Is it possible to mention Chinatown without talking about its food? Of course not, and that’s why, with ASAI Bangkok Chinatown just open, we’re excited to tell you all about JAM JAM Eatery & Bar and its menu, curated by Paolo Vitaletti and Jarrett Wrisley. Here are the two legendary chefs on the restaurant’s concept, and how it’s connected to our vision of sustainability in the community.
Please introduce yourself
Jarrett: My name is Jarrett Wrisley. I’m originally from the US, I’ve lived in Asia for about 20 years, Bangkok for 12. Originally I started my career as a writer; I wrote about food across Asia, and when I moved to Bangkok, I met Paolo. He was cooking at the Shangri-La hotel and we became friends. I moved to Bangkok permanently in 2008. We opened a restaurant called Appia in March 2014.
Paolo: I’m Paolo Vitalletti, I’m from Rome, Italy. I left Rome a long time ago. It was an escape more than a journey in the beginning, but then I became passionate about food. I wanted to study to become a cook because it was something that gave me the chance to travel and work in good places. I was working here and there around the world, and in 2007 I ended up here.
You’ve both been in Bangkok a long time; what’s your favourite neighbourhood?
Paolo: I think Chinatown. There is so much craft here: people are still doing craft, and that’s what I really appreciate. It’s the only place you still find small shops with 70-year-old people that do craft. It’s very inspiring. One of the reasons I picked Bangkok to move to was this area.
Jarrett: I’m gonna agree with Paolo. I love this neighbourhood. Before Thailand, I lived in China for eight or nine years – I studied in Beijing. It’s interesting for me to see not only how many religious and culinary traditions that were lost in China are preserved here, but also how they transform into something that’s both Thai and Chinese. There are also interesting old restaurants where you can find dishes you can’t find anywhere else in Bangkok.
What was the brief for ASAI Chinatown?
Jarrett: We’re making comfort food that reflects Bangkok and what people in Bangkok want to eat, but that also has a little bit of global familiarity, and that’s just the flavours that Paolo and I like. Because we cook Italian, Mediterranean and Thai food, it’s easy for us to create an appealing menu that represents what people are eating in Bangkok right now, which is primarily Italian, Mediterranean, Thai and Chinese food.
Paolo: ASAI Chinatown is located in a place with a blend of cuisine. This is the historical place for immigration in Thailand; a lot of Chinese ethnic groups merged here. Chinatown is diverse both in terms of food and culture. That’s the concept that ASAI Chinatown gave us: to find these small bits and pieces of culture and put them together, on a hotel-structured menu – you need to have a comfort food that the guests will like, but with a twist based on the area that you’re in.
What is your position in the restaurant? Are you the chefs?
Paolo: No, Noom “Charrinn Singdaechakarn” is the chef, while we micromanage! We two come up with concepts, then we sit down with her and talk to see how we can implement, since she’s the one who implements. She has great cooking skills and we work as a team together.
Jarrett: Paolo and I like to work with people that we’ve worked with before, and I’ve known Nim for a long time. She worked with me in Hong Kong for a while. She’s a very able Thai cook and a great wok cook.
Paolo: I agree that she’s a very capable chef, and she loves what she’s doing. She also has a taste for everything: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese. It’s very important for someone working in Chinatown to have had experience in China. You need to understand the culture, the dishes and the perception people have towards Chinese food as well. It’s gonna be especially important in the future when the borders are open and the people from China and Hong Kong come.
How did you create the menu?
Paolo: We went around Chinatown, trying to understand the flavours of the area. When you come here, the first thing you feel is the smell of Chinese spices that form the basis of Chinese food. That’s what influenced us.
Jarrett: We looked to the neighbourhood for ingredients, and one of the best ingredients that we found was the beautiful smoked ducks that are made right outside. They cure the ducks and smoke them over the sugar cane that’s already been juiced. So instead of using bacon in our egg benedict, we’ll use the smoked duck. Similarly, we have a classic hollandaise, but we also add a bit of XO sauce. That’s an example of fusing the comfort food people want in a hotel with the products that are available in the neighbourhood.
This means you also helped select the suppliers for the ingredients?
Paolo: Yeah, we did. We also direct all the permanent chefs here to choose the ingredients based on the quality and the ‘zero kilometre’ policy. That is, we choose small and sustainable producers over industrial products. I think it is important. Especially in the time of COVID, it shows, because all the borders are closed, and the only way to sustain ourselves is to sustain the community, and create an economy within it. That, I think, is the philosophy of what we do.
