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The role of King Bhumibol’s Royal Projects in Bangkok’s fine-dining revolution

The rise of Bangkok as a global culinary capital would not have been possible without the superlative produce of the Royal Projects. 

By Wanvida Jiralertpaiboon | Oct 05, 2017

  • The role of King Bhumibol’s Royal Projects in Bangkok’s fine-dining revolution
    King Bhumibol visits Huai Hong Krai Royal Development Study Center in 1984
In November 2017, the first edition of the Bangkok Michelin Guide comes out. While Hong Kong and Singapore have had Michelin guidebooks since 2008 and 2016, respectively, it has been said for years that Bangkok does not have enough high-caliber fine-dining restaurants to fill one. All that has changed. With high-profile events like San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants now listing as many restaurants in Bangkok as in Singapore, this city has officially arrived on the global fine-dining scene. 
 
Nahm
 
Places like Mandarin Oriental’s Le Normandie, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and J’aime are producing French cuisine of a standard that rivals the world’s best; Thai restaurants like Nahm and Bo.Lan are taking an uncompromising approach to age-old Thai recipes; and young, inventive chefs at places like Canvas, Bunker and Gaa are defining their own take on local produce. In all of their kitchens, you will find ingredients of the highest quality drawn from HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s pioneering Royal Projects. Thanks to the king’s initiatives in the North of Thailand to grow high-value, low-yield crops, this country now produces superlative local crops more commonly associated with cooler environments like Europe or Japan. That in turn means Bangkok chefs can shop locally while fulfilling the Michelin inspectors’ no. 1 criteria: quality produce.  
 
In an effort to discourage opium cultivation in the North and elevate living standards of hill-tribe people, His Majesty introduced a series of permaculture initiatives from 1969 onwards. Working in league with Kasetsart University, he figured out a way to profitably grow peaches and other winter fruits in the hilly, temperate northern regions of Thailand. Forty-eight years later and the Royal Projects have not only successfully eradicated opium poppy cultivation in the region, but also expanded to 39 development centers and four research stations, exporting their produce to Singapore, Myanmar and Hong Kong.  
 
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
 
“I heard about the Royal Projects back when I was living in France,” says Olivier Limousin, the head chef of Bangkok’s branch of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. When helming Robuchon’s flagship London restaurant, Limousin achieved two Michelin stars for the business. “The reputation of the Royal Projects produce is really that strong. When I told my friends I would be working here, they said I had to go there.” 
 
It’s not only vegetables and fruits that the Royal Projects produce, either. Sturgeons are being bred in order to harvest local caviar, while its crayfish provide a sustainable alternative to lobster. The Royal Projects are also the only initiatives in the world outside of France where they rear Bresse chickens, much acclaimed for their succulent meat. 
 
“We currently have the Royal Projects Bresse chicken on our menu at L’Atelier, which our customers like very much,” says Limousin, who also points to the number of Royal Projects ingredients that his pastry kitchen relies on. “We use their organic eggs and seasonal fruits during winter.”
 
Chef Amerigo Sesti
 
Chef Amerigo Sesti heads the kitchen of J’aime by Jean-Michel Lorain. His restaurant also comes from a Michelin-starred lineage, with the original Jean-Michel Lorain restaurant in the central region of France currently holding two stars. Like Limousin, he is banking on the quality of Royal Projects produce to win him a star in Michelin’s debut Bangkok guide.  
 
“I personally like the nature of the Royal Projects for what it has done over the last four decades,” says Sesti. “It has brought human civilization back, and created a true community with a deep and harmonic communion with nature.” 
 
This year, Sesti was one of the headline chefs in the Angkhang Research Station’s annual Gourmet Tour event, during which the top chefs from Bangkok hold a lavish outdoor banquet in the temperate northern mountains. “It was an amazing experience,” says the eager chef. “We remastered one of the new recipes from Mr Lorain, adjusting the recipe by using sturgeon fish and an amazing selection of blossoms and herbs from the station, which we use depending on the season.” 
 
