Bo Songvisava, co-chef and co-owner of Bangkok’s Bo.Lan, comes under the Chef’s Table microscope in Season 5 of the acclaimed Netflix series. Songvisava runs the restaurant with her husband Dylan Jones, and together the two are trying to reintroduce Thailand its native cuisine. The chef’s vision, skill, and demand for ingredients of the highest quality have earned Bo.Lan a Michelin star and a perennial spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Now, in addition to being a world-renowned chef, she is an environmental activist working to fight industrialization and support the small-scale farmers who, she believes, make her food possible.
What was Songvisava’s journey through the culinary world like?
Songvisava grew up in a bustling household, one of five kids in Bangkok, and she says there was always a variety of foods on the table. Her family ate Chinese and Western cuisines, but her favorite from the beginning was Thai. As a child, she spent time in the kitchen with her father, which gave her the inspiration to cook for a living. She wanted to go to culinary school, but her parents were more keen on Songvisava earning a traditional degree. As a compromise, she graduated with a bachelor’s of business in restaurant and catering management.
Songvisava’s first professional restaurant job was at Cy’an, chef Amanda Gale’s Mediterranean restaurant in Bangkok, but this proved unsatisfying. She had no knowledge of her country’s food, and she wanted to learn, but traditional Thai restaurants were actually a rarity in Thailand. So, she went to London to work for Australian chef David Thompson’s Nham, which was seen as one of the world’s preeminent Thai restaurants. In that kitchen, she met her future husband, and after two years, the two moved back to Bangkok to open Bo.Lan.
There, the wife-and-husband team set out to serve traditional That cuisine with 100 percent organic ingredients, and to reintroduce the older recipes to Thai people and visiting foreigners alike. “Thailand is a hospitality[-driven] country,” Songvisava says. “Whatever you ask, it’s, ‘Yes, I can do that for you.’ Thais have been serving what the customer wants. They dumb down the flavors. But at my restaurant, we’re not going to do that. We want to show them the real thing. We keep the flavors as traditional Thai.”
What is her “aha” moment?
A visit from a foreign chef during Songvisava’s time at Cy’an was what sparked her passion for her country’s food. This chef was asking her about Thai cuisine, and she realized she didn’t know anything about it. Songvisava asked her Thai colleagues in the kitchen and discovered they were lacking the knowledge as well. She came to the conclusion that traditional Thai food was in danger of dying out, and she took it upon herself to save it.
What do people, including Songvisava, say about her work?
“We’re not going to make it less spicy because you can’t eat spicy. People walk out from my restaurant, but we are happier if they decide not to eat, because if the mind is not going to open from the beginning, it’s not going to work.” — Songvisava, on her approach to Thai cuisine
“You have Thai food all over the world, but Thai food at Bo.Lan is real Thai food. Bo’s working with her partner, Dylan, together, producing amazing food. Bo.Lan’s the first Thai restaurant to do things as it should be done, instead of recreating it for the tourist palate. Every single curry paste is pounded out, every single chile paste is made from scratch. The food is appreciated more so by the older generations, because it’s very similar to the way their grandmother used to prepare it.” — Amanda Gale, chef, on how Songvisava’s restaurant innovates by looking to the past
“Old-fashioned Thai food has disappeared, apart from in the heads and restaurants of a few mad fools. Traditionally, in Thailand, when somebody died, the family wrote a eulogy including recipes. Bo and Dylan base a lot of their recipes on these older ideas. Also, Bo has that desire to be as ethical as possible, which means the restaurant is as sustainable as possible. For Bo, it ain’t about awards and accolades, it’s about doing something you believe in.” — David Thompson, chef, on the inspiration for Songvisava’s food and the ingredients she uses
“As a cook, I’m not a superhero. I need good ingredients. If I cannot have a good ingredient to start with, I can’t make good food — especially with Thai food, when every single component has to combine together.” — Songvisava, on why she is so obsessed with the best ingredients
“Bo’s food galvanizes people. It’s this wonderful mash of culture, of custom, of chaos, of serenity, of taste, of spice, of confusion, and of charm — like Bangkok itself. Bo is the leader of Thais controlling Thai culture.” — Thompson, on the importance of Songvisava’s cooking