By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation Weekend
MANNING THE KITCHEN of Front Room restaurant at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Bangkok is Rungthiwa “Fae” Chummongkhon, a female Thai chef with 10 years of Nordic cooking to her credit and a passion for the local ingredients and recipes of her childhood.
The result is a surprising Thai-inspired Nordic approach to a menu with complex flavours that will immediately be familiar to the Thai palate.
Born and raised in the northern province of Chiang Rai and married to a Danish businessman, Fae lived in Denmark for 12 years before returning home to direct her 10 kitchen staff at this new restaurant.
Chef Rungthiwa “Fae”Chummongkhon
“It’s a challenging job especially as Scandinavian-style dishes are usually prepared by foreign chefs. I want to show that a Thai chef, particularly a woman, can do it too. I believe Thais have the palate to absorb the complex flavours of sour, sweet, salty and spicy and that is an advantage when it comes to being a good chef,” says 36-year-old Fae, whose last post was an executive chef at the upmarket Kokkedal Slot Copenhagen hotel.
Front Room restaurant offers a Nordic take on Thai recipes and ingredients.
Like the food that connects New Nordic and Thai cuisine, the 80-seat restaurant off the ground-floor lobby marries the Scandinavian-style natural wood palette with tropical lime green and mustard accents reminiscent of Thai spices. The open kitchen adds a dynamic vibe.
With their long dark winters and short three-month summer, Nordic countries have a range of food preservation techniques from curing, fermenting, ageing to smoking and pickling that are crucial to both lengthening the shelf life of food and enhancing the flavours. Fae successfully integrates her expertise in these techniques with local and seasonal produce to create foods that are quite simply remarkable.
Despite the lack of any formal culinary training, Fae’s professional career started when she moved to live with her husband in Hadsten, outside Aarhus. Their neighbour, the head chef at a local restaurant, persuaded her to help him in the kitchen and after working for a while, she decided that she too wanted to be a chef.
Thanks to sheer hard work, determination and ambition, Fae went to train at the Michelin-starred Frederikshoj of chef Wassim Hallal before graduating from a three-star restaurant, La Belle Epoque in Germany. She also honed her skills in many top restaurants in Denmark including Noma, Geranium, Skipperly, Varna, Kiin Kiin, Remouladen, and Hotel & Brasserie Ferdinand.
Diners can enjoy her foods through a 10-course tasting menu for Bt3,200 or its seven-course sibling for Bt2,500 as well as a la carte. The additional cost for wine pairing is Bt2,100, but I would suggest opting instead for the Scandinavian juice pairing, which gives you six very different blends for an additional Bt600.
Riceberry sourdough and garlic soy sauce butter
The welcome drink of gourd juice made from grilled gourd and coconut sugar and infused with pandan leaf is refreshing and not too sweet, making it good for whetting the appetite. Next up is the complimentary warm riceberry sourdough with salty garlic soy sauce butter.
The dough is made from glutinous rice sourced from Fae’s home province of Chiang Rai and the butter is hand-whipped from fresh cream and soy sauce fermented with garlic, ginger, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves. The soft and slightly chewy texture of the dough goes perfectly with the smooth and creamy butter.
Croustade with pomelo and shrimp fillings and fish cracker
The 10-course dinner starts with amuses-bouche – velkommen in Danish – of five bite-size delicacies. The croustade filled with pomelo and shrimp brings to mind pomelo salad while the fish cracker with dollops of sweet and sour gel hints at tod mun (fish cake). The leaf-like pumpkin chip is naturally sweet and the mini beetroot meringue has a filling of salmon cured with beetroot. A mini sweet potato taco stuffed with green apple and peanut sauce is a nod to satay.
Pressed sea bass fillets with pellets of coconut cream
The first dish – the Asia Pacific – features pressed sea bass fillets cured with black garlic powder that is obtained by heating garlic over two months at 35 degrees Celsius. The dressing is made from fish sauce, soy sauce, honey and fermented rice vinegar and the taste is enhanced by the fresh frissee and basil leaves, sauteed broccoli, riceberry crouton, and pellets of coconut cream.
Baked beetroot with beetroot sauce
Beetroot is the star of next course, aptly dubbed Baking Beetroot. By heating beetroot at a high temperature, the outer layer becomes bitter sweet, the next sweet taste and the centre slightly tangy. It’s garnished with Beluga caviar, pickle papaya, dill oil and beetroot sauce mixed with chicken stock.
The two dishes of sea bass and beetroot are complemented with guava juice infused with rosemary and kaffir lime. Its slightly bitter taste is meant to cleanse the seafood and beetroot flavours before moving to the next serving.
Squid strips in chicken broth
A nod to her mother’s regular preparation of three kinds of soup – cucumber, gourd, and squid stuffed with minced pork, Fae’s next course, called Mom’s Soup Memories, features local squid finely sliced into noodle-like strips in a flavourful brown broth.
The squid is well cooked to achieve a soft texture akin to those rice noodles while the soup is made with chicken stock, cucumber, smoked bacon and aromatic thyme and fennel. Diced cucumber and pickled gourd add a little sharpness.
Crabmeat in yellow curry hollandaise sauce
Blue of the Sea, meanwhile, features a crispy pastry cone made from celeriac and flour. Inside is crabmeat and yellow curry hollandaise sauce and celery crudites are served on the side. The taste reminded me of spiced and creamy crab curry.
Both the squid soup and crab curry are paired with star fruit juice infused with lemongrass to enhance the flavour of the seafood.
Lemongrass fibril-smoked chicken wing and riceberry puree
Fae’s mother always liked to cook straw-smoked chicken with boiled rice and the daughter’s modern version offers roasted, deboned organic chicken wing stuffed with minced chicken. It’s smoked with lemongrass fibril under a glass cover that gives off a delicious aroma when opened. It is served with lightly buttered riceberry puree and combu sauce mixed with chicken stock. The dish is complemented with beetroot juice concocted with pineapple and jicama.
Wagyu striploin steak with oxtail sauce
The main dish is a steak of dry-aged, M5 wagyu striploin from Australia’s Rangers Valley topped with thin slices of vinaigrette-marinated koon (elephant ear tree) stalk. It’s served with seared asparagus, pickled morels stuffed with chicken mousse, chestnut puree, braised oxtail meat and oxtail sauce. If you don’t eat beef, the dish will be replaced with Japanese sea bass and corn sauce. Red and green grape juice infused with star anise, cinnamon and clove gives a slightly spiced taste to complement the beef dish.
Asparagus ice cream and dill granita
Grilled asparagus gets a makeover in an ice cream served with caramelised asparagus and dill granita. Another sweet serving is basil ice cream served with mango jelly, white chocolate mousse and topped with a sesame cookie baked in the form of the traditional Thai kanok (flame-like pattern). Ginger soda with vanilla and syrup and infused with pandan leaf is served with the desserts.
Basil ice cream with mango and white chocolate mousse
The meal ends with a selection of eight-item Petit Fours such as caramel poppy seed, ginger truffle, durian flodeboller (a marshmallow sweet), and citrus som-sa jelly coated with Thai-style salt-and-chilli dip.
Vegetarians can enjoy her creations too as all dishes can be cooked without meats and using only acceptable ingredients.
DINNER WITH A DIFFERENCE
Front Room is at Waldorf Astoria Bangkok on Ratchadamri Road (BTS: Chidlom or Ratchadamri).
It’s open daily from 5.30 to 10.30pm. Call (02) 846 8888.