How One Woman Went from Fine Dining to Flipping Gourmet Burgers in Bangkok

Panida Paethanom, a.k.a. Chef Poupée, grew up in a family of cooks and worked in some of Bangkok's top kitchens, including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok. But she gave it up to start a food stall (now a restaurant) specializing in delicious burgers...

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Sep 14 2016, 4:00pm

"I always thought I would be something else, but it turns out cooking's in my blood," says Panida Paethanom, or as just about everyone calls her, Chef Poupée. I'm sitting across the wooden counter in the narrow space that serves as both her dining room and open kitchen. Decorations are simple: a small Buddhist shrine wedged in the corner and two chalkboards, one scrawled with notes and doodles from customers. She's dressed in a crisp collared shirt with a smear of red lipstick and a side-fade she's perpetually changing. Born and raised in Bangkok, she didn't own a passport until the age of 21, but speaks with deliberate, barely accented English. She smiles, then adds, "I just couldn't stop."

At only 27 years old, she's already the head chef and co-owner of her own restaurant, Burgers and Bangers, set off of Sukhumvit Road, the permanent traffic snarl that snakes through Bangkok's core. As the name suggests, the place sticks to just two things and does them well. Burgers come in varieties like pork and blue cheese or lamb slicked with coarse mustard and piled high with Brie and caramelized onions. "Bangers" are house-made Lincolnshire or Cumberland sausages served with a purée that tastes like an emulsion of equal parts butter and potatoes. It's hardly the only fancy burger joint in town, but few, if any, boast a chef with this level of fine dining street cred who makes everything from scratch. (Except ketchup, because why would you do that?)

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The menu at Burgers & Bangers. All photos by the author.

It's also a rare survival story of a small Thai business that beat the odds and survived the crush of gentrification. After working her way up to some of the city's top kitchens, Poupée quit her job as a chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok to open a stall in a popular night market in the quiet On Nut neighborhood. While most vendors were selling noodles and som tum (papaya salad), she was dishing out burgers, sweet potato fries, and mac 'n' cheese. Though she had no money for marketing, word of mouth spread, and after a few months customers were traveling out of the city center for dinner. When the announcement came that the night market would be demolished to make way for luxury condos, she and the other vendors had just two weeks to clear out. I stopped by for a conversation about going from street food to Michelin-worthy dining, starting over from scratch, and why everyone needs a little bit more bacon in their life.

MUNCHIES: How did you start cooking? Panida Paethanom: My family sells street food, so I was always helping them. My mom would say, "Here, come pound the curry paste and then you can go play." I have this tiny scar from sharpening knives from when I was five. My grandmother showed me how to do it properly, even though I was so young. She taught me so many things, the real things. We're a chef family and we all love to cook, but my granny is passionate about it.

When did you decide to do this professionally and how did you go about it? I wanted to take the full culinary course at Dusit Thani College, but it was too expensive, so I just did a three-month one. They always tell you, "You're the best because you've gone to the top culinary school." Then when you go to the real world though, it's like, "You know nothing, Jon Snow." [Laughs] Really!

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What do you mean? The theory that you learn in school doesn't always work when you're in the field. I was kind of big-headed when I got to my first restaurant [in Koh Samui]. I remember talking to another staff member, saying, "That guy is shit." And she was really honest with me, because we were close. She said, "No, you're shit. Look at that, you haven't cleaned up after yourself." That was the day when I looked at myself and I started to change. I realized I wasn't as good as I thought I was and I really started to learn from the chef and my coworkers.

You've worked at some pretty impressive kitchens in Bangkok, including the Grand Hyatt Erawan's Tables and Le Beaulieu. I feel like a lot of what I've achieved in my life is about me doing it myself. I used to just walk past [the] Hyatt and look at it and think how nice it would be to work in a high-end hotel. And then one day I thought, What do you have to lose? So I just went in and dropped my CV. The chef was actually impressed. He was like, "Do you know anyone here? Did you just walk in out of the blue?" And I was like, "Yeah." And he said, "You're not nervous because I'm the head chef and I'm a foreigner?" And I wasn't. So right away, he called the director of HR and said, "You need to talk to this girl. You're going to like her."

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What's the hardest part about cooking? Working in the kitchen is like a video game. You have to always think. You're moving physically, but your brain is active. You can't just go blank for a second, because you fuck things up. But it's fun like that.

What's it like working in the kitchen at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok? I never dreamed I'd get a job there, so at first I didn't even try. Everything in a kitchen like that is different. To chop an onion, you don't just chop it. You peel it, layer by layer, and then cut each one at a time. For this one dish with chives, we had to count how many we put on there and each one had to be exactly five millimeters. Robuchon himself came to the restaurant one time, which was amazing. I was poaching an egg and he was like, "Good job." [Laughs] I flipped out.

It's an awfully prestigious job. What made you want to start a burger place instead? I was proud to tell people that I worked at Robuchon, but I always wanted to start something on my own. I lived in On Nut at the time and I used to go to the market there. I used to joke with my girlfriend that we should just do something there, because a lot of Westerners go there. At first we tried selling boeuf bourguignon. Big fail. But our second try with the burger was a big success.

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I mean, who doesn't like burgers? It's something easy, something people know. Of course, it's something people don't expect, to be able to have a real burger there. The thing is, making a burger is not difficult, but people who cook at this level usually don't think of doing burgers. At first, we ordered the brioche buns, but they weren't good enough and they were expensive. So I made them myself and it came out better. No one expected that—if you go to most of the fancy burger places in town, you can't get homemade buns, but at the street market for less than Bt200 ($6 US), you get fresh ones.

Weren't you scared that it might not work? I think a lot of people are scared to do something different. We started from nothing, from zero. We were cleaning the floor at the market and buying second-hand equipment. But we went for it.

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… and then the night market closed and you were given a two-week eviction notice. The two weeks' notice… we kind of knew, but we thought it would be at least a year. Before the last day, a lot of people gave me business cards and said, "I'd like to work with you." I figured I would make it happen somehow, get a loan or something. I wasn't scared at all, even when everyone else was panicking. I knew that I would be able to do something.

It seems to have worked. We've been open for almost five months. Everything has been happening so quickly. Sometimes it's almost overwhelming. I built this from nothing. And sometimes when the restaurant is full, I look around and think that all of these people came from their homes or workplaces or wherever just to be here. One time I had someone write on our wall that they traveled two-and-a-half hours to have the lamb burger.

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I remember the night market stall. This is different, but I feel like you've kept some of the low-key vibe. People like it when I'm myself here. Bangkok has too much pretentiousness already. That's part of the reason why I didn't want to charge more. All of our money goes toward ingredients, not decorations. If you can't eat it, I don't want it.

How's it feel to have made it this far? It's an amazing feeling, even better than telling people I worked at a fancy restaurant. There, I was always living in someone else's shadow. But here, maybe it's small, but it's mine. Everything they like is my creation.

Thanks so much for speaking with me.