It’s been quite a year for Bee Satongun, the chef and co-owner of Bangkok’s beloved Paste restaurant. Her city center eatery won a Michelin star in the guide’s inaugural edition in Thailand, then she was named Best Female Chef in Asia 2018 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and as we reported last week, Paste is making a surprising second opening in Luang Prabang with a restaurant that “hopes to do for Laos food what the original Paste did for Thai food,” the chef told Coconuts.
We had a chance to sit down with Chef Bee over lunch, try her most famous dishes, and chat about this year’s wins and the future for her and Paste.
Bee said both wins were a surprise and she didn’t see them coming. The starred chef was, just a dozen years ago, a hotel industry professional and didn’t attend culinary school. However, she did grow up helping her parents at their Thai food stall and is married to Aussie chef, Thai food expert, and Paste co-owner Jason Bailey.
Since winning the two accolades, Paste’s Bangkok location has become much busier, often packed with fans from Singapore and Hong Kong on weekends and requiring guests to book two weeks in advance for a prime table or time slot. They’ve also developed a strong international Instagram following.
And, while one of their Bangkok regulars has already booked a ticket to Luang Prabang to try Paste’s Laotian food after the opening — which is expected in November — many others fans have commented on social media that they’re also planning on making a trip to try the new dishes as well.
We asked Bee what sets her food apart from that of other chefs. “It’s the flavor. Our aim, before, was to create Thai fine dining for Thai people. Thai customers are focused on the taste. So the flavor has to come first, before the presentation. With our food, if you see the dish, you might not expect it to have that much of a traditional flavor. But once Thai people taste it, they say it’s like they are tasting their grandma’s cooking or it’s like food they had when they were young.”
That was certainly true of our first dish, Tapioca Dumplings with Smoked Trout, Toasted Peanuts, Mustard Leaf, and Wild Sesame (THB450). The modern-looking, two-bite morsels combined so many unexpected textures and flavors. The sweet starchy pliability of tapioca was tempered with smoky fish, and the richness of the ground nuts balanced by the sharpness of mustard.
Bee went on to say that guests enjoy Paste’s balanced use of chili, one of the hallmarks of Thai cuisine. “Many people say that we use just the right amount of chili, so it doesn’t actually burn their palate, but allows complexity.”
One of the best compliments she receives on her food, she says, is that it has so many layers of flavor that people can still taste it long after they swallow.
We could taste that in one of Paste’s most famous dishes, Smoky Southern Yellow Curry with Australian Spanner Crab, Hummingbird Flowers, Thai Samphire and Tumeric (THB980). The complexity of this curry was unlike any we’ve tasted before and it shone all the brighter since our mouths weren’t fighting off the spice to try and explore the flavors lurking below. This dish was the true standout for us.
But if we had to pick a runner-up, it would be the Pomelo Salad with Char-grilled Scarlet Prawns, Asian Citron, Chili Jam and Gapi Khoei Plankton Paste (THB1300), which features large, firm, and, yes, bright red Spanish prawns in a bed of earthy, fishy, deep red paste featuring chunks of pink citrus fruit and edible flowers.
The dishes at Paste will likely please perfectionists and picky eaters, with most dishes having over 30 ingredients and many curries layering 26 different flavors. One of the trademarks of the Paste ethos is not taking shortcuts and doing things the old-fashioned way — no matter how long it takes or how many ingredients are needed.
When asked if they plan to open more locations after Paste Laos, Bee just laughed saying “I’m not sure yet,” noting that they are very caught up in the energy of the Laos project for now.
One of the reasons they decided to make their second opening in Laos, and specifically in Luang Prabang at The Apsara, is because of their long-standing friendship with hotelier Ivan Scholte. She also saw an opportunity to showcase Laotian cuisine in a fine dining way that she doesn’t believe has been done before.
“Ive done alot of research on Laos cuisine. It’s hard to find the old recipes, not many people have kept a record. The thing that people know best is a somtam, and larb, other than that it’s hard to find. Laos food is more delicate than Thai, you have to be careful to make the food true Laos, not Laos-Thai.”
She’s right, the same way the countries share a border, the cuisines share many ingredients and similarities and some say Laotian is like a mellower, scaled-back version of Thai.
For Bee, she’s getting assistance from the longtime Laotian chef at The Apsara. “She’s a great cook and helping me to define the dishes as well. Laos food is hard to explain, more subtle, it’s not a punch like Isaan food.”
We asked if, for that reason, was she afraid her loyal Thai fans and customers of Paste in Bangkok might not find the food boring? “Well, that’s our job, to keep it interesting,” she said.
She lights up when she talks about Laotian cuisine, noting that there are 1,000 edible herbs in the country and showing us photos on her phone of piles of mysterious greenery for sale at a fresh market there.
She compared it to being a painter who has just been handed a whole new additional palate of colors to work with, “You can make something that’s so much more,” she said.
Gaysorn Village, 3rd floor
999 Phloen Chit Rd.
Open daily, 12-2pm and 6:30-11pm