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What's a big reason for Bangkok’s thriving dining scene? Female chefs

Just over 6% of Michelin-starred kitchens globally are run by women; but in Bangkok the high rated restaurants are helmed by female chefs

(Left) Chef Chudaree Debhakam of Baan Tepa; and chef Garima Arora of Gaa.
(Left) Chef Chudaree Debhakam of Baan Tepa; and chef Garima Arora of Gaa. (Photos: (Left) @tamchudaree; and press hand-out)

When the lights dimmed on the 2024 Michelin Guide Thailand awards in Bangkok on Dec. 13, history had been made. Chudaree Debhakam of Baan Tepa had become the first Thai female chef to lead a two-Michelin-star restaurant and Garima Arora the first female Indian chef to clinch two stars for her dining room Gaa.

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Both women are very much in the minority, not just within Bangkok’s culinary community but in the international food world. Just over 6% of Michelin-starred establishments globally—one, two and three stars combined—are currently helmed by female chefs. This translates to 219 restaurants out of 3,470 restaurants as of Jan. 18, according to Bloomberg analysis of Michelin Guide data.

The underrepresentation of women is also reflected in the latest World’s Best 50 restaurants awards. Only four female chefs are highlighted on the list—Pía León in Lima; Ana Roš in Kobarid, Slovenia; Leonor Espinosa in Bogata; and Elena Reygadas in Mexico City—according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Even as professional kitchens draw in more women, Arorais, 37, is blunt about the demands of the industry. “The statement that says ‘women can have it all’ is a complete lie,” says the chef and mother of an 8-month-old. “You always have to give up one part of your life to be present in the other.”

Although many of Bangkok’s famed street stalls are operated by female cooks, they rarely get attention. It’s only in the last seven or eight years that Thai women have begun to get notable recognition as chefs.

The 31-year-old Debhakam, who also received Michelin’s 2024 Young Chef award for the Thailand rankings, believes the recognition can empower women in professional kitchens who don’t see obvious paths for advancement. “Having women in the kitchen changes the dynamics,” she says. “There is competitive energy, but females do things a little bit differently.” 

Before opening her own restaurant, Debhakam worked in top-tier kitchens, including the revered Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York.  She then returned to Bangkok to transform her grandparents’ two-story residence into Baan Tepa. “We are trying to push the boundaries and see how far we can go using local Thai ingredients,” says the chef, whose farm-to-table menu features dishes such as her signature Dong Dang noodles with black squid ink. 

A $36 Million Impact

The ascendancy of women is one part of the country’s burgeoning culinary scene. 

The Michelin Guide published its inaugural Thailand listing in 2017. Since then, its impact on the country’s culinary tourism has resulted in an estimated 1.3 billion baht (more than $36 million) increase for Thailand’s tourism sector according to Thapanee Kiatphaibool, the governor of Thailand’s Tourism Authority.

“The landscape of fine dining in Thailand has evolved so much,” Debhakam says. Besides more establishments headed by women, the influx of international chefs is also elevating Bangkok’s scene, she says. Transplants, such as the famed Indian-born cook Gaggan Anand at his eponymous restaurant and  American chef Riley Sanders of Canvas, are introducing younger chefs  to international ingredients and techniques, like sous vide, and dry-aging beef for dishes like the stir-fry Pad Krapow. “International chefs and diners coming through [are] inspiring local chefs to step up a bit and then look at Thai cuisine in a different sort of way and more experimental,” says Debhakam.

Global Evolution

Female Thai chefs are ascendant outside the country, too. In San Francisco, Pim Techamuanvivithas been putting seasonal Thai food in the spotlight for more than a decade at her restaurant, Kin Khao: It’s received one Michelin star every year since 2015. Nari, her newer, modern eatery, also in the Bay Area, got its first Michelin star in 2023.

“Chefs are going for something beyond the norm of Thai American restaurants like basil chicken,” says Techamuanvivit. They’re also making diners aware that Thai food can have a higher check average. “There are restaurants that are expensive–pushing the envelope. In Thailand, you see the same sort of transition.”Part of that evolution is the higher-quality Thai ingredients that US chefs are using, says Techamuanvivit. Herbs and vegetables that were once hard to find, such as red basil and white turmeric, are more readily available and enlivening curry pastes and stir fries. (The same expanding pantry has helped improve Thai restaurants in London.) 

More Female Butchers, Please 

Techamuanvivit has tips for enhancing the landscape for women in kitchens. They include eliminating gender distinctions in awards and focusing on young talent. “We don't want a separate category for chefs. We are all chefs. As more and more female chefs get recognised, we already normalised that.” says Techamuanvivit, a blogger-turned-restaurateur.Debhakam agrees that having a category based on gender can do more harm than good. She also praises the changes that women are making in the food world. “The industry is already shifting toward having more platforms for more female chefs. Recognizing me for winning the Young Chef award this year or having me and Garima [Arora]both get two stars, both female,” she says  “I think stuff like this is slowly happening so that younger cooks have a chance to see what their future could be like.” Thai-born Food Network star Suchanan Aksornnan, also known as Chef Bao Bao, is the chef-owner of Baoburg in Brooklyn, New York. She also wants to foster young talent in a working environment that’s better than the one she experienced. “Sometimes, new cooks express doubts. They have rarely seen successful female chefs running profitable businesses. So you get in the kitchen with them and teach them how things are done.” One example? A kitchen job like butchering, that was formerly done only by men. “Show them how to properly butcher big carcasses,” she says, with a smile. 

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