Adventurous eaters have known Bangkok as a foodie mecca for years, but now even the famous red book is taking notice. In April, Michelin announced that its guide to Bangkok would arrive by the end of the year. The Thai capital is the latest Asian city to get a nod from the international gastronomic authority, following two guides each in Japan and China, plus Singapore and Seoul. So which Bangkok restaurants—and possibly, shop houses and street food stalls, too—will receive the recognition of a coveted star? As inspections are well underway, the rumors are flying, led by the already-established Asia’s 50 Best List and plenty of critic speculation. But where to eat in Bangkok right now? We checked in with executive chef Arnie Marcella of Bunker, one of Bangkok’s new guard of fine dining restaurants potentially in the Michelin running—and recently named by CNN as one of the world’s 20 most underrated restaurants—to find out.
EXECUTIVE CHEF ARNIE MARCELLA: Part of leaving New York was to challenge myself to find my own direction and style. Bangkok felt like the right move; a combination of timing, opportunity, and challenge. Thailand is a country I’d never considered moving to nor paid much attention to, but I came to Bangkok in December 2015 to visit a chef friend for a few weeks—and then I moved the next month. I opened Bunker that April.
LR: Tell us about Bunker, which has the unusual distinction of being a contemporary American casual fine dining restaurant paired with local, organic, and sustainably-sourced Thai ingredients. What are you and your team trying to achieve?
MARCELLA: At Bunker, we’re trying to build an environment that focuses on what matters to us: Cooking good food, with quality, sustainable ingredients and local products. Plus we have an eclectic wine list, craft beers on tap, and a full craft cocktail bar ready to get things started.
Bunker is unique, and in many ways the first of its kind here. Not to say that we’re groundbreaking, but our concept of ‘casual-fine dining’ is hard to define. Add on contemporary American cuisine to the title, and no one know what to expect. We don’t fit into any of the molds or categories previously established in Bangkok, and try to play by our own rules.
I think our Yankee spirit has allowed other chefs and restaurants to be more challenging with their concepts and their food too—so I think it’s a good thing. We love what we do.
LR: What do you think of Bangkok’s current culinary scene, overall? And as the first-ever Bangkok Michelin guide is expected in December, do you have any predictions?
MARCELLA: The culinary scene here is exciting. I still find street stalls that make me question my ability to cook. There are old ladies whose mastery of the wok or grill will leave you in awe and drooling. And at the same time the level of refinement and quality is constantly increasing in the higher-end restaurants. But it’s oversaturated, too: There are so many places to eat here that it’s sometimes hard for the great ones to shine. And restaurants are becoming increasingly competitive as everyone races to catch the wave of attention Bangkok has right now. But while I love healthy competition, these awards have become a driving force of business and creativity, which I think is bad. I worry that many chefs and restaurateurs are cooking by numbers in an effort to check of the judges’ boxes and not for the sake of culinary progression.
That said, I think we’ll see a lot of the San Pellegrino award winners [from Asia’s 50 Best List], but suspect there will be surprises. Michelin may be kind of an equalizer here, and could really shake up typical views on quality. I also suspect we’ll see a lot of unknown places catch stars, some local spots, and even Japanese restaurants. The Japanese food scene here is strong and often overlooked.
LR: Are there any major food trends you’ve observed happening in Bangkok right now?
MARCELLA: One trend that is gaining attention is an especially important one, and one that Bunker plays a part in—and that’s local. It’s an idea that to Westerners might seem old or boring, but here it represents much more. Here, much of the value system is based on the idea that foreign imports are better and a sign of modernity, education, class, and quality. But now, new generations of Thais are growing, farming, fishing, producing, and creating on a world-class level, and suddenly the quality and availability of locally-sourced food is rapidly increasing. Chefs and individuals are taking notice. This is important because supporting localized industry is at the heart of sustainability, preserving culture, and maintaining biodiversity.
Much of the local product here I work with here blows the doors off products I’ve used in New York City. And I’m not just talking about Thai fruits and vegetables. The markets and shop houses here provide an endless sense of discovery, new dishes, flavors, ingredients. As a chef, living here is like being a kid in a candy store. You can never rule out anything here. Every street stall, back ally, small mountain town, or island is full of new flavors, ingredients, and experiences.
LR: When you’re not at Bunker, which restaurants are you eating at?
MARCELLA: Definitely Le Du, a modern Thai fine dining restaurant. The staff is super-nice and the food is delicious, crave-ably delicious. [Chef Thitid Tassanakajohn] really bridges the gap of doing modern refined dishes inspired by traditional Thai food, but still maintains the soulful feeling of the original dishes. Don’t miss the river prawn.
And I love Ginzado, a yakiniku Japanese/Korean BBQ place. They have delicious charcoal grilled meats and use really high-quality products. Their bibimbop is easily the best I’ve ever had.
I also really admire Bo.lan, and chefs Bo and Dylan [Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and Dylan Jones]. They are relentlessly passionate about their beliefs and champion sustainability and super-traditional Thai cooking. Their path has not been easy, and they are often misunderstood. Staying true to course is the hardest thing in this ever-changing industry, and they’ve held to their guns. And it shows.
LR: And as Bangkok is known for street food and shop houses, are there any you’d especially recommend?
MARCELLA: I’m constantly blown away by some of the street food I find. For example, there’s a noodle cart on Sathorn Soi 10 that I have been trying to get the broth recipe from for over a year. It’s located in front of the 7-Eleven [and there’s no name].
But I’d especially recommend a place called Raan Jay Fai. It’s epic. It’s not cheap, but for good reason. The owner/chef has been cooking there for more than 40 years. She cooks everything herself, and takes the utmost pride in her craft. The portions are generous and use the highest quality of local seafood, and its worth every penny. She makes legendary crab omelets, tom yum, prawn, abalone….pretty much everything.
I also frequent Som Tam Or Tor Kor at the Or Tor Kor market, a shop house in one of the best markets in Bangkok. I eat there almost every time I’m at the market. Its an easy, comfortable place and simply good. The som tam, grilled chicken, pork neck, and duck laab are musts. [The stall is located right in front of the market’s food court].
LR: What should a first-time traveler to Bangkok be sure to eat?
MARCELLA: Don’t eat pad thai. It’s the worst representation of Thai food. Order khao soi, eat Issan sour sausage, laab, or papaya salad, and follow the crowds. They are lining up for a reason.
Also, don’t miss Bangkok’s famous weekend market [Chatuchak market]. There are some really incredible shop houses in all the chaos, and Or Tor Kor market is right across the street, which tourists never seem to find.
LR: Do you have any favorite spots in Thailand outside of Bangkok?
MARCELLA: Chiang Mai. It’s a beautiful small mountain city and a cultural gem. There are farms, temples, local coffee roasters, artisan ceramic makers, plus the food in the north is unique and delicious. The people of Chiang Mai also have a reputation of being super-welcoming.
LR: Finally, what are your future plans for Bunker and for your life as an expat in Bangkok?
This is a country that tests your views, drives, and desires, all while planting seeds of hope and an endless stream of surprises. I’m a year-and-a-half in, and I still have a sense of positivity and potential.
I do miss New York City. It’s home. I’m a New Yorker. I miss the smells, the people, and the food… I even ask visiting friends to bring me corner deli kaiser rolls so I can make sandwiches. But I plan on staying at Bunker and in Bangkok, ’til the wheels fall off, so they say. There’s a lot of potential in this city, and I have many more markets left to explore.
Main photo: Bunker Bangkok’s beef and beet tartare. Photo courtesy Bunker restaurant