By Maria Muller | February 21, 2023
Bangkok is renowned for its vibrant street food scene and delicious cuisine, but amongst the chaos of street vendors and tourist hotspots, there lies a hidden gem, a restaurant that has been making waves and capturing the hearts of food lovers everywhere. The story behind this restaurant is as captivating as its dishes, as it follows the journey of a young chef who, against all odds, worked their way up to become the head chef of one of the best restaurants in Bangkok.
In a narrow shop-lined street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, is the city’s cutting-edge destination for a fine-dining experience of Thai Chinese cuisine. Restaurant Potong is where Chef Pichaya Utharntharm (Chef Pam) blends creativity and innovation with the culinary traditions of the Thai and Chinese community.
Chef Pam was born into a fourth-generation family of traditional Chinese herbal medicine producers. Her love for cooking developed around her mother whose meticulous attention to detail was passed onto her daughter.
As was expected of her, she pursued a university education.
However, in her second year, she confided to her mother that she wasn’t enjoying the experience. Her heart was set on culinary school. To her surprise and relief she had the full support of her mother to enrol at the school of Cordon Bleu in Bangkok.
The young Chef Pam later joined the Escoffier Competition, representing Thailand. She was awarded second place. It was an achievement that confirmed that she had what it took to embark on a career. She furthered her training and education at the Culinary Institute America, in New York City. After which, despite stiff competition, she was accepted to work and train at the Jean Georges Restaurant, owned by world renowned Chef and restaurateur Jean Georges Vongerichten, with three Michelin stars to his name.
Her experience in NYC was the very definition of culture shock. The non-confrontational manner inherent in Thai culture was the total opposite of life in the Big Apple. Yet, she knew her true calling and never wavered in her resilience to learn and stand side by side with the best.
Upon her return to Bangkok, she asked her mother to give her a year off to travel. On her sabbatical, she met Boonpiti “Tor” Soontornyanakij, who would become her business partner and her husband.
The year was cut short by six months as her mother felt she should make better use of her time. The “art of doing nothing“ was clearly not considered constructive. It was time to put into practise all the training she received.
Her “Chef’s Table” project – serving food made in her mum’s kitchen to family and friends, may have been the very first pop up restaurant in Thailand. News of her delectable creations spread like wildfire, and she had bookings that filled her calendar for months on end.
Her project caught the attention of CNN. She was featured in the Great Big Story. The coverage sealed the deal. Chef Pam became a household name and she soon found herself judging Top Chef, Thailand’s biggest cooking show. She was fast becoming an influential contributor to the culinary industry with a growing following.
The hiatus that the COVID pandemic created in every walk of life, opened a door for Chef Pam. A building that had been in her family for five generations was left without a tenant. Her grandparents took her and her husband, Tor, to visit the site in Chinatown.
The building captured Chef Pam’s imagination. This was going to be the home of her family and a culinary destination. She could see how it would draw the curiosity and empathy of those who believed in preserving the family legacy, as well as honouring one’s culture. Located in a unique area in Chinatown it was the perfect location.
Chef Pam’s grandfather was not convinced about the viability of the project. Nevertheless, he offered her a deal. She could have the building on the condition that under no circumstances is she or anyone allowed to enter the room located in the restaurant’s reception area.
It took three years to renovate the Grand Lady that is now Restaurant POTONG. Yet the contents of that room are still unknown to Chef Pam or any member of her staff. It remains a mystery and an added curiosity to guests “in the know” who dine at the restaurant.
POTONG has five floors painstakingly refurbished to perfection. The first floor is now the SINO BAR that has kept a beautiful 100-year-old wooden ceiling. The second floor is home to the main dining room, graced by antique dividers and access to a small balcony. The Third floor is an additional dining room with an intricately designed ancestral altar. The fourth and fifth floors have been given special attention by Tor, Chef Pam’s husband and business partner. In the past, when it was legal, it was a place to unwind while smoking Opium-pipes. Today, it has been named OPM BAR, serving an aperitif or an after-dinner drink. It has quickly become well known as one of the best cocktail bars in the city.
Guests are presented with a 20 course tasting menu that features signature dishes inspired by Chef Pam’s journal of memories. “A recollection of something beautiful”; created blue crab with a mud crab roe emulsion, served with pepper jam and crab butter bread. “Reincarnated” gives coconut meat a rebirth with smoked mango, finger lime and cilantro. “Thai Chinese” pays homage to a time-tested culinary tradition in the succulent duck leg with Sichuan pepper served with Chawanmushi. Every dish evokes a proustian moment.
When we asked Chef Pam what is next for her, without hesitation she replied. “A Michelin star is what I aspire to achieve”.
It is the goal and everyone who works with her understands that anything less is not an option. Chef Pam makes no apologies for being forthright when she declares “we all gaze at the same point and reach for stars”.
In January 2023, Chef Pam became the first female recipient of a Michelin Star in Thailand.
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