It would be a typical morning for then 13-year-old Bee to get up and help her mother cook a variety of Thai dishes to sell at her family’s local restaurant. Going through the motions in the kitchen chopping vegetables or preparing chilli pastes for curries, she never realized that she had a passion for cooking or even imagined her life as a top female chef in Asia.
“I cooked because I had to do it,” says Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun, chef and co-owner of Paste Bangkok which has been awarded a Michelin Star for three consecutive years. “In fact, I didn’t want to do it that much. It was a tiring job. So, when I grew up, I ran away from it.”
But a culinary career soon caught up with her when she fell in love — with her Australian chef-husband, Jason Bailey, who in turn, ignited her passion for cooking. “He dreamed of owning the best Thai restaurant in the world,” she recalls. “So, I returned to the kitchen again and he trained me to be a professional chef.”
In Pursuit Of Heirloom Thai Cuisine
At 28, Satongun embarked on a career as a chef and helped her husband’s Thai restaurant in Australia garner awards. Ambition then led the couple back on Thai soil to open Paste in 2013 — an innovative, modern Thai restaurant serving heirloom recipes with creative twists. “We wanted to cook Thai food for Thai people. We also wanted to change the perception of the food for the better. Thai cuisine is not just about satay or spring rolls; rather, it’s multilayered, complex and refined,” she says.
Now, Satongun is renowned for her use of rare and forgotten ingredients to create authentic royal Thai recipes with innovative influences. Her first venture into the kitchen under her mother instilled in her a respect for the integrity of each ingredient. Chef Bee also loves to research and test historical recipes and travels across Thailand to discover unique ingredients to create dishes with layered flavors and textural contrasts.
“When I researched old recipes, I was surprised that we used citrus in almost everything — from different types of relishes to spicy salads — but we don’t use it much nowadays. Then I tried cooking a variety of dishes with and without citrus and each dish gave a surprising result,” she says, adding that the pleasant and distinctive citrus aroma really makes a difference. “So, the traditional recipes are right — there is always a reason behind everything.”
The chef is both a scientist and an artist; she enjoys experimenting with different recipes, different ingredients and different shapes and forms. Once she creates each dish, she would test, try, experiment and practice repeatedly. She also works hard to weave flavors together and make sure the dish has visual appeal.
An ordinary Thai-style crab meat omelet at Paste, for example, is made extraordinary in Satongun’s pursuit of perfection. Before putting it on the menu, she practised cooking the omelet over and over again, resulting in a fluffy, souffle-like confection packed with chunks of fresh, naturally-sweet crab meat. Served with a moreish and tangy chili sauce the dish brings all five taste sensations into balanced harmony.
“I practiced more than 20 times. My brain was about to explode thinking about how to cook perfect omelet,” she recalls, laughing. “Practice definitely makes perfect.”
Reaching For More
As a busy chef, restaurateur, wife and a mother of seven-year-old daughter, Satongun is well aware of how hard it can be for her to juggle priorities and make time to care for all her restaurants — Paste Bangkok, Paste at The Apsara, Luang Prabang and the new Paste Australia slated to open this year.
Having scooped up a star from the MICHELIN Guide Thailand for three consecutive years, Satongun is looking to take Paste to the next level. “We are very grateful and proud that we have received the star, but we also have the pressure of maintaining the status and constantly improving ourselves. Customers come to our restaurant with high expectations. So, apart from the quality of food, we focus very much on service to enhance the overall dining experience.”
Taking reservations manually comes with its own set of problems for any restaurant, she says. “Human error can cause a problem. In the past, our staff would sometimes lose the reservations notebook; sometimes our guests called, and no one picked up the phone”. An automated system like Chope’s solves these problems, allowing diners to make online reservations 24 hours a day, seven days a week from anywhere in the world.
“It was impossible for us to provide a 24/7 manual reservation service to serve diners located in different time zones. So, we looked for an online booking system that could help with reservations, seating and queue management,” she says. “Chope is user-friendly. It solves all these problems and makes reservation booking easier on both the restaurant and the guest, and it decreases cancellations and no-shows.”
Chope provides a web-based reservation dashboard with restaurant analytics. It helps set up tables and send automatic alerts to diners to confirm bookings. Chope also provides booking widget where Satongun can consolidate all her bookings from Paste’s website and social media channels. The insights Chope provides also allows her to determine how the restaurant is performing and what else to improve.
“It saves us so much time and we can focus more on better serving our diners in our restaurants,” she says, adding that her goal at Paste is to maintain high standards of quality and guest satisfaction.
Though cooking wasn’t initially a career option, Satongun admits that she has finally found her dream job and strives to continuously offer the best dining experience to her customers. “We have come this far by passion and hard work. I love cooking. Our ultimate goal is to make diners satisfied with our food and service. That’s why we never stop improving ourselves.”
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