History will be made this year if Thailand can cinch a top spot in the esteemed Bocuse D’Or Grand Finale culinary competition. Prestige talks to Nuttaya Junhasavasdikul, one of the team’s managers, to find out what they’ve got cooking.
With the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo safely behind us, it’s time for those in gastronomic circles to look forward to the Bocuse d’Or Grand Finale, the prestigious chef competition held every two years that has come to be known as “the Olympics of cooking”. And this year, a team from Thailand will be amongst those vying for what is considered the top award when it comes to the mastery of the culinary arts.
The history of the Bocuse d’Or competition dates back to 1987, when legendary French chef Paul Bocuse imagined a cooking contest – live, in front of an audience – styled after major sporting events, with all the ferocity and nail-biting drama that entailed. It’s staged as part of the Salon International de la Restauration de l’Hôtellerie et de l’Alimentation (SIRHA), a food and hospitality convention held every two years in Lyon, France, and over time it has become one of the most anticipated chef showdowns in the world.
Sadly, Chef Paul Bocuse – the man credited with pioneering nouvelle cuisine – passed away in 2018 at the age of 91, but his legacy lives on in myriad ways, including events such as the Bocuse d’Or Grand Finale. The 2021 edition of this two-day affair runs from September 26-27, and competing alongside 23 other skilled teams from around the world will be team Thailand, led by Panuvit Khaokaew – who at 19 years of age won the gold medal at the 2016 Escoffier Young Chef Talent competition in Strasbourg, France.
In order to qualify for the Grand Finale, Thailand’s team had to secure one of the top five spots at the Asia Pacific finals. At this event team Thailand wowed the crowd by coming in 2nd, and thus will be representing the region together with Japan, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and New Zealand.
This is only the second time Thailand has made it to the final competition, the first being in 2019 when Chef Natcha Saengow captained the team. This year, the core culinary crew consists of Chef Panuvit and his right-hand man Chef Thanathip Piyakamperm – who was also on the 2019 team – as they are the only two persons actually onstage cooking during the contest. Several others, however, are involved in the bigger picture, including the coach, Chef Jatuporn Juengmeesuk, and the official managers of the Bocuse d’Or Thailand team: Chef Olivier Castella and the husband-and-wife duo of Paniti and Nuttaya Junhasavasdikul.
For Bangkok residents with a sweet tooth, the Junhasavasdikuls are famous as the couple behind Kad Kokoa Co Ltd, purveyors of high-quality Thai-grown and produced chocolate. Having gotten to know Nuttaya from my many visits to her delightful Kad Kokoa Thai Craft Chocolate Café on Soi Naradhiwas 17, it seemed only fitting that I should enquire about her duties as a manager, and her company’s involvement as one of the team’s official sponsors. Since I know already from the press material that Chef Panuvit will incorporate a few Thai ingredients into the dishes, I naturally ask if Kad Kokoa chocolate will be on that list.
“You bet!” she answers with a laugh, as she goes on to tell me how chocolate actually played a pivotal role in getting her involved with Bocuse d’Or Thailand in the first place.
“My husband and I participated in a chocolate event in France, back in 2018, and that’s where we first met Panuvit,” she explains, adding that at that time the young chef had just enrolled in the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon. “We kept in touch, and then later we met Chef Olivier in Bangkok at a four-hands dinner at J’Aime by Jean-Michel Lorain. We talked about what he’s doing with Bocuse d’Or Thailand and that’s how we found out Panuvit was part of the current team.”
Nuttaya has been helping with the team’s management since 2020, and her various responsibilities include budgeting, preparing press material, and finding suppliers. “I’m also responsible for coordinating the designers and printers for the books that Panuvit will present at the event, which is a part of the competition. You have to submit the recipes to the judges. The book’s about 20-30 pages long.”
Another of her tasks is to involve the team in goodwill type events. Back in May they prepared around 600 boxed meals for the local ‘Food For Fighters’ campaign; a crowdfunded initiative involving some 30 restaurant owners, food suppliers, and others who help feed overworked hospital staff during this critical time (while also allowing participating restaurant employees to earn much needed daily wage).
At the end of July Chef Panuvit returned to Lyon, where he’s wrapping up his studies at Institut Paul Bocuse and working part-time at the one-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gastronomique Christian Têtedoie. Pretty soon though he’ll be joined by the full Bocuse d’Or Thailand team, which numbers 12 in total; on hand to help out backstage, find certain ingredients, and make sure everything runs smoothly.
Nuttaya reveals that the menu – four dishes in all, plus one chocolaty dessert – includes a Massaman-style ragout, prepared using an oyster blade cut of beef, served with rice, lemongrass soya sauce, mushroom, and bergamot leaves. She also points out that this year’s event will have a unique pandemic-related twist, as all chefs will be required to make something a little extra.
“He has to create three items for a takeaway box,” she says, sharing my amusement at the idea. “It’s the first time it’s been done, and I think that it’s very creative. We’re making our takeaway box in the Thai way, to look like a hand-crafted woven basket.”
Adding considerable monetary backing to the whole operation is the Singha Corporation, the team’s main corporate sponsor – “They fully support us, without hesitation,” remarks Nuttaya – while the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) contributes by handling certain travel and promotional details. And while not an official sponsor it’s clear that the culinary arts programme at Dusit Thani College also plays a significant part, since Chef Panuvit is a graduate, Chef Thanathip is currently a student there, and coach Jatuporn is a part-time professor.
As for Olivier Castella, who hails from France, his illustrious career has seen him working in some of the finest kitchens in Europe, and even, for a time, as private chef for Baron Von Zitzewitz in Monaco. In the decade he’s been in Thailand he’s held executive chef posts at Aldo’s Bistro, Artur restaurant, and the property development company Siam Sindhorn, but he’s also worked as a consultant, a cooking show judge, and a private chef. Through it all he’s dedicated considerable time to fostering young culinary talent, including five years as the President of Les Disciples d’Escoffier Thailand. Since 2011 he’s been the President of Bocuse D’Or Thailand, which grew from an idea he and Chef Jatuporn conceived together – proposing that Thai chefs should receive the training needed to show their considerable skills in international competitions.
This desire to put Thailand on the world gastronomy stage is also shared by Nuttaya and her husband. “We have the same mission,” she says. “We want to promote Thai food and produce in the international arena. That’s why we all work together.”
When it comes to Kad Kokoa’s own global recognition, they’ve won many accolades, including a recent gold medal at this year’s Agence Pour la Valorisation des Produits Agricoles (AVPA) awards in France for their Chumphon Single Origin 70% Dark Chocolate (in the ‘Chocolates Processed at Origin’ category). Meanwhile, back in Bangkok their chocolate is now being featured as part of the delicious desserts menu at Chim Chim restaurant, at the Siam@Siam Design Hotel, and Nuttaya shares with me that plans are in the works for a second Kad Kokoa café to open on Sukhumvit Soi 31 in the near future.
Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid crisis means Nuttaya and Paniti won’t be able to travel to France to cheer everyone on, but they will be watching from home – as can you – via the live stream at www.bocusedor.com.