Seasonality is hugely important for any restaurant with Michelin ambitions. Filipino-American chef Arnie Marcella heads the kitchen at Bunker, a restaurant that broke new ground for Bangkok when it opened in 2016, offering creative, Asian-influenced small plates that also draw from modern American dining trends. He has also just launched a new tasting menu that’s all about the available produce on any given day, and relies heavily on the diversity which the Royal Projects can provide year-round in order to achieve that goal. 
 
Chef Arnie Marcella
 
“The seasons for certain ingredients here are different to the seasons in other countries,” says Marcella. “The growing seasons can be shorter, longer. That’s tricky for chefs because you don’t always get to use what you want—you can get excited about something then go back to the market and find it’s all gone.” 
 
Traditional summer berries like strawberries, for example, reach their peak in Thailand in November, at the end of the rainy season and as the temperature begins to cool, while peaches are at their most delicious in March.
 
“It offers huge variety,” says Marcella. “And the quality gets better and better each year. It is inevitably limited by the weather, but flaws in the produce also indicate that it’s grown in the purest way. I grew up around farms and gardening. When you really know how to take care of your plants, you understand the impact that little changes in climate can make. That’s the same feeling I get working with the Royal Projects. Plus, the system is driven by positive motives—to support hill-tribe economies and to motivate other farms to produce at a higher level.”
 
Canvas
 
In the next two years, the Royal Projects also plan to introduce their own species of sweet strawberries, named Praradchatan 88, along with other new crops like quinoa, blueberries, Chinese kale and lingzhi mushrooms.
 
None of this would have been possible without the help of a chef from the very beginning. Back in 1969, when the Royal Projects were first starting out, the royal household approached Norbert Kostner, the Italian head chef of Bangkok’s prestigious Mandarin Oriental hotel, to guide them on what could best be grown in Thailand for use in the kitchens of fine-dining restaurants.
 
“When I first went up to the Royal Projects, there was almost nothing,” says the larger-than-life chef, who 40 years later is still at the hotel. “So that summer I went to Italy to shop for seeds. When the owner of the shop heard that the seeds were to help people in Thailand, he refused to let me pay. Some seeds grew, some did not. But it was a start.” 
 
Doi Angkhang 
 
Today, the Royal Projects offer over 500 varieties of fruit, vegetables and livestock. They have successfully eradicated opium production from the north of Thailand. They have spread from Doi Angkhang in Thailand’s north to initiatives across the entire country, supported by research facilities that continually study new crops that will grow in Thailand’s climate.
 
The slopes of the Royal Agricultural Station in Doi Angkhang are a world away from the fine-dining restaurants of Bangkok, yet the two are essential to one another. Without the Royal Projects, the city’s most ambitious chefs would not have the local produce capable of satisfying the toughest critics in the world. Without the city’s most ambitious chefs, the Royal Projects wouldn’t have a platform to let diners from around the world sample their uncompromising produce in expert hands. And without King Bhumibol’s incredible foresight, neither would ever have achieved their growing global reputations.  

Essentials

Bo.lan

24 Sukhumvit Soi 53, 02-260-2962. Open Tue-Fri 6pm-10:30pm; Sat-Sun 12pm-2:30pm, 6pm-10:30pm. www.bolan.co.th

Bunker

118/2 Sathorn Soi 12, 02-234-7749. Open Sun-Wed 5:30pm-1am; Thu-Sat 5:30pm-2am. www.bunkerbkk.com

Canvas

113/9-10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, 099-614-1158. Open Sun-Thu 6pm-midnight; Fri-Sat 6pm-12:30pm. www.canvasbangkok.com

Gaa

68/4 Soi Lang Suan, 091-419-2424. Open daily 6pm-11:30pm. www.fb.com/gaabangkok

J’Aime by Jean-Michaellorain

U Sathorn Bangkok, 105/1 Soi Ngam Duphli, Sathorn Rd., 02-119-4899. Open daily noon-2:30pm, 6pm-10pm. www.jaimebangkok.com

L’Atelier De Joel Robuchon

5/F, Mahanakorn Cube, 96 Narathiwat Ratchanakarin Rd., 02-001-0698. Open daily 11:30am-2pm,6:30pm-10pm.

Nahm

COMO Metropolitan, 27 Sathon Road, 02-625-3388. Open Mon-Fri 12pm-2pm; daily 7pm-10:30pm. www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm

 

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