you've achieved, what's the key principle that keeps you grounded in your life's journey?

Dreams without goals are just dreams. You have to have the willpower and the skills to back it up! Do not give up but always be humble while doing all that!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Chef Pam’s restaurants and latest ventures, visit her official website or follow her on Instagram.

Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous Yes, Chef! profiles here.

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