Pongcharn “Top” Russell
, 27, is the head chef at Freebird
and the winner of Best Young Chef in Top Tables 2018
. Adopted at the age of two by a British father and Thai mother, Top lived and worked in the UK for 12 years, where he learned his trade in the London Michelin-starred kitchens of Alexis Gauthier, Jun Tanaka and Pierre Gagnaire.
Favorite restaurant in town right now?
Gaa, hands down: a talented chef leading a passionate group of people who are at the beginning of their culinary journey. Garima [Arora] is exploring something that needs to be explored: local ingredients but in a different light, changing the direction of flavor. One of the reasons I moved back was to do that. I really appreciate what she is doing. Someone should have explored it a long time ago.
Bangkok dining fad that annoys you most?
Well, it doesn’t annoy me but the one that took me by surprise was tomahawk. I had no idea before coming here what a big deal it was. It’s not a thing in other cities from my experience, but in Bangkok people go crazy for tomahawks. I’m not saying it’s bad, I just didn’t expect it.
Most inspiring meal you’ve ever had?
The Fat Duck in 2006. It was just perfection: 20-odd something courses, a few I didn’t a personally prefer but the execution of everything was as perfect as perfect can be. Almost robotic. Every waiter knew everything, and there were 40-60 components to every dish. The service was on another level, and the food more pristine than you can imagine a human creating.
Biggest thing holding back Bangkok dining culture?
I don’t know why people complain about working in Bangkok. This is the easiest kitchen I’ve seen run! It might be down to my amazing staff. I’ve heard nightmare stories. Chefs complain about locals not being commited, not showing up to work. I was told not to expect what I was used to in London and Singapore. I have eight staff who’ve been there from day one. This is the best team. Maybe not the most skillful or knowledgeable but they haven’t had the platform. Chefing here is still behind, though it turned a corner 2-3 years ago. Five years ago, if you were an upcoming young chef in Thailand where would you go to learn things? And I don’t mean people whose parents can fly them to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. For the general public wanting to chef there was no platform.
An upcoming Bangkok restaurant you’re excited about?
There’s a place ready to open soon that’s gonna be a gamechanger. Sorry, I can’t tell you the name, but it’s an American, big, with the most amazing resume.
Scariest thing that’s ever happened during service?
The electricity going off during a wedding. It was back in England, cooking for 120 people and the electricity goes. Then the backup doesn’t work. The bride’s father came through to the kitchen and he was not happy but there was nothing we could do. In the end we got something out since there was a lot pre-cooked, but we had to serve it cold.
Tastiest meal you’ve had in Bangkok this month?
Sri Trat last night.
Tastiest meal you’ve had in Bangkok this year?
A three-Michelin-star pop-up in Le Normandie from a German chef, Thomas Buhner. Really amazing.
A young chef in Bangkok to watch?
Charlie Jones, the new guy at Quince. He is going to make Quince the best it has been. We’re childhood friends and grew up together.
Top Table's 2018, BK Magazine's guide to Bangkok's 100 best restaurants, is available as a free booklet inserted in BK Magazine issue number 731 (Mar 23) and a downloadable PDF version.