AsiaLIFE’s Cook Off has become a regular feature of our sister publication in Vietnam, this month we bring the challenge to Bangkok. The rules of the Cook Off are simple – four chefs have a budget of B300 to create a three-course meal using 100 percent local ingredients. Our contestants represented the time-honoured Thai cooking of Jim Thompson, to casual yet sophisticated bistro-style food of Oskar Bistro, the fine Italian cuisine of Niu’s on Silom and the other-worldly molecular gastronomy of Gaggan. Rather than a competition between the chefs, this challenge was more an individual test to see what these expert chefs could create with limited funds.
Words by Yvonne Liang, photos by Nick McGrath.

Italian born and bred chef Marco Cammarata of Niu’s on Silom first set foot in Bangkok sixteen years ago to head one of the city’s most well-known Italian restaurants, Angelini at the Shangri-la Hotel. Since then he owned and operated his own Italian restaurant, Belguardo, before becoming head chef of Niu’s on Silom / Concerto four years ago.

Cammarata took his challenge very seriously, inventing dishes especially for the occasion as well as refraining from using imported olive oil and balsamic oil, instead opting for grape seed oil and even creating his own version of a ‘balsamic’ dressing made from local ingredients of coffee and grape. The ingredients were hand picked from Villa Market, as if he were cooking at home.

His first course was a colourful plate of pork tenderloin bespattered with vivid greens and deep reds. The impromptu balsamic was drizzled over the slow poached pork loin in wild flower honey with tiny dollops of aubergine caviar, bright green snow peas, and sliced grapes making this an eye-catching dish.

For his next dish, Cammarata poached a locally farmed white snapper in sugar syrup. “The fish takes on a little sweetness of the sugar, but also changes in its texture,” he explained. During test runs, he decided it needed some acidity and that’s where the passion fruit came into play. The fillet of white snapper wrapped in leek and cooked in sugar at 121 degrees was served on a bed of raw cauliflower couscous with a side of bok choi. He chose cauliflower because it’s available all year round in Thailand, as well as being a useful neutral ingredient. “When you want to paint you want to paint on white paper,” he says. Here, the cauliflower acted as a liaison between the fish and passion fruit. Strips of golden sweet potato chips added colour and a wonderful crisp texture to the dish, while a passion fruit emulsion gave the fish a tangy kick and crunch.

Dessert was a ménage trios of watermelon made in three different ways. At the bottom of the mini watermelon tower was a savory layer of watermelon marinated by vacuum-pressing with black pepper and sea salt, followed by a chunk of yellow watermelon, and topped with a refreshing scoop of watermelon granite ice served with a few dollops of a creamy licorice zabaglione.

One look at any dish that passes through the hands of Thompson Restaurant’s Chef de Partie Nipaporn Nutkasame will make your jaw drop. Trained in the art of traditional Thai cooking, Nipaporn learned how to make royal Thai dishes that are pleasing to both eyes and palate. With over two decades specialising in traditional Thai fare, she said it was not difficult to stay within the B300 budget because she is familiar with purchasing and cooking with Thai ingredients that are not expensive.

In creating her dishes, Nipaporn was committed to using healthy ingredients. The blue dumpling wrapper for her first dish – kanom jeep Thai (Thai dumpling) – came from butterfly pea flower which helps maintain a healthy blood pressure and also givers hair a natural glossy shine. The bite-sized dumplings were filled with minced chicken flavoured with local herbs, and came in five different colours all made with natural dyes derived from flowers. The brown food dye came from mulberry, which is known to help reduce cholesterol levels. The intricate procedure of making these tiny dumplings stems from ancient palace cooking lessons where women learned to make dainty and beautiful dishes, she explains. The Kanom Jeep Thai is one of four main royal Thai dishes that chefs have to master.

The main course was an intriguing pomelo salad with seafood (yam som o talay Thai). Imagine a fish chasing its own tail and eating it just before falling into a deep-fryer. Nipaporn removed the bones of a mackerel and turned it backwards into an impossible yoga position with the fish’s tail sticking out of its mouth. The fish comes in a sweet and tangy sauce of coconut milk, chilli paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice. A juicy pomelo salad served both as a contrast and a healthy supplement to the fish.

