A grandmother's modest eatery paved the way for one of Bangkok's most fêted restaurants.
Supaksorn Jongsiri doesn't like being called a chef. Better known by his nickname Ice, he points out that he has no formal training in the kitchen. But he has fond recollections of visits to his grandmother's kitchen in Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand, where he was born. Young Ice moved with his family to Bangkok, and when his grandmother retired from being a school teacher, his father helped her open a modest restaurant near Wat Samian Nari in a northern district of the capital.
She served the distinctive food of the South that was a rarity in Bangkok thirty years ago and gave the restaurant the name of her first-born grandson, Baan Ice, or Ice's House. It was a hit.
Jongsiri claims he wasn't a good student and chose a degree in graphic design over architecture in a university in the United States “because it was easier to graduate”. But it wasn't his first choice. “I wanted to study at culinary school but my parents didn't let me,” he remembers. “At that time, being a cook was not a job you could be proud of.” He earned extra money working as a line cook in Thai restaurants, but the dishes were “not my recipes, very sweet, not very Thai-like.” He chuckles at the memory of prepared sauces and pre-cooked chicken. “Every restaurant had the same recipes.”
When he came back to Thailand, he got an office job, but the restaurant without his grandmother at the helm had lost its way, becoming just another aahaan daam sung, an establishment that cooks generic Thai dishes to order. He knew he had to do something. “I couldn't let it die. It's my name.”
He met resistance from staff, but “I changed it back to what my grandma taught me. I talked to our relatives in the south who sent us ingredients. I made a smaller menu, more authentically southern again.”
Customers came back in droves. Seven years ago, a space in the heart of trendy Thong Lor in central Bangkok became available at a time when “everything [else] was a Japanese restaurant there”. The move downtown led to recognition, as well as expansion into shopping malls like Siam Paragon and the brand new IconSiam. But what Jongsiri found in shopping centres were customers in a hurry who ordered the same few dishes. He craved for a more creative outlet. “I love to cook [but] I had to do the same thing over and over again. I lost my passion, I lost my soul a little bit.”
Paradoxically, the idea for Sorn was born in those malls. “I wanted to offer more, go to the South and bring back ingredients. But no one cared..” Customers “just wanted pad sataw [stir-fried stink beans], gaeng luang [spicy sour curry] and bai liang pad khai [melinjo leaves with scrambled eggs]. And that's pretty much it!” The expansion of Baan Ice coincided with an increase in popularity of those few signature dishes. “I don't know why [they became popular],” Jongsiri mused. “Maybe people think it's easy to cook.”
“I wanted to do more refined food, to do fresh shrimp paste, make everything from scratch here. We cook rice over charcoal.” He beams. “It's not a gimmick, it's good.” Take the example of the humble melinjo leaves. “We only choose the top leaves because they are really sweet. We don't have to add a lot of sugar.” Other restaurants might use the stems too, but not in Jongsiri's kitchen. “For us from three kilos [of vegetable] we only get one kilo of leaves. The rest we use for staff meals.”
He formed a team of Baan Ice's best and brightest, led by his head chef Yod U-Pumpruk, an old school friend who was “part of the same gang of bad students”. As teens they would cook for their friends together, but then went their separate ways. After starting a career in broadcasting, U-Pumpruk joined Baan Ice, then Sorn. “I trained him and he trained me,” he says simply. “If anyone was going to be my head chef, it was him. His love and passion and honesty for food is 100%.”
It took a year of planning and before Sorn opened in mid-2018 to rave reviews and full houses. Jongsiri admits it's still very much a work in progress, from adding handcrafted fixtures and tableware that they couldn't invest in when they opened (“My son's college fund is here,” he smiles, looking around the room, “but I didn't want other people's money and have them tell me what to do”) to constantly tweaking items and testing new ones for the menu.
He prides himself on the dedication of his staff, five of whom are also from the South. “We see what we cook, we know where it's from, we know who caught it, we know who grew it, we know who harvested it, we know who walked into the jungle for two or three hours to get it.”
Motivating staff goes hand in hand with satisfying customers. “If staff is tired, they'll do robot work,” he observes. Meanwhile, with every table booked up three months in advance, expectations are high. “I don't want people to wait three months and get half the attention. I want everything to be perfect, or better, when they come.”
To that end, every one of the twenty-two dishes on the tasting menu is subjected to the same intense scrutiny. Gaeng tai pla [cured fish entrails soup] may be a common dish, but at Sorn every component is refined. “We don't twist and turn too much. We still have respect for tradition. But we use every means to make the food taste great” from sourcing the entrails from Narathiwat in the deep south to carefully preparing each ingredient one by one: line-caught fish; vegetables grilled over charcoal; a paste made of steamed chicken livers and cashew nuts, slow roasted overnight. “It's a lot of work,” he admits. But one bite makes it clear that it's worth the effort.
Just six months after they opened their doors to the public, the team's work was rewarded with the restaurant's first Michelin star. “When we got the star, that was pretty good!” he gushed. “I don't call myself a chef, but I think that for anyone who cooks, that's the dream.”
Still he won't let success go to his head. “I'm opening my heart,” he says candidly. “Fame has come really fast. But I think we can do more, I don't want to become arrogant. I don't want us to think that this is already the best. We can do more.”
For Jongsiri, the measure of his success comes down to just one thing.
“Would grandma be happy?” he asks. “Or not?”