The arrival to the #50BestTalks, part of the 2017 Asia's 50 Best Awards, couldn't have been more graceful as the wooden launch slowly made its way up Bangkok's Chao Praya river. Disembarking at the steps of the Mandarin Oriental, this was the perfect reminder of Thailand's legacy as host for the session uniting Asia's top chefs, industry professionals and food lovers.
William Drew, Group Editor of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, introduced the event, promising ´Many of Asia's finest chefs, celebrating diversity and stimulating discussion.´ The session also championed ingredients in a way that reminded once again of the region's unique culinary ecosystem.
The line-up was stellar and the room packed with participants keen to learn from a series of interactive discussions. First up came Ian Kittichai, ´a chef from humble origins who has gone on to conquer the culinary world´ and now fronts multiple restaurants including Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok and Hong Kong as well as Jum Mum in New York.
He talked about the integral role of spices and herbs, naming some of the huge variety used across countries in Asia from ginseng in Korea to cardamom in India, lemongrass in Thailand to star anise in Malaysia. He also described Thailand´s four distinct culinary regions, the central, south, north and northeast. The sensational, multi-layered and textured dish Khao Soi from the north of the country was one focus, as was the country´s innate respect for nose-to-tail eating. And in response to a question from the floor, if there was only one herb he could take to a desert island, there was absolutely no doubt in his mind: dried chilli.
The second session of three saw Manish Mehrotra from Indian Accent, Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer from Bali's Locavore and David Thompson from Bangkok's Nahm taking part in a ´spice off´. They talked about the spices they love and employ most, with chilli unsurprisingly taking center stage in Thailand. As Thompson explained, however:
It’s a misconception to think that Thai food is chilli alone – they're never employed alone, always with an array of other ingredients to mitigate the intense flavours.
Thompson and team had prepared a sensational chilli relish with tamarind containing no fewer than six different chillis that was given to the participants. Thompson then gave William Drew a small green chilli to eat on stage in front of the audience – which he gamely took a bite of, before quickly proceeding to turn the same colour as the chilli.
The #50besttalks wrapped with individual demonstrations by three chefs, Manish Mehrotra, May Chow, newly-crowned as Asia's Best Female Chef, and Bo Songvisava. Songvisava revealed the myriad secrets of behind authentic green curry, making it clear that one non-negotiable ingredient was shrimp paste: “It's really different with and without it, the whole dish changes.”
Chow drew perhaps the largest crowd for her rendition of a signature dish, a 'Chinese burger' called a bao filled with chicken, pickles and more. She thanked Alvin Leung at Hong Kong´s Bo Innovation as “The first person to take Chinese cuisine to a level where you'd pay US$300 for it” while also namechecking Hong Kong´s Yardbird restaurant as a real influence.
Ultimately, she explained to the crowd that her cuisine is not overly complicated: “Food to me is just fun - it's about the environment and the vibe, how you feel when you come out of it.”
Combining that special feeling with Asia´s unique ingredients has clearly shown Chow and the other participating chefs a path to critical and public acclaim.