For dessert, Nipaporn prepared ta-ko tabtim grob (water chestnut with coconut) – tiny cubes of water chestnut covered with a jelly-like layer of cooked tapioca starch. Although a common Thai dessert that can be found in local restaurants and dessert stalls, she put a fancy spin on it by adding a carved rose and decorating the dessert with pomegranate seeds. This is her secret to cooking on a budget. A dash of artistic flair can turn a commonplace, inexpensive dish into something that does not look out of place within the restaurant of the legendary Jim Thompson.

It was a bold move to bring molecular cuisine into a conservative market such as Thailand, but Gaggan’s gamble has proved a success. On most evenings you’ll find a row of luxury European cars parked outside. However, Gaggan’s recipes come with a cautionary note – do not try this at home. The machinery he uses alone costs hundreds of thousands of baht, just to make one of his dishes. It’s the secret to how he transforms every day ingredients and dishes into masterpieces. In fact, the mad scientist chef claimed the budget was nothing. “I can make ten courses with B300,” he said.

For his first course, Chef Gaggan re-created his signature fish and chips, with fresh fish bought from his supplier at the local Sam Yan market. The dish was made the same way it comes in the restaurant – lightly fried and served with mint-cucumber chutney. Instead of regular chips, Chef Gaggan created a translucent, edible lemon paper which he placed on the plate along with some decorative leaves and flower petals.

Next we had a chicken tikka masala. While the chicken dish looks familiar enough, the process of making it was quite exciting. For the makhani foam, Gaggan placed a mixture of makhani curry sauce, soya protein, and cream in a creamer before spraying it over the plate of chicken, careful not to submerge the meat. Then he garnished the dish with flowers and cress that provided a colourful touch as well as a bitter taste to draw out the flavour of the main dish. A tiny anise flower also provided an unforgettable sting in the tale.

“Thailand is a country of mangoes,” Gaggan explained his choice of dessert. First he made a mango purée by pulverising fresh mangoes, which was then mixed with a custard of cardamom. Called “mango snowball” it’s a dish that defies physics. It’s so time-consuming and difficult to make that a maximum of three snowballs are served at the restaurant each night, mostly for special occasions – only two out of four snowballs are a success, confessed Gaggan.

We watched as he squirted the mousse into a balloon, tied it up into a round ball, and then froze it in a container of liquid nitrogen. The balloon was then peeled off bit by bit to reveal a snowball, which was returned to the liquid nitrogen to keep it as cold as possible before serving. White chocolate powder was sprinkled over the plate to create a snow like effect. The verdict? It tastes like something astronauts consume in outer space – in a good way.

Chef Julien Lavigne came to Bangkok to work as a sous-chef for the renowned D Sens at Dusit Thani in late 2006. Eventually he worked his way to the position of chef de cuisine. After five years there, he decided to pursue his dream of being a chef in his own kitchen. In November 2011, he joined his friends and partners at Oskar Bistro on Sukhumvit 11 as consulting chef. The bistro has been a huge success, prompting Lavigne and his partners at Oskar’s to open a new gastro bar called Gossip on Thonglor Soi 15.

For the cook off, Lavigne created bistro styled dishes the Oskar way infused with a hint of Thai, Mediterranean and French. “I have learned to know and love Thai cuisine,” he said. “It is a limitless source of inspiration. The products, the spices, the techniques are so diverse.”

Even with so many tasks on hand, Lavigne managed to make time for the cook off on a busy night at Oskar’s. In less than 15 minutes he had whipped up a crab salad made with green mango and celeriac from the royal farm projects. The salad was held together by a coriander cream made of the local brand of Formost cream – coriander, garlic, grounded cashew nuts, and a dash of fish sauce (nam pla). Lavigne topped off the salad with a quick squeeze of lime explaining that “the sourness of lime juice balances out the powerful flavour of the coriander cream.” The final touch was a swift and strategic placement of tiny red Amarath leaves for presentation. The result was a refreshing salad perfect for balmy summer evenings.

For his next dish, Lavigne chose to use scallops because they are in season – a great way to cook on a budget. The scallops were seared only on one side then served atop mashed potato mounds surrounded by cauliflower foam. The yellow curry sauce drizzled throughout the plate added colour and a taste of Thailand. “The softness and sweetness of the scallops and the cauliflower contrast with the spicy quality of the yellow curry and the peppery flavour of the watercress salad,” he said.

For his final dish, the duck was slowly braised in its jus and red wine – a melting sensation complemented by the gnocchi’s crisp and chewy texture. “This was an incredible culinary opportunity,” said Lavigne of the cook off. “But also a great personal experience which allowed me to exchange ideas with other chefs who all share the same passion.”