Amongst connoisseurs of Thai food in Bangkok, the name Thanareuk Laoraowirodge will always sound familiar. For it was he, a young culinary visionary dedicated to honouring the memory of his grandmother and a passion for design and creation, who first put Thailand’s Isaan (northeastern Thai) cuisine on the map when Somtum Der in New York won its first Michelin star.
Born and raised in Khon Kaen Province in northeastern Thailand, Thanaruek “Eh” Laoraowirodge began his culinary and hospitality journey 15 years ago with a small boutique hotel called Supanniga Home in Khon Kaen, one of the early luxury boutique hotels to have cropped up in the region.
“I don’t come from a culinary and hospitality background,” Eh explains. “My parents actually ran a financial company specialising in motorbike finance.”
He obtained his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Economics from Chulalongkorn University and New York University respectively and after graduation, due to the downturn in his parents’ business, Eh spent five years helping his parents with the closure of their business.
“Once the company closed, my mother spent most of her time creating a splendid garden where she had many Supanniga (yellow silk cotton) trees that have vibrant yellow flowers when in full bloom. These flowers inspired the emblem for my restaurants,” Eh recalls. “She is extremely resourceful. I think I inherited my enthusiasm for artistic creations from her.”
Eh’s early life was also heavily influenced by his grandmother who took care of the household as he was growing up. When she passed away, Eh and his family opened Krua Supanniga by Khun Yai (Krua Supanniga by Grandma) at their boutique hotel to honour her memory, and to continue producing her signature dishes that diners in Khon Kaen love.
Eh first dived into the restaurant business in Bangkok with a group of friends he met in New York with Minibar Royale, a New York-inspired breakfast and brunch café. Soon after, he ventured on to carve out his own entrepreneurial path with a restaurant of his own. “I wanted a place where Bangkokians can enjoy simple comfort food that I grew up with in Isaan,” he says. With the help of Chef Kornthanut Thongnum who hails from Sakhon Nakon, Somtum Der (Michelin Plate) opened its doors on Soi Saladaeng.
“Chef Korn created the menu while I worked on the design of the restaurant. I wanted to create a dining environment that derives from the roots of Isaan culture, so there are elements in Somtum Der that strongly reflect the lifestyle of the province,” Eh enthuses.
After the successful opening of Somtum Der, Eh’s friend and business partner, Tatchai Nakapan, suggested that the time was ripe to bring Krua Supanniga by Khun Yai (Supanniga Kitchen by Grandma) to Bangkok. Since the first Supanniga Eating House (Michelin Plate) opened on Thonglor eight years ago, Eh has since added a branch on Sathorn, and Supanniga Tha Tien (Michelin Plate) opened two years ago opposite the majestic Wat Arun Temple. Supanniga also runs two river cruises a day, one of which is a dinner cruise.
2019 is another exciting year for Eh as Somtum Der spreads its wings up north with a branch that opened earlier this month on One Nimman in Chiang Mai. It will be Somtum Der’s sixth branch since Eh and his partners opened branches in New York (1 Michelin star in 2016), Ho Chi Minh, and Tokyo.
“There are slight variants on the menus at each branch. The chefs follow my grandmother’s original recipes. I help them to explore the accuracy of the tastes and presentations,” Eh says. “Most importantly, I ensure our dishes stay true to their identity which is traditional Eastern Thai cuisine that are reminiscent of dishes from my grandmother’s kitchen.”
An additional branch of Supanniga Eating House is due to open in May this year in Bangkok on Soi 38 Charoenkrung Road.