Activism in the Kitchen: Bangkok

Climbing on her soap box to denounce the use of foam packaging or to sing the praises of home-grown recipes, Chef Bo Songvisava sets an example that everyone can follow.

Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava is half of the team behind Bo.lan, the Bangkok restaurant that pioneered a more refined approach to Thai cuisine. With her husband and fellow chef Dylan Jones, she defends Thai tastes, indigenous ingredients, traditional crafts and cooking techniques and recipes that are fading from memory and disappearing from Thai menus. (Not just a contraction of the couple’s first names, “Bo.lan” is also a gentle play on words for the Thai word meaning “old-fashioned”.) Their work has not gone unnoticed, and Bo.lan now sits at number 19 on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Their casual dining restaurant Err has also won praise for transforming humble street food into fashionable bar snacks.

Chef Bo is a fervent environmentalist who never fails to speak out on issues like the proposed coal plants in the south of Thailand. “Krabi is like the most beautiful place in the world,” she enthused. “You have to go to Krabi before the coal plants are built. I try to participate in events where they protest against the coal.” But she knows that opposing the powers that be is an uphill battle. “It’s crazy, it is so slow in Thailand.”

Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones at work

She drew both praise and fire for taking a stand on non-biodegradable polystyrene ahead of the 2017 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony that was held in her home town of Bangkok. In a presentation on spices led by Chef David Thompson, Chef Bo was outraged to see that tasting samples were being laid out for the attendees in foam boxes that will litter the landscape for 400 years or more. When offered the mic during the demonstration, she seized the opportunity to deliver a colorful, explicative-filled harangue that cannot be reprinted in polite company. Some were taken aback and, off the record, organizers expressed their dismay at what was seen as a very personal, inappropriate attack. Chef Bo later apologized both publicly and privately for any offense she may have caused, but stood by her principles.

“I used the opportunity to grab the mic and take the floor,” she said shortly after the incident. “And that needed to be done.”

At a food event “with so many influential chefs, influential press, they should stand up. And if you’re using [foam boxes], I won’t be a part of it.” She reels off possible alternatives: porcelain plates, banana leaves, biodegradable paper. “Whatever. But I can’t sit down and be quiet. I’m crazy enough, I guess,” she laughs.

Yet she doesn’t see herself as an extremist. “I’m not totally eco. Sometimes I still get plastic bags from the market. But if you balance it properly you can use a lot less.”

On the subject of foam boxes however, she is intransigent, even if it is on her own very small scale. When she hosts the popular TV cooking show Kin Yu Kue (Eat Live Be), she insists that no foam boxes be used by the caterers for the crew lunches on set. “Or you’re going to find another host. I am not going to stand for it.”

Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava

Her show is designed to make complex issues like organic practices, sustainability and biodiversity accessible to everyone. Chef Bo describes herself as against “super industrial processed food” and instead favors fresh, natural, seasonal, local food. “We also try to change people’s perception about where and how their food comes from.”

Pla too or Thai short-bodied mackerel is another example Chef Bo gives of a product usually sold in the reprehensible foam containers. But one day she saw sparkling specimens at the market and asked if there was an alternative to foam. “It was December,” she remembers, the height of the season. “I asked the seller and she actually had paper boxes right under her table.” But because they cost 5 baht (about 0.15 USD) more, Bo was the first to ever ask for one. “’Give it to me I’m going to Instagram you everywhere!’” Of course, she recognizes that there are economic realities. “She can’t afford to just give the paper boxes away, but finally I got my mackerel without the foam box.”

Chef Bo sees a clear solution. “The government has to subsidize it. If you want to use plates made from tapioca or sugar cane by-products, the government can subsidize that company rather than the coal power plants down south.”

Her country can do so much more, she says, pointing to the example of Taiwan. “Taiwan is my hero. They stopped giving out free bags years ago, like the UK and other places in Europe. I was watching a TV program about how Taiwan is going to make everything more green, wind, solar cells, everything. My God, why can’t Thailand do the same?”

Bo.lan does its bit. “In the kitchen we use organic as much as possible.” But she doesn’t demand the paperwork that would drive up costs and discourage the farmers. Instead, her approach is trust-based. “No certifications needed. I visit the farms and if I trust that they’re doing organic, I buy from them.”

Dylan Jones

Bo.lan uses solar panels and re-uses water. They up-cycle used cooking oil and turn it into soap. (“All my chefs hate it because it’s extra work for them.”) Lime zests and salt are transformed into a paste that is used as a cleaning product. Coconut husks are fermented and sent to farms as organic pig feed to produce pork that is served in the restaurant.

“We’re trying to be carbon footprint free by 2018, so all these activities are trying offset the gas we use for cooking or the plastic bags from the market because we still have some coming in.”

While there is no Slow Food chapter in Thailand as yet, Chef Bo points to Slow Food as a source of inspiration. “We support the biodiversity of both wild and cultivated plants and animals. We safeguard our culinary heritage by practicing traditional ways of cooking and eating.” She feels the time is right to bring the movement to her country. “People both understand and practice the philosophy of Slow Food so yes, I hope to start a chapter.”

She acknowledges there are obstacles, like membership fees that are still beyond the reach of many people, but she is optimistic that there will be a solution. “Slow Food Bangkok will happen,” she states categorically.

And what does she say to people who accuse her of hijacking somebody else’s show with her outburst? “David Thompson is a smart person and I didn’t mean to attack David personally. I respect him. He is the one who taught me how to cook Thai food.” She and husband Dylan met when they were both cooking in his now closed Nahm restaurant in London.

Ultimately, the boxes were an opportunity. “If the box hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had the chance to talk about the foam boxes. Because it was there, it gave me a window to talk about the issue, so I am really happy to be able to tap into that.”

Chef Bo has no doubts that it’s a fight worth fighting. “Without nature, I can’t cook. And that’s my life.” Defending the environment ensures that “I always have such good things to cook with.”

An abridged version of this article appeared in FoodieS magazine when Chefs Bo and Dylan were participating in this year’s edition of the Ubud Food Festival in Bali, Indonesia.

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