At the MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021 announcement, the award that received almost as much attention as the Star revelations was the very first MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award Presented by Blancpain. And it went to the 34-year-old Chef de Cuisine from One MICHELIN Starred Saawaan, Chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn.
The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is given to a young chef of a MICHELIN Starred restaurant with exceptional talent and great potential. This young chef must also share the love for cooking, bringing something new to the food scene. This passion and innovation are also the core values of the luxurious watch brand Blancpain.
‘Thank you’ were the first words Chef Pongmorn uttered while shedding tears of joy as Thailand’s first recipient of this prestigious award. She thanked her father and Frederic Meyer, both the winds beneath her wings. She also shared how these two men made her first steps into the culinary world so memorable.
“My dad never realised that being a chef, a career many people think you don’t need proper training to succeed, could take me this far. That this career would earn this level of respect and success. When I first decided to pursue this path, my dad didn’t discourage me. He has always given his full support. Another person I have to thank is Frederic Meyer. When I told him I wanted to cook Thai food this way, unlike others, he told me to go ahead. And that was the origin of Saawaan.”
The chef recounted the inspired moment on stage, with a short, meaningful speech. Her journey started when she was a six-year-old trying to take care of her unwell father. That moment introduced her to the magical world of food and cooking.
“I have a big family. So, cooking was cheaper than buying prepared food. I constantly saw my family cooking. The turning point was when my dad fell ill. It somehow showed me that cooking could be fun. At six years old, I told him I was very hungry. I asked him to please cook something for me, but he was not feeling well. He told me to open the fridge and cook from what we had. I only saw eggs. So, the first dish I ever made was deep-fried omelette. But I didn’t stir the egg with a fork like people normally do. Instead, I beat the eggs with my hands. I felt how soft the raw egg texture was. That was really fun. The first time I cooked, I didn’t have to follow any norms. While cooking, Dad, who I trust wholeheartedly, never said ‘You shouldn’t do this or that.’ That gave me the confidence to pursue a culinary career.’
Starting off on the right foot, Chef Pongmorn’s culinary journey became clear. After finishing secondary school at 18, she decided to join the School of the Oriental Hotel Apprenticeship Programme (OHAP), which was not a part of the Thai school system. The family was open-minded. They support the young Aom taking vocational courses instead of a traditional university degree. That allowed her to fully immerse herself into the culinary world, free of any restrictions.
“Our love, our passion for cooking, frees us from traditional frameworks. It shows our identities, our cooking signature.”
“I only knew I loved cooking when I finished secondary school. But where to next? It must be about cooking. I knew I’d like to cook in a hotel kitchen, so I decided on OHAP. The one-year programme gave me practical training. Only one day was dedicated to theories. The rest focused on practices. I learned from experienced chefs, from people with real-world experiences. After finishing the programme, I worked at Lord Jim’s, where I was introduced to chefs with MICHELIN Star pedigrees. I had opportunities to assist international chefs when they came to promote their MICHELIN Starred restaurants. My vision for my career then couldn’t be clearer.”
After gaining experiences with French cuisine at Lord Jim’s, the young chef explored molecular Thai cuisine at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin. At the time, molecular gastronomy was still unknown to the Thai food scene. It filled her with a fiery passion to learn. Later, she wound down for the simplicity of authentic Thai food at Issaya Siamese Club, where she met Frederic Meyer, a future founding partner of Saawaan.
She left Issaya Siamese Club for the world of tea at TWG, and for modern innovative cuisine at The House. Then, the chef reunited with Meyer for an extraordinary project on phad thai with Baan Phadthai (Bib Gourmand 2021). Gaining in-depth knowledge was the reason Chef Pongmorn jumped between restaurants with extremely opposite styles. TWG gave her great knowledge on how to pair tea with food. The House offered perspectives on innovative modern food unlike the others. She eventually realised that ‘Thai food’ defines her. But what makes her Thai cuisine unique is that it shows a hint of French and modern flair. Saawaan’s creations are refined, modern, and yet authentic. And the establishment is known not only for its flavours, but also for how it pays attention to the communities where its ingredients originate as well.
“When I create a menu, I immerse myself into communities, like fisheries. I want to see what they eat, or what has disappeared. I want the new generation to appreciate and pass these things on.”
When asked about inspirations that still excite her with every dish she creates or every ingredient she discovers, Chef Pongmorn’s concise answer is “love and passion”.
“Whatever profession you choose, it should start from your love or passion for it. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t have inspiration to draw from, to keep on going. If we love, if we are passionate about cooking, it frees us from traditional frameworks. Our identities will shine through the dishes. Food is like art. Do it because of your love for it, not because being a chef makes you cool or famous. I want people to step into the industry with real passion. Being a cook requires a lot. So, you have to really love what you do because the work involved is hard.”
The 34-year-old chef has been an inspiration as well as having drawn some throughout her 16 years in the culinary world. All these years have always been exciting. The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award winner also revealed that winning this award has proven that her belief is true. “If we try and really believe in what we do, we will see a good result eventually.”
“Whatever profession you choose, it should start from your love or passion for it. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t have inspiration to draw from.”
The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is sponsored by Blancpain, the oldest Swiss luxury watch brand who has been nurturing relationships with haute cuisine as well as award-winning chefs for over 30 years. Blancpain is not only an official timekeeper of renowned culinary competitions, but it is also surrounded by close friends – old and new, including chefs from hundreds of MICHELIN Starred restaurants. When a watchmaker meets the gastronomic world, an art of living emerges.
The global partnership between Blancpain and MICHELIN Guide is a pursuit of excellence, passion, and dexterity. The same concept applies to the MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award Presented by Blancpain. The committee seeks out the most outstanding chef from various countries. In order to be eligible, chefs must be under 36 years old and be brimming with talent and creativity that enable them to create memorable dining experiences.
When it comes to crafting watches, continuous innovation has always been Blancpain’s core value. The brand’s quality derives from precision, passion, authenticity, and creativity. These are common traits shared between watchmakers and chefs – the extraordinary ability to innovate and the relentless challenging of their boundaries. They need these qualities to create masterpieces, while remembering that innovation is the key to success.
From a watch brand filled with legacies, the MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award Presented by Blancpain is a proof given to young chefs who dare to think outside the box. Their creativity brings about changes to haute cuisine. This award is not a “simple” piece the brand hands to young people. It is an award that helps drive the Thai food industry forward as well as encourages young chefs to push their creative limits.
Photos: © MICHELIN Guide Thailand