“Working in the hot kitchen can be hard. You need physical as well as mental strength. In many main kitchens, there are often just men. Women are for delicate work, pastries and baking. When I first started, the guys on the team would say, ‘You’re a woman, are you sure you can handle being a chef?’ That just made me more determined to prove them wrong.”
In the global culinary world, there are many top female chefs. But it can’t be ignored that Thailand has only a handful of women recognised as renowned chefs. Among these few are the two chefs behind the success of One MICHELIN Star restaurant Saawaan -- Chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn and Chef Arisara “Paper” Chongphanitkul.
Chef Aom oversees the hot kitchen that creates Thai dishes from heavenly recipes with ingredients sourced from across Thailand. Chef Paper takes the reins for desserts. These are Thai delicacies that most locals know well. But in her hands, they become new taste sensations that everyone will wish to be reintroduced to again.
How did you come to work together?
Chef Aom: “I met Paper while working at Issaya Siamese Club eight years ago. Then, she was on desserts, and I was in the main kitchen. After that I went off to expand my horizons. When Saawaan was going to open, we reunited again. This time, we’re not working in different kitchens; we’re working together.”
How would you describe your work styles?
Chef Paper: “I started by learning patisserie in France, so if you ask what my style is, I’d say French. But at Issaya, I infused French techniques with Thai aromas and Thai ingredients. That’s how people got to know me, through my desserts. Now that I’m at Saawaan, where there’s a very deep Thai identity, I’m building on my dessert background, mixing in local ingredients. But I don’t know local Thai ingredients as well as Aom, so I have to ask her for advice and suggestions on which Thai desserts to work on. It doesn’t have to be Thai all the way or something no one has ever tried before. Even if it’s a deconstructed Thai dessert, people can still understand it.”
Chef Aom: “My inspiration comes from my love of eating and travelling. I love going upcountry, sleeping in homestays, and living among local communities. I just stayed in a Lahu hill tribe village for a week. I hiked in the jungle looking for wild ingredients. I lived like they lived, ate what they ate, and I discovered Thai ingredients I never knew existed. I focus on the local. I’m sure Paper has her own source of inspiration.”
Is being a woman an obstacle in becoming a chef?
Chef Paper: “Fortunately, my bosses have been foreigners who don’t seem to care if you’re a man or a woman. If someone asked me, I’d answer, ‘Is this a problem? I personally have never had to deal with it.’”
Chef Aom: “I work in the kitchen’s cooking stations which have always been male-dominated for a long time. People who go to culinary school dream of becoming a chef right away, creating their own menus. In reality, becoming a chef starts with scaling fish, butchering meat, preparing vegetables, cleaning the kitchen. This is when you learn that this is hard work, physically and mentally. Once I started, I loved it, no matter how hard things got. Before, the head chef and main team were mainly men. Women worked on carving, salads, cold lines, and desserts. They weren’t allowed as many options as men.
“I proved that women can be chefs. I was so proud that day.”
“After graduating, I applied at five-star hotels, but only for positions in the main cooking stations. Slowly, I got more experience. Then, one day, a guy I worked with asked me, ‘Why are you so certain that you’ll become a chef? Don’t forget, you are a woman.’ I looked at him and said that no matter what, I’ll make more of myself than him. He laughed and said he couldn’t wait. Looking around the kitchen, there were only men. To be honest, it made me uncertain, a little paranoid. I started to question myself -- is being a chef suitable for someone like me? Can a woman really make a career as a chef?
“Later, the head chef, who is German, asked me what was wrong. When I explained, he said: 'Prove to them you can do it. Don’t pay attention to what that guy said. Remember, to become big, you must start small with a strong foundation first. To be in charge, you must know what everyone in the kitchen does and needs.' That day, my views changed. I told myself that I’m going to show them what I can achieve. So, after receiving One MICHELIN Star, I went back to that hotel restaurant so they could see this accomplishment. I proved that women can be chefs. I was so proud that day!
“I wanted to thank that chef so much. If he didn’t talk to me that day, I might not have had the confidence to do this. But he said that this honour has nothing to do with him. He told me, ‘It was all you. No matter what I said, if you didn’t believe it, you wouldn’t have followed this path.’”
What do want to do next now that you’ve received One MICHELIN Star?
Chef Paper: “Making a delicious dessert is not hard, but making a delicious dessert that gives everyone the same experience is harder. And I intend to keep improving.”
Chef Aom: “Receiving stars and awards is easier than keeping them. We know what we did to achieve them, but how to maintain this level consistently, every day, is the challenge. However, this pressure makes us better as a team and as individuals. I believe what we’re doing now will see great results in the future, but I don’t dare to expect we’ll win awards. I just want us to do our best. Make every dish to the same high standard. And most importantly, keeping our diners happy makes me very happy.”
© Saranyu Nokkaew / MICHELIN Guide Thailand