Arguably, the latest iconic landmark and food and drink destination, tucked behind “Yaowarat” Chinatown is POTONG by “Chef Pam” Pichaya Utharntharm. POTONG continues to awe and inspires visitors with its Modern Thai-Chinese cuisine and grand SINO-Portuguese architecture. The 5-story, 100-year-old building was previously a traditional Chinese herbal medicine production house and dispensary but since its elaborate restoration which began 3 years ago, has become the home to POTONG SINO Bar, POTONG restaurant, the “OPIUM” & BLACKJADE bar, and open rooftop space.
The building renovation has been designed to retain and reflect, both spiritually and physically the incredible rich Thai-Chinese family history of its Owner, Chef Pam who created a cuisine whose fundamentals are based on “Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch”, as Chinese philosophy attributes to a living being’s senses. With these senses, Pam combines philosophy with technique; traditional and modernity to paint the brush strokes of the memoirs of growing up in a Thai-Chinese-Western household.
Having the pleasure to dine there on a number of occasions, Bangkok Foodies sought to dig deeper into the mind of Chef Pam to explore the significance this outstanding heritage had on her life in the past, and present, and what would be in the foreseeable future.
BKF: What was it like growing up as a “Thai-Chinese” culture kid and what would you say were some of the challenges or advantages?
Chef Pam: My parents met and were raised in Chinatown (Yaowaraj Area). Chinatown in Thailand was the only place that truly represents how Thais are connected to their ancestral backgrounds. There are tons of experiences that I can relate to in this area. My mom always brought me to do grocery shopping in Chinatown, where all the finest local Thai Chinese ingredients are sold.
In terms of growing up as a “Thai-Chinese”: Actually, my dad is half Australian and half Chinese and my mom is half Chinese and half Thai. Since my mom was a housewife, the food that was served in our family since I was young was all cooked and prepared by my mom.
An interesting fact about my family is that because my dad is half Australian, he always loves western food and my mom, who came from a Chinese family, knowing only how to cook Chinese food, would then have to learn from all the cookbooks about the other cuisines to keep the family satisfied.
I grew up learning from her, cooking, groceries shopping, and serving these foods to our family with her. Food is something that brings our family relationships together. I believe these are advantages, to learn to know those authentic tastes, to understand how it felt eating together as a Thai-Chinese kid family on a lazy susan!
BKF: What were your memories of the POTONG building and how has it changed since?
Chef Pam: I remember my dad always talking about the POTONG building because he used to live here. So, 3 years ago before the project started, my dad and my grandfather took me and my husband to see the building as it was recently completed on its long-term lease with a former tenant, who sells shoes. I was fascinated so much by its history when my grandfather told me about it. My husband and I walked up to the fifth floor with excitement while listening to his legacy. Right at that moment, on the rooftop seeing our original “POTONG” logo – I decided that this will be my next restaurant. After about 2.5 years we were reviving the building. I tried my best to keep the history of itself as much as possible while putting the “new” into the building. It was a very difficult project for us but once it was completed, we were very happy with the results.
BKF: How did you start cooking?
Chef Pam: I have been connected with food since childhood. Since I remember, it was all cooking (perhaps since 8?) There are countless times my mom and I spent running around in our family kitchen trying out different local ingredients that helped cultivate my deep appreciation for Thai Chinese cuisine.
In terms of memories, my mom is one of the people who you can call an extreme “perfectionist”; therefore, most of the time I remembered would be my mom teaching/explaining / perfecting the food that I always prepared with her. I remember cooking a simple “shrimp dumpling” with my mom, I could not remember how many times I have to recreate the dish because it was not up to her standard, to this day, I don’t think I still am *smile sheepishly*, never knew that one day this grew into my heart and become my great passion for cooking.
BKF: How would you say your cooking evolved over the years to the POTONG experience?
Chef Pam: There are definitely things that I have evolved and things that I still want to remain in my cooking. I love doing new exciting things, especially when it comes to cooking. I learned so much from cooking traditional Thai-Chinese food since I was young and there are usually good reasons for the origination and authenticity in the method of traditional cooking. I have always respected these methods but at the same time used my culinary knowledge to adapt and make my best to sometimes even create a new method that is a mixture of the two.
