Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen King

Chef Thanatat Boonnao keeps Thailand’s finest culinary traditions alive at The Tongsai Bay.

12-1-01One of the most beautiful bays on Samui is home to Chef Chom’s Thai Restaurant. You'll find it on a hillside at The Tongsai Bay, one of the most spectacular hideaways on the island. The restaurant is named in honour of the resort’s very first chef, who comes from a family of cooks and was born with a great passion for cooking. You may even have seen Chef Chom on British TV; she appeared in Keith Floyd's series, ‘Far Flung Floyd’. She may not be at The Tongsai Bay any longer but she set a precedent for excellence which been handed down as inspiration to all subsequent chefs.

The mantle has recently fallen on Chef Thanatat Boonnao, who’s more usually known as Chef Jaan. He holds much of the responsibility for running Chef Chom’s as well as the resort’s other two outlets, Po-lad Beach Bistro & Bar and, its light bites tapas bar, Butler.

If you eat at Chef Chom’s you may well meet him, as he likes to know what’s going on not just in the kitchen but also in the dining room itself; he enjoys

talking to guests and always tries to make time for this. He says, “The Tongsai Bay isn’t one of those anonymous hotels that simply provide service, however good it may be. We like to have a more personal touch.” He goes on to explain that the resort – it’s now in its 28th year – attracts many return guests. “They come back ten or more times, some of the guests,” he says, “and part of what they really like is the almost family-like feel to the resort.” He says that reflects throughout the resort’s staff, too. “Many of the staff were here when the resort was opened – and they’ve stayed ever since.”

Working in a kitchen calls for a formidable range of skills, Chef Jaan acknowledges, but it’s certainly easier if you feel you’re part of a family. The workplace harmony spreads through the entire resort, making any stay here more memorable. Everything’s done to make guests feel at home and to feel relaxed.

“Chef Chom’s itself is designed to make guests feel at home,” he says, “The restaurant and its courtyard are both spacious and filled with light, and there’s not that formality you see in some hotels.” Po-lad and Butler also reflect that same family feel. They serve excellent food, but it’s all done without a whiff of formality or pretension. For a five-star hotel, there’s no sense of stepping into an institution when you arrive here.

The food is similarly of five-star quality, but behind it is not a desire to appear sophisticated but to be straightforward. Chef Jaan explains, “My style is basically that the food is simple and nice. All the dishes have to use the best quality ingredients. It reflects the old traditional ways of cooking too – again simple, but effective.”

Simple doesn’t mean easy, of course. Take the case of the pastes used for curries. It’s a cinch to buy them ready-prepared (and you can get some very tasty ones, too) and just use them as a base for a dish. He says some 90% of all restaurants do this, but here at The Tongsai Bay, everything is made from scratch. Some of the recipes are hundreds of years old, use simple Thai ingredients and taste just as good as when they were first cooked for royal diners. He cites the fact that guests also appreciate the skills of the waiting staff and the presentation of the food – it looks as good as it tastes.

Chef Jaan himself seems to embody the simplicity he aims for: he’s a relaxed figure who is originally from Bangkok. He took to Samui life as soon as he arrived. “It’s just a very relaxing place,” he says. “When I have time, I go to one of the many beaches near here and soak up the atmosphere.” He points out the gardens at The Tongsai Bay, and says how green everything is.

“This, for me, is much better than working in a city. Everything is set up so that people benefit from the environment and enjoy themselves. The owner, Khun Thanakorn Hoontrakul, has put a lot of effort into everything you see here, as did his father before him. It’s a 100% green hotel. It’s a peaceful place to be. The management doesn’t seek to fill the restaurants here with loads of banquets and functions as it would disturb people and give a hectic feel to the resort. It’s better for the guests. And for me, too – I’m not rushed off my feet. And that in turn means I can spend more time with the diners, finding out what they’d like and if they're happy.”

The location alone sets The Tongsai Bay apart. Close enough to Chaweng, yet secluded, nestling between two small headlands, it’s easy to get to. Just drive north out of Chaweng, follow the beach road, through Choeng Mon, then turn right at The Bank of Ayutthaya and head up the smaller road till you see the sign for The Tongsai Bay.

Asked what diners particularly like, Chef Jaan cites the green, red and penang curries. “People love them and always say how tasty they are. It’s no doubt because we take great care in preparing them. No cutting of corners, and of course, as I’ve said already, these are all very traditional recipes made in traditional ways.” The resort doesn’t only have Thai food on offer..

If you're interested in international dishes at Po-lad, Chef Jaan recommends the Wagyu-braised ox cheek with mashed potatoes. They also have Kurobuta pork from Japan – it’s delicious, he says – and they also offer an excellent Wagyu burger.

Once you’ve tasted the kind of food that Chef Jaan prepares, whether international or Thai, you'll want to return to The Tongsai Bay to savour more of the treats he has on offer. And you’re sure to enjoy the setting too, with its seascapes and beautiful gardens. Not surprisingly, both the resort and Chef Chom’s have a deserved reputation for excellence.

          

Dimitri Waring


 


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