Chef Pam is Among the Most Influential Chefs in Thailand: Here's What Restaurant POTONG Means to Her
The art of cooking is intricate, and at times it’s all about telling history through food – something Chef Pam has nailed.
Pam (Pichaya Utharntharm), a multiracial Thai-Chinese-Australian chef, was raised in Bangkok, Thailand. Her culinary career began in the USA and was shaped by training at the three Michelin-starred, Jean-Georges Restaurant in New York.
The chef has won multiple awards during her career: she's the winner of the “ASIA YOUTH HOPE COOKING” contest by Les Disciples d’Escoffier and “The Young Women Of The Year 2012” from Her World Magazine. She was also selected in 2018's Forbes Under 30. Today, Chef Pam returns to her hometown and runs a restaurant of her own in Bangkok, shaking up the Thai cuisine scene with Restaurant POTONG, which she opened under THE X PROJECT, a restaurant group she founded together with business partner Tor Boonpiti. Other culinary ventures include American BBQ joint Smoked, which has four branches, The Table and Opium Bar (also within the POTONG building).
We chat with Chef Pam on her latest venture, Restaurant Potong and its symbolic tribute to her family heritage.
Image courtesy of @dofskyground (IG)
What was it like growing up in the fourth generation POTONG building and how did you decide to convert it into a multi-storey experience-driven restaurant?
Three years ago before the project started, my dad and my grandfather took me and my husband to see the building as it was recently completed on its long-term lease with a former tenant, who sells shoes. I was fascinated so much by its history when my grandfather told me about it. My husband and I walked up to the fifth floor with excitement while listening to his legacy. Right at that moment, on the rooftop seeing our original “POTONG” logo – I decided that this will be my next restaurant. The idea of having an experiences-driven concept came from me walking up to each floor and learning its history through my grandfather. I felt that... If only I could share these experiences throughout my food at the same time, then I will be able to capture the same memories of every guest walking into the restaurant and allow them to experience my fond memories. This idea becomes part of our philosophy in five senses (to formulate a memory for my guests and 'liberate’ one to join my memory at the same time) and five elements that we have in our restaurant.
Growing into a family of the fourth generation Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine producers, our family origin starts right here, at this very POTONG building. I was thriving to pay respect to my family legacy through what I am really good at, cooking!
How does POTONG pay tribute to its TCM heritage and your family?
Traditional Chinese Medicine has a lot to do with rare herbs, time, and fermentation. I took a lot of inspiration from that. At Restaurant POTONG, we focus on the element of “TIME”, whereby the fermentation process and condiments are all done in-house. Our longest fermentation took years and I had to do this event before the restaurant was opened. Some only take days. You will see this through almost every little detail we do, for example, soy sauces, vinegar, and honey ginseng are all made in-house through our fermentation room. This also reflects down to our kombucha drinks in the restaurant. Most drinks take at least 7-10 days before they are aged to the right flavour and our bartending team starts making particular drinks on the menu. We also use lots of herbs, at least 25 herbs throughout our courses and some are truly local to the Thai-Chinese cuisine.
My family legacy has been passed down onto the POTONG restaurant experience. I sometimes think of it as a museum: every painting, art décor, pots, etc. that were laid throughout also were actually the items that my family uses. the paintings were also drawn by my grandfather's brother (K.Vichai). Each item tells a story of its own. Guests can also scan a QR code to watch a video that tells its story. I was very detailed on how we tell the stories of each floor. Guests are invited to start their journey from the rooftop and work their way down, and the stories are all reflected through the food we make.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I have been connected with food since childhood. Since I remember, it was all cooking (perhaps since eight years old?). There were countless times my mum and I spent running around in our family kitchen trying out different local ingredients and that helped cultivate my deep appreciation for Thai-Chinese cuisine.
In terms of memories, my mum is one of those people who you can call an extreme “perfectionist”; therefore, most of the time I remembered would be my mum teaching/explaining/perfecting the food that I always prepared with her. I remember cooking a simple “shrimp dumpling” with my mum. I could not remember how many times I attempted to recreate the dish because it was not up to her standard and, I never would have thought that one day this would grow in my heart and help my great passion for cooking.
Images courtesy of @gastrofilm (IG)
What's the best part about being a chef?
Cooking and seeing smiles on people’s happy faces.
How does Thai and Chinese cuisine influence your menu?
I called my cuisine at Restaurant POTONG “Progressive Thai-Chinese Cuisine”. The cuisine focuses on memories of the local Thai-Chinese communities, where our restaurant is situated (Chinatown). Each and every course came from my memories of these tastes, which I believe some of my guests will be able to recall growing up with. My menu then takes those local Thai-Chinese ingredients and elevates them using both traditional and modern techniques.
What are the steps in curating such inventive menus?
I usually start at the very core of what I’m working on. I draw my inspiration from the ingredients and their history themselves. Sometimes I travel a lot in order to draw inspiration. This is also reflected in my courses. I believe that “memories” is always an important part when you are dining. I usually think about how I create that extraordinary experience and the memorable tasting notes for my guests. I always think about “how do I make it better?”, and I guess that’s why it never stops improving.
What's the inspiration behind the Opium Bar, nestled on the fourth floor?
When my grandfather took me to the building's fourth floor, we saw an “opium bed” in the middle of the room. So I asked my grandfather, “what’s that for”. He replied to me that his great-grandad use it to smoke opium (back when it was still legal in Bangkok – the building itself is around 120 years old). I took that inspiration to name the bar after the substance. The idea that you have to walk past the kitchen in order to go to our hidden bar is also another thought that I wanted to convey the secrecy of opium itself. But of course, we don’t really have opium here.
What do you hope guests take from their experience at Restaurant POTONG?
My hope is very simple – I only want my guests to be happy! Enjoying the moment, tasting delicious food that I and the team put our hearts into. And perhaps absorb some of our family history behind the building!
All images were provided by Tor Boonpiti.
Website: restaurantpotong.com | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Instagram: @restaurant.potong | Facebook: @restaurant.potong | Location: 422 Vanich Rd. Samphanthawong, Bangkok, 10100 | Phone: +66 082 979 3950