Traditional food/cooking method for me plays a great important role and is the key to making the best dish. Recreating the dish using another modern method will require an understanding of these traditional methods. I always learn the traditional ways before applying any modernity to them. So I think, my cooking definitely evolved when I started this project. What I still want to remain the same is the feeling of coming to my “home”. I want my guests to be happy, and that’s what happens when you cook good food and serve it to your family or friends.
BKF: What inspired or motivated you to go down the path of Thai-Chinese fine cuisine, which is niche and less understood globally?
Chef Pam: As I mentioned, I always love to create something new. Something that has never been done before but I want to try. I would like to take these memories of my Thai Chinese taste notes from my childhood and bring them to everyone. I believe in the near future, in the culinary world, we will see an elevated version of many more cuisines.
BKF: What would you like your customers to experience and walk away with when they come to POTONG?
Chef Pam: I only want my guests to be happy! Enjoying the moment, tasting delicious food that I and the team put our hearts into. And perhaps absorb some of our family history behind the building!
BKF: What were some of the challenges or pleasant surprises for those trying the cuisine at POTONG?
Chef Pam: Because we are doing something that has never been done before, trying to recreate the full memories of my guests like how I first come to this building through food and its experience here. We have 30+ guests per night while having 50+ staff. This means we have more number of staffs than the number of our guests. It really shows how serious we are about our services. It’s definitely challenging to be able to serve 20+ courses from our small kitchen. But our staff are working really hard, training and try to perfect our service every time.
BKF: What are some of your favourite places or types of places to dine in Thailand?
Chef Pam: Recently my husband took me to this Thai-Chinese restaurant close to our home in the Nakornprathom area (Nakornchaisri). They are called, “Jiam Jun Porchana”. It has had its own legacy since 1913, a legacy passed down from the grandfather to the father, then to the son. The owner is still cooking right in front of the place! The food was also amazing.
BKF: What are some of the Chefs you would love to meet or try their cuisine in Bangkok and Thailand?
Chef Pam: Although I have known Chef Ton for a long time, recently he opened a new restaurant called “Lahnyai” and I would love to dine there!
BKF: What are some of your favourite places in the world to explore the local food or exotic dishes you would love to experience?
Chef Pam: I had a chance to travel to Lebanon during the time when I was a guest judge for Top Chef Arab world. It became one of my top places. The wine, the hummus, and the seafood by the beach were just awesome and I would love to spend more time there trying out other local food. Another place I have recently fond of is Austria, looking forward to traveling there when it is all back to normal. Those are my favorite places at the moment.
BKF: How would you say International guests’ response varies from the local Thai guest’s experience when tasting a meal at POTONG?
Chef Pam: Interestingly we have received quite similar responses. When we opened our door first time in September (right after the COVID-19 lockdown) in 2021, we had a lot of locals coming to try our food. Recently for the past 2-3 months after the counties are open a little more, we have had a lot of guests coming from Singapore, Hongkong, Australia, and the US. We were very happy to receive very positive feedback from both groups, particularly with our latest course menu that was launched after 15 May. A couple of days ago guests from Australia and Singapore mentioned to me that this is the best meal they ever had – that made my day. I also noticed that guests from Singapore and Hongkong, they can relate their memories of the old Chinese shophouse to my heritage. It amazed me how my food can connect with my guests internationally.
BKF: Are any more plans to develop for the POTONG restaurant or other activities in the works?
Chef Pam: Yes! We have recently completed our glasshouse on the 5th floor and also our inhouse garden on the back, which will also be part of our guest experiences when they come to Restaurant POTONG. For our Opium Bar, we are secretly starting our construction on the back room that will be called “Blackjade”. It’s part of a tour hidden private bar that will later be launched sometime in August. During this time, we are soft-launching our “Opium Coin”, which will also take a pivotal role in entering our secret “Blackjade” room. It’s all exciting and fun! Definitely hope to welcome everyone here.
POTONG are now offering:
20 course, 5 senses, 5 elements | “acid and texture”
4,500++ THB | Dinner starts 5.00 PM / 6.00 PM | from 15 MAY 2022 to 14 AUG 2022
422 Vanich Rd., Samphanthawong, Bangkok, 10100
Restaurant POTONG recently announced its latest accolade in “The Best New Restaurants in the World: 2022 Hot List” from Condé Nast Traveler’s and enters the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards 2022 list.
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