Jarrett: We also have an organic garden right outside, which Noom takes care of. Noom studied at Dusit’s organic farm for a couple of weeks, learning how to grow the herbs that we plan to use on the menu, especially in the Thai food. Let’s be clear, we’re not gonna be growing rosemary out there; it’s gonna be Thai ingredients like lemongrass, holy basil, coriander and spring onions. Herbs from the market unfortunately have the highest amount of pesticides, so avoiding those by growing our own is an additional benefit.
What are the pros and cons of using organic products?
Jarrett: organics is a contentious thing, because it doesn’t fit with the quality standards of agricultural products. I think it’s more important to visit the suppliers – the producers who made the food. If you know the people who are raising your beef or growing your vegetables, that connection is more important than saying “I want organic carrots or tomatoes.” There are lots of ways to represent products that are not exactly truthful or traceable.
Paolo: From the restaurant’s point of view, there are two ways to think about this. As a chef who loves this business, it’s great, because you change all the time. If we have carrots, then you cook with carrots; if you have ducks ready, you cook with ducks. From a consumer’s standpoint, it can be a little bit challenging, because you wouldn’t be able to find something you tasted last week. It’s on us to explain it and give it that added value for this discontinuity. That’s what’s really important. If you communicate, I don’t think it will affect much. Because by communicating, you create a community; you create a message.
Jarrett: I think if you’re talking about profitability and sourcing, you can charge more if you effectively communicate the value of the product to the end consumers. If you say, “I’m using hill tribe organic eggs, and it allows people who used to do opium agriculture to raise chickens instead,” then people will wanna pay more for the eggs. But if you don’t say anything, then neither you or the customers are gonna get any value out of it, because they’ll just think the food is more expensive.
You seem to know Thailand’s food scene so well.
Paolo: Back when we were opening Appia, our first restaurant together, there was a community of young chefs coming back to Thailand, both foreigners and Thai, who wanted to open the new restaurants that Thailand needed. We were in the middle of this melting pot of people that saw Bangkok as an opportunity to show what they learned.
Jarrett: Seven to eight years ago was when the bedrock for Bangkok’s food scene was really being laid down. There were so many people doing interesting stuff, and it was still a cheap place to open a restaurant. Because of that, people had the intellectual freedom to do what they wanted, and then see if it sticks. People were really throwing out interesting stuff. There was a lot of great support and friendship in the F&B community, which was great.
How about right now – how is the food community?
Paolo: I think now with this problem of COVID, many restaurants have closed down, but other stronger ones stay, and because people are stranded here in Bangkok, business is not extremely bad. It’s actually going back to what we like – that is, the community-based business. It’s not waiting for travellers. So I don’t see the present as a big problem.
Jarrett: I think Bangkok has always had a vibrant interesting food scene. Like Paolo said, people are kinda stuck here, so you really need to engage and focus on giving your regulars what they want. We don’t have this revolving door of tourists. Some restaurants on the higher end will struggle for that same reason, while the places where people normally go to and have gone to for years should be okay.
Paolo: It’s even better because it’s a chance to reconnect with your patrons. You remember them and they remember you; you create a fanbase, you get recognition and people come back to those who can keep consistency. It’s like going back to the old style of running a restaurant.
Having seen Chinatown over the years and having worked within it, do you see any changing trends in the area?
Paolo: I think it’s going to change a lot in the future. This area is much more accessible because the communication and the transportation is evolving so much, so it brings a lot of people from other areas of Bangkok. Like, from Sukhumvit, in 10 minutes you are here. So, I think people will invest more in Chinatown, and locals will definitely come up with new and better places.
Jarrett: There are good and bad things that are happening here. Chinatown was always sort of protected by the fact that there was terrible traffic and no public transportation. It was sort of shut off from the rest of Bangkok, which made it special. That’s over. However, I also think that the local Bangkokians’ appreciation for this place has increased, and they want to preserve it in ways that are cool, which 10 to 15 years ago may have not happened – they would have just torn it down and made something new. So, now I’m seeing cool shops and bars that are inspired by mainland China, for example. I think that’s great and gonna happen more and more in this neighbourhood.
A few gems of insight from the two curators behind the magnificent menu at JAM JAM Eatery & Bar, to get you excited to try their locally inspired, sustainable comfort food. Click here for more about your new fave Chinatown dining hotspot or to book your seat.
As for Jarrett and Paolo, the unstoppable duo has a cookbook coming out really soon, so keep an eye out for that.