A few generations ago, most people living in many western countries would view Thai food as gastronomy for the brave. While Thais approach their cuisine like a walk in the park, many westerners would consider the intense dishes more like a rollercoaster ride: a rush of spices and exotic flavours undulating into an exciting yet potentially tumultuous assault on the senses.
But over the last 20 years, as cities around the world have embraced multiculturalism, people have expanded their tastes. Today, international diners are no strangers to the phad thai, green curry, or tom yam soup.
Take Australia as an example. The land down under has more Thai restaurants than any other country outside the land of smiles – well over 3,000 eateries. This didn’t happen completely by chance. Since 2002, the Thai government has supported thousands of independent restaurants abroad through its Global Thai programme, which was renamed Thailand: Kitchen of the World.
When the programme first launched, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants outside Thailand. By 2015, there were more than 15,000 worldwide.
Despite this remarkable growth in popularity, only a handful of Thai restaurants have gained a prestigious MICHELIN Star worldwide. As of the 2023 edition of the MICHELIN Guide Thailand, we have the two-Starred Sorn and R-haan restaurants in Bangkok and 16 one-Starred Thai restaurants in Thailand. But here, we turn to the six winners of a Star abroad.
Multicultural creativityThere’s something rather telling about the diverse nature of these esteemed chefs who have elevated Thai food on the international stage. Of the six entrepreneurs, only two were born and raised in Thailand. The first leads a team of cooks from Isan, setting Belgian palates on fire. The other is a former cognitive scientist in Silicon Valley.
For the other four, we have a former Thai model who was born in Texas but raised in Bangkok; an Australian who is fluent in Thai and a global champion of the cuisine; a Dane so good, he now consults in Bangkok; and a Thai raised in France who enjoys challenging the palates of local gourmands.
Each of these gifted chefs have embraced their unique multicultural backgrounds to produce lip-smacking dishes and wow international audiences. Some held firm to the traditions of Thai cooking, challenging the cultural sensibilities of local diners, while others ripped up the Thai cookery book in a bid to ignite continental cuisine with Thai fire.
In this article, we tour these six one-MICHELIN-Starred Thai restaurants abroad to understand what it takes to put Thai cuisine on the international fine-dining map.
Born in Austin, Texas, but raised in Bangkok by a family of foodies, Dalad Kambhu lived and worked in New York through her twenties, supporting her studies with paid modelling and restaurant work.
Despite no formal training, she dedicated her life to becoming a chef, using her natural instincts and a short stint in the kitchen of her aunt’s restaurant in Paris. Kambhu is now the head chef of this contemporary Thai restaurant which opened in 2016.
Much like their host city, Kin Dee is relaxed, youthful, and urbane. Chef Kambhu mostly uses European ingredients, purposely reinventing dishes that don’t follow traditional Thai cooking. Instead, she conjures up winning combinations of Asian flavours to create intense Thai fusion dishes that are pleasantly spicy.
They are some cheeky adaptations. Apples replace papayas in her som tam made from home-grown kohlrabi. Her kaeng som comes with mackerel, plums, and shrimp paste. While her phad cha combines razor clams, homemade chilli paste, and Swiss chard.
Aaharn, meaning food in Thai, is an exploration of Thai cuisine by internationally renowned chef David Thompson. He first rose to prominence with his Sydney restaurants in the 1990s before opening Nahm in London in 2001. There, he received instant critical acclaim and earned the first MICHELIN Star for a Thai restaurant in the history of the Guide.
In 2010, Thompson moved back to the tropical land that inspired him. He closed the restaurant in London, reopening the brand at the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok. Nahm was soon recognised as one of the best Thai fine-dining establishments in the city. He was rewarded for his expertise and technical skill with a Star at the first MICHELIN Guide Thailand awards in 2018.
Thompson is fluent in Thai and a dedicated researcher into the history and traditions of the cuisine. His hard work, passion, and talent have meant that many restaurants that he touches turns into Stars. In 2019, he left Thailand to create a new business and menu that would be unique in Hong Kong. Aaharn offers hard-to-find, authentic Thai dishes using fresh Thai herbs and vegetables that are imported daily from Thailand along with hand-pressed coconut milk in all their curries.
Thompson has now returned to Bangkok to open Aksorn, a restaurant that pays homage to old cook books from 1940s-1970s. His latest restaurant has been awarded a MICHELIN Star for 2 executive years in the MICHELIN Guide Thailand from 2022-2023 edition.
Chef Pim Techamuanvivit is one of those all-rounders who will succeed in whatever she puts her mind to. Her blog, Chez Pim, launched in 2003, was voted by The Guardian newspaper as one of the most influential food blogs in the world. Yet this isn’t even the most interesting fact about Pim. The Bangkok native first moved to San Francisco to work as a cognitive scientist, conducting design research in Silicon Valley.
“Kin Khao was my first-ever job in the restaurant business,” she said. “I’d never even waited tables before that. But I knew I had a vision, and I was determined to see it through.”
In 2014, Techamuanvivit swapped her writer’s quill for a chef’s knife and opened Kin Khao in San Francisco. Her methods won international acclaim, and the restaurant received its first MICHELIN Star the following year.
Using Northern California produce, Chef Techamuanvivit serves authentic, fiery Thai dishes in a respectful homage to her home country.
Her specials include a meaty, five-spice noodle soup infused with duck bones and stocked with bok choy and delightfully tender duck leg confit. While her fresh take on som tam comes with julienned green papaya tossed with golden tomatoes, long beans, dried shrimp, and crushed red chillies.
