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Thai food is one of the most internationally recognisable and widely loved cuisines, but what exactly is Thai hospitality?
Our local 50 Best Tastemaker Poonperm Paitayawat talks to some of the country’s finest chefs to understand more.
In my everyday life as a Thai, I’m used to a rancorous kind of hospitality at shophouse eateries and makeshift stalls where I’m shown a table, given a menu and expected to order food in a blink of an eye. Dishes arrive when they’re ready – not because it’s a trendy way of serving food but because there’s probably only one guy mastering the wok and he’s probably the same guy scribbling down the food orders.
Hospitality, therefore, is not an easy word to translate into Thai. We use phrases such as “Ton-Rub-Kaek” or “Ton-Rub-Kub-Suu”, which refer to a generalised process of warmly and courteously receiving guests, but neither term succinctly captures the essence of Thai hospitality in a gastronomic context.
As the restaurant scene in Bangkok undergoes a renaissance, Thai hospitality evolves too. Here are a few things to know.
Thai hospitality in one word
Ann Kanarak (left) and Gaggan Anand (right)
For Gaggan Anand, chef-owner of the reigning No.1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, a smile is central to Thai hospitality. Front-of-house staff at his eponymous restaurant are required to welcome all guests with a smile, as simple as it sounds.
“Our food is fun,” says Gaggan, “We want our guests to warm to us. My team will smile with their heart and not their head.”
Many of the small details at Gaggan – be it the menu, which is now written entirely in emojis, or Thai puns cheekily disguised in molecular Indian dishes – are there to ensure that guests will leave the restaurant with a big smile.
Mathias and Thomas Sühring, who co-own and head the kitchen of Sühring, also believe in the power of a smile. They, however, smile “with their passion”. And for chef Prin Polsuk of Nahm, Thai hospitality is all about honesty.
For Ann Kanarak, whose cooking lessons at Bangkok Bold are a constant sell-out among Thai food aficionados, local hospitality is summed up as “Yin-Dee Pree-Da”, a state of being heartfelt. As a chef, cooking instructor and hostess, she is adamant that we must “cherish Thai-ness and embrace the world,” while making guests at ease.
“Thai-ness is our priority,” Kanarak says. “It guides our culinary practices, especially in our farm-to-table philosophy. Still, every guest from far and near, Thai or non-Thai, has to feel comfortable and be pleased with the service provided.”
Customs to sum up Thai hospitality
Chef Ton, Le Du
“Wai” – an act of pressing the palms together in a prayer-like fashion and bowing slightly – is one of the most definitive practices of Thai hospitality. Rising star chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn of Le Du, an inventive Thai restaurant that features on the Diners Club 50 Best Discovery Series, says that all his guests, regardless of their nationality, should be greeted with a “Wai”.
At Bo.Lan, a progressive, all-organic Thai restaurant by the husband-and-wife team of Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones, the Thai custom is taken to the next level. Before the meal, guests are invited into the kitchen and greeted by the staff with a phrase “Kiin Khao Reu Yang”. Meaning “have you eaten yet?” it’s a typically food-obsessive way of Thais saying hello to one another.
Dos and Don’ts in Thai hospitality
Ian Kittichai and the inviting interior at Issaya Siamese Club
Thailand’s ‘Iron Chef’ Ian Kittichai says everything should be made possible for his guests at Issaya Siamese Club, No.19 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016. “There’s no such thing as a no,” he says. “There’s always a way to be flexible and accommodate what our guests want”.
Seiji Sudo, at the helm of exclusive six-seater restaurant Tama Sushi, keeps up with true Japanese hospitality in the heart of Bangkok. However, he says: “Guests should not take advantage of the restaurant’s willingness to serve. They should have empathy, be on time and honour their reservation.”