When Paste Gaysorn’s head chef, Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun, announced through a public Facebook post on May 24 that she would be “moving on” from the restaurant she had founded with husband Jason Bailey, it came as a startling turn in what had been a glorious, bizarre and at times confrontational year for Paste.
Not six months earlier, Bee was on stage at the debut of the Bangkok Michelin Awards receiving a coveted Michelin star. In February, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants—the regional arm of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants—had proclaimed Bee “Asia’s Best Female Chef” ahead of its announcement of the 2018 official A50B list. For the first time in its five-year history, Paste appeared in that one, too, at an impressive 31st place. It was a stellar run, by any restaurant’s standards.
Now, the news is out about what Bee and Bailey are up to next. While Bee remains the owner of Paste Gaysorn, the brand is undergoing expansion plans that begin with Paste in Luang Prabang, Laos, and will shortly be followed by a third branch in Bailey’s native Australia. There’s also another restaurant in Luang Prabang in the works, this time a Thai-Chinese venture called Sunzi.
But the new openings only tell part of the story of Paste and Gaysorn. By Bailey’s own—albeit cautious—admission, the relationship between the couple and the shopping mall had been fractured for some time.
BK was first to run the news when Bee made the post, and earned a fast rebuttal from the Bailey-Bee Facebook persona (more on that below) for having erroneously described Gaysorn Group as Paste’s owner. (Paste has been privately owned by the couple since the beginning, and continues to be so, and this writer apologizes to the couple for BK reporting otherwise).
But then Bailey has never been afraid of taking swipes at the media. In a public post (later deleted) following the awards party at which Bee picked up her Asia’s Best Female Chef award, Bailey declared he needed to “wash myself of this filth.” When the one-Michelin-star Nahm announced that San Francisco-based chef Pim Techamuanvivit would be replacing David Thompson as the restaurant’s mastermind, he alluded that she only got the role because of her press contacts.
As Bailey puts it: “I will shoot myself in the foot. I can’t shut the f*ck up.” Here, together with wife Bee, he discusses all that and more.
BK: What’s next for you both? We said you were “leaving” Paste Gaysorn—your post said you were “moving on.” How much “moving on” is happening and what’s next?
Jason: We’re playing the media game, you know that. In your defense it’s a delicate situation, it’s complex. What I’m doing with Bee, and I hope you don’t make this too commercialized, I’m trying to separate Bee as a chef into a business role and brand role. We’re doing another Paste in Laos and Australia. Bee can’t be in three places at once so it’s moving her on into that brand persona role with a head chef running Paste.
Your social media post said your “dream required a very different energy.” The implication reading that was that there’s something wrong with the energy at Paste Gaysorn. Is that accurate?
Jason: Your senses are serving you correctly. I’m in heavy contractual obligations with Gaysorn over what I can and can’t say... We’re pretty artistic, rebellious, we’re not suited to a corporate structure. You wouldn’t call us formal chefs. Me and Bee have always owned our own restaurants. One of my business mentors said: “Don’t do this; you go into a partnership like this, it will change your whole life and you’ll learn this lesson the hard way.”
Bee: But it was a good opportunity for us to learn more. For us to make more creations.
Jason: With Gaysorn, one of the main attractions was that the main family is linked to cooking. Put yourself in my shoes. You’re living here for years, Bee didn’t go to international school or any of that hi-so rubbish, but then you get offered a big investment by the family of the cookbooks you’re researching. It was a bright light that flicked, like, how’s that happened?
Without Gaysorn there is no way we could take it to this level—no way. Gaysorn’s resources and meant we could run on 70-percent Thai covers. That’s converted a bit following Michelin, but as an artist, cooking for the native elites of this country, that’s an achievement. You have to have a genuine love if you’re aiming for the best and to win over locals. You’re fooling yourself if you’re tourist-driven.
So would you do it again?
Jason: Me and Bee have a death wish. We wanted to challenge ourselves. The shopping center energy... I never would have believed... you might think I’m stupid but the aura of your personality has to match the space. That’s a hard question. There’s no way I would’ve been exposed to that clientele. I've fed nearly every elite in the city. I never dreamed of achieving this. Yes, I would do it again.
Are you on good relations with the Gaysorn family now?
Jason: Gaysorn invested, we paid back. Our main function here—and this is why I don’t like Gaysorn being over-glorified—was to be brought in as an anchor for Gaysorn. When we came in here, they were a bit quiet. It was not the busiest mall in Bangkok. I think we achieved the goal in many respects.
Here’s where you were wrong: Gaysorn didn’t give Paste a new lease on life [BK’s article in May 2018 wrote: “The restaurant found new steam in 2015 with backing from Gaysorn Group, moving into a glamorous new space inside the luxury mall”]. The first three months on Sukhumvit Soi 49 [Paste’s original location] were hard but then it skyrocketed, there were many nights that we were turning tables twice.