These days, Techamuanvivit splits her time between San Francisco and Bangkok. She was headhunted by the COMO hotel group and succeeded David Thompson as head chef at Nahm.
Henrik Yde-Andersen, the head chef and owner, vividly recalled the first time he tasted real Thai food: “I cried my eyes out on the beach from the chillies and the excitement on my palate. After that, I just had to keep trying more.”
Coming from a “potatoes-and-cabbages country” in Northern Europe, as he describes it, he was used to more-subdued, subtle flavours. He worked in Thailand for five years under the tutelage of some tough local teachers. But when he returned to Denmark in 2004, Thai and Chinese cuisines were considered cheap, deep-fried food, he explained – only good for buffets and take away.
Hendrik worked out his own version of the cuisine through trial and error. His aim was to use Thai ingredients that add electricity and excitement to European plates. As a non-Thai, he didn’t feel bound by the traditions of Thai cooking and enjoyed playing with recipes.
When designing the original menu, he felt it was wrong to fly ingredients 8,000 kilometres to his restaurant. So, he decided to use local vegetables. He developed a modern interpretation of Thai street food with vibrant flavour combinations and European aesthetic flourishes.
Kiin Kiin, whose name means “come and eat”, is a charming restaurant in the Danish capital. It’s smartly decorated with golden Buddhas and fresh flowers. His interpretations of the classics are smart too, such as tom yam soup with lobster, galangal shrimp chips, and shrimp tacos. Another speciality is quail with flavoured coconut milk, chanterelles, and corn.
When Hendrick was invited by Siam Kempinski Hotel to help establish the Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin restaurant in Bangkok, he didn’t need to think twice. It was an opportunity for him to present his version of Thai cooking to the hardest judges in the world: the Thai people. A year later, he earned another MICHELIN Star at his second restaurant.
Chatchai Klanklong was born in Petchabun, a province north of Bangkok, but grew up in France, where he trained in French cooking techniques. He spent his early career working at high-profile restaurants in France and Switzerland but never forgot his roots.
Teaming up with his brother Klanklong and mother Khai, he opened L’Orchidée; named after his French stepfather’s favourite flower, which is native to Thailand. He wanted to create something unique to France that would seduce local palates by intensifying his creations with Thai seasonings, an innovative association of condiments and spices.
At first, the menu divided opinions – some Thais said it wasn’t real Thai cooking, but others said it was amazing and were impressed at his different approach to presenting their national cuisine.
French people, meanwhile, assumed it would be just another Chinese restaurant. “Where are the spring rolls? Where is the buffet?” they would ask. “I’m sorry, we’re a Thai restaurant,” he would explain, semi-apologetically.
Chef Klanklong’s modern Thai menu is elegant, perfumed, and scrupulously crafted. This is illustrated by a tom yam of blue lobster, coconut milk, and galangal. Or the Vosges squab, served with sweetcorn, girolles mushrooms, polenta, and red curry. Their signature dishes include a special beef carpaccio with avocado cream and som tam gel sauce and scallops cooked with a quince and caper purée, roasted broccoli and green curry foam.
Inspired by thousand-year-old recipes, Dokkoon Kapueak curates a festival of fresh ingredients, spices, and myriad flavours. She heads a team of Isan women who won the first MICHELIN Star for a Thai restaurant in Belgium in 2021.
The cadre of five women from Northeast Thailand serves authentic Thai cuisine. Head Chef Kapueak attributes the team’s success to their commitment to recreating the recipes of her childhood in rural Ubon Ratchathani and the refusal to dial down the spice levels.
Humble to the core, the team doesn’t work for points, Stars, or food bloggers. Using fresh Thai herbs, their food is made with love and passion. Their desire is to recreate the excitement of a holiday for their guests through an authentically Thai experience. They grind their own curry paste and make the coconut milk the way their grandmas taught them. Boo Raan (โบราณ) in Thai means ancient or traditional.
A glance at best Thai MICHELIN Starred restaurants around the world
16 one-MICHELIN-Starred in Bangkok, 6 abroad
Kin Dee, Germany – A former Thai model born in Texas but raised in Bangkok.
Aaharn, Hong Kong – An Australian fluent in Thai and renowned for the cuisine.
Kiin Kiin, Denmark – A Dane so good, he was hired to consult in Thailand.
L'Orchidée, France – A Thai raised in France, challenging the palates of gourmands.
Boo Raan, Belgium – A team of women from Northeastern Thailand, setting Belgian palates on fire.
Kin Khao, USA – A former cognitive scientist, recruited to return to Bangkok.
As the Thai diaspora spread, Thai restaurants became a ubiquitous addition to every high street, strip, and shopping mall.
The Export-Import Bank of Thailand offered loans to Thai nationals who wanted to open restaurants abroad, and the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand set up an infrastructure for loans of up to US$3 million for overseas food industry initiatives, including Thai restaurants.
The mission of the programme is to preserve the heritage by supporting restaurants serving authentic Thai food. But as global tastes and trends converge, the lines blur between traditional, authentic, and contemporary interpretations of Thai cuisine, even in Bangkok.
Staunch critics would say this is eroding the heritage and true taste of Thailand. Others would say it paves way for creativity.
And it’s obvious that Thai cuisine is growing and expanding quickly to every corner of the globe. It wouldn’t be such a surprise to see a little lab joint on the corner of a random street in Tokyo or Cape Town or Malibu.
Illustration Image: © Kin Khao, Aaharn, Henrik Yde-Andersen/ Kiin Kiin, Robert Rieger, Kin Dee