Sticking to tradition

Chef-owners Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones of five-year-old Thai restaurant Bo.lan in Bangkok barely got any shut-eye during the first two years of their restaurant's opening.

Back then, the husband-and-wife team, who tied the knot 1 1/2 years ago, would go to three markets every day to buy produce for their restaurant.

They went to the first market at midnight, after their restaurant closed, the second at 4am, and the third when they woke up again at 8 or 9am.

They are behind Bo.lan restaurant, which is a play on their names - Bangkok-born chef Songvisava's nickname is Bo and Lan is an abbreviation of chef Jones' first name. The Australian is from Canberra.

The Thai restaurant was ranked No. 36 on the inaugural Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list this year, where chef Songvisava, 33, also won the Best Female Chef Award.

The Asian list is a spin-off from the much-watched annual World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Both lists are put out by UK trade publication Restaurant Magazine.

Of their hectic days trawling through markets, chef Jones, 32, says jokingly: "We both lost a lot of weight. We looked magnificent except for the dark circles around our eyes. Now we're old and fat."

They stopped going to markets after they found farmers who could grow things for them and supply to them directly. As far as possible, they use organic and ethically farmed produce as they have a strong belief in using local and native ingredients.

For instance, they make a three-hour drive from Bangkok to a plantation to buy traditionally produced palm sugar that does not contain additives or preservatives.

The Bo.lan chef-owners are in town for a dinner promotion at The WoW at Movenpick Heritage Hotel Sentosa tonight. Diners can tuck into 12 dishes, including salad of lotus shoot with seafood; coconut-based grilled chilli relish with prawn accompanied with fresh and blanched greens; and coriander and cumin-crusted lamb.

The dinner is priced at $110 a person. There is also the option for the meal to be paired with single-malt whiskies at $170 a person.

While the couple are here, they are limiting the number of covers at their 60-seat Bangkok restaurant to 40 people a night. When they are in the kitchen, they usually serve up to 80 people a night in the peak seasons.

The chefs brought with them 120kg of ingredients, including 25kg of palm sugar, Jasmine smoking candles used to smoke food and curry paste that they had pounded by hand with a granite mortar and pestle.

They met in London while working at the now-closed Thai restaurant Nahm. Chef Jones says with a laugh: "Actually, I was her boss, but oh, how the tides have changed."

At the time, he was the restaurant's sous chef and she was one of the line cooks.

But on a more serious note, the couple, who have a 14-month-old son, say they have equal roles in the kitchen.

Chef Jones, the son of a carpenter and public servant, says that he had never aspired to open his own restaurant until he met Ms Songvisava, whose dream was to have her own business. Her family runs a business which cans items from tuna to fruit.

Before opening their restaurant, they collected heritage Thai cookbooks and also memorial books, which are published after someone dies. They usually contain information about the person's life and hobbies, and might include favourite recipes too.

They also travelled to different parts of the country to better understand the regional cuisine.

Their restaurant offers flavours from all over Thailand and has a strong emphasis on seasonal produce.

At Bo.lan, the menu changes every three months. Chef Songvisava says: "Besides, I hate cooking the same dish over and over again, every single day."

The couple are strong proponents of keeping tradition alive and keeping food authentic, shying away from the use of flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is commonly used in many street foods in Thailand.

"The difference in our food is the quality of the produce and how we treat it," says chef Songvisava.

While travelling in Thailand, they thought they had discovered a new, unheard-of ingredient when a street vendor told them that the secret to one of his dishes was "powdered fish sauce".

To their dismay, it turned out to be MSG.

She says: "Street food these days, especially in Bangkok, is full of MSG. Vendors are so afraid that their food doesn't taste yummy that they end up adding MSG to it."

What the chefs do instead is to use indigenous ingredients and they do not change flavours to suit foreign palates. For instance, if a soup is meant to be spicy and sour, they will serve it that way and will not compromise.

"We want to pass the knowledge about food that is disappearing or has become less common," says chef Songvisava.

"Hopefully, with our restaurant and through our work, we can still pass on local wisdom about traditional foods and techniques to the next generation."

Book it
Evenings of Thai indulgence by chef- Owners Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones from Bo.lan in Bangkok
Where: The WoW, Movenpick Heritage Hotel Sentosa, 23 Beach View, Sentosa
When: Today, 6 to 10pm
Price: $110 a person, $170 a person with whisky pairings.
Info: Call 6818-3388 or e-mail Hotel.Sentosa.WOW@ for reservations and inquiries.

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