So Laos and Australia—I’m guessing they’re not going to be in shopping malls this time?
Jason: No. So Laos, what happened in Laos is there’s a British guy who’s married to the owner of Satri House, they also own Apsara Hotel. These hotels are stunning, designed by the French architect [Laurent Rampon] who is the representative for UNESCO World Heritage.
Bee: It’s back before my grandma. My great grandma actually moved from Laos to Thailand. Also my dad’s side as well. So in Laos they have different groups and my dad comes from one group and my mom from the other… The food they do is different. My grandma when she was still here made her own fish sauce and did a lot of the cooking.
You said that, to take over the kitchen in Paste Gaysorn, you’re looking for that special person who has the artistic temperament to do what you do. I spoke with Khun Firm [Hongsananda, a member of the family behind Gaysorn and a key figure in Paste’s move to the mall] who said the kitchen here is “systemized” and can be professionally run without you guys. What do you take from that?
Jason: OK, Firm is correct in that. I’ve studied systemization and training and implemented it... When Bee’s in the kitchen here it’s very rare that she will cook… Everything with cooking, the way I see it, in the creation it’s artistry, but then I see cooking as a weight, a measurement, a temperature and a time. You can systemize that and lock it down so there are no fluctuations... So Firm is correct. But he’s wrong in the particular personality in the kitchen. When that chef is called out from the kitchen, it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s a famous brand. How will you conduct yourself in front of the customers? That’s difficult to get that persona.
Pomelo salad with char-grilled Carabineros prawns, chili jam and gapi khoei plankton paste
So while we’re on the subject of changing chefs, you shared a post recently about Khun Pim [Techamuanvivit] taking over at Nahm. Your comment was that it’s smart of them to choose a food blogger, someone with these media connections. Talk about that. Do you really think her influence as a blogger is why she was hired for the position?
Jason: I will shoot myself in the foot. I can’t shut the f*ck up. She was in essence a blogger mixed with a journalist. I don’t agree and I will stand against it—cooking and press stuff has gone overboard. Chefs concentrate on persona and marketing. That’s not what a chef is supposed to be. A chef is supposed to cook, be hospitable, research recipes, ingredients, times, weights. But all this stuff, this marketing, is 50 percent of a chef’s life now. People are getting into what you do—journalism, writing—and then they say, “I’m going to get all the press contacts, network, and now I’m going to own a restaurant as well.”
But in the case of Pim—that’s a bold statement. She has won a Michelin star. You have a star, she has a star, that’s an amazing achievement.
Jason: With Michelin, it’s not the standard for us. You guys know it. Your team have a better bird’s eye view and you’re eating more plates of food... If you import someone from overseas and put them into a restaurant like Nahm—the pinnacle worldwide, a guy who’s researched Thai food for 25-30 years, anal to an insane level of understanding—then they say, you’re captain of the ship now. No way. I don’t believe it’s possible.
But you’re looking for someone to replace Bee here…
I don’t think you can draw a comparison between the two because Bee owns the business. She will still be watching over [Paste Gaysorn], will still always be in and out of here, on the phone, there will be that connection.
I have to then also ask you, while we’re on awards—Asia’s 50 Best, what happened there? You wrote from the awards that you need “a good strong bar of soap to wash myself of this filth.”
I’m getting emotional. I’ll say it. I think that cheffing and all this marketing is out of control. It’s got to a point where it’s out of control. If you look at the Asia’s 50 Best brand—is that the 50 best restaurants in Asia? If that’s what you’re writing and you’ve got integrity, could you sit with yourself? Tokyo has more starred restaurants than any city in Europe and very few are listed.
Fifty Best has a right to do what they want to do and promote the chefs they want to promote. Do I consider Paste in Asia’s top 50 restaurants? I do not. No way, not when we include Tokyo, so I just don’t like that branding.
Bee how do you feel about that given you’ve just been named Asia’s Best Female Chef by Asia’s 50 Best?
Bee: It’s an opportunity and a responsibility. People come with more expectation. This year we got so many awards all at once and it has caused so much expectation. It’s not just about me. I get the award but it’s the restaurant that needs to come together. We have to focus on the kitchen and front of house.
Jason: There’s a big difference between Asia’s 50 Best and Asia’s Best Female Chef. If you knock out all the male chefs in Southeast Asia, I think you would be hard pressed to find a female chef in Southeast Asia who can cook to Bee’s ability and has her power. I don’t think there has been any fine-dining Thai restaurant that has won 70 percent Thai clientele and also the elite. That is a fact. Our investor is Thai, we were selected by Thais, and we are not the easiest people to deal with, so it’s definitely not through sucking up.
Read BK Magazine's review of Paste Gaysorn here.