(Part 1) How co-owner and Head Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget redefined progressive Thai cuisine and rebranded 80/20 BKK successfully

Co-owner and Head Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget
“My dream since Day 1 is to create tasting menus based on Thai ingredients. All I want to do is to elevate Thai cuisine.” – Head Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget in his kitchen

Co-owner and Head Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget wants to achieve many milestones with the launch of his newly elevated 80/20 BKK. Bangkok’s rising star chef is in the midst of turning a new chapter in his life, both personally and professionally, and his insatiable passion for rediscovering Thai ingredients has been ignited further. He aims to make a difference by changing the perception of Southeast Asian cuisine, which is often perceived as inferior, and building an institution that encourages young chefs to continue elevating Thai cuisine to its fullest potential. 

Bangkok, relaunched in 2018
Progressive Thai fine dining, single storey shophouse
5.5 (extension of existing space)
1052-1054, 26 Charoen Krung Rd, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

Key Learnings 

  1. When creating your menu, pay attention to the smaller details. Chef Joe and his team take into consideration the weather. If it is summer, 60% of the tasting menu will either consist of cold or room temperature food. If it is pre-monsoon season with unpredictable weather (the current menu), he focuses more on local Thai herbs that help to improve the immune system.
  2. The dining room temperature at 80/20 BKK is always at room temperature, despite the weather conditions, in order for guests to enjoy a meal at its optimum.
  3. Pay attention to smaller details and be bold in pushing boundaries. Chef Joe’s lifelong mission is to elevate the value of Southeast Asian food. What is the value you give to your cuisine?

Tell us about the transition to the elevated 80/20 BKK. 

It started with four of us. We started with a regular bistro with an à la carte menu, and then two left before the new direction and renovation. At the same time, we were exploring partnering with Choti and Debby of Foodie Collection – they were interested in investing. The timing was perfect.

My vision for 80/20 BKK is always to push boundaries. We pay attention to the smaller details. That is what makes us different from the rest. When we first opened four years ago, we were nobody. We started as a regular neighbourhood bistro to attract footfall. Gradually over the years, we evolved and introduced food that we always wanted to create. 

What is the current concept of 80/20 BKK? 

Progressive modern Thai cuisine. Our tasting menu depends on seasonal ingredients on hand. We do not follow recipes. We try to highlight “the moment” of Thai ingredients. We want to have the flexibility to create dishes with what we have. 

People always question what determines the price of tasting menus. Can you take us through what takes into consideration in pricing yours? 

Perception I want to change the perception of Southeast Asian food – why does it have to be cheap? In Thailand, we have a type of mushroom from North East that harvests only once a year. It is challenging to find, but it only cost me 200 THB per kg. That’s more valuable than any of the expensive stuff.

Compare this to white truffle, which I can easily pick up the phone and get a delivery for the next day. It costs me 10,000 THB per kg. Do you see what is the issue here? Why do we put so much value on something that is not even ours? 

If the farmers or producers pay attention to the potential of the product, then they can cost it however they want.  For artists, the paint is the same cost, but all artists charge differently.

Preparation work For chefs, it is the value we give to our cuisine. For us, many dishes are à la minute. Gazpacho (cold soup) is made new every day, and we discard the old batch.Our seafood is fresh. We have a tank behind the counter to keep it. Shrimp ceviche is made while the shrimps are still moving! It is costly to maintain live seafood. We also have a fermentation lab here in the restaurant. Fish sauce, shrimp paste, miso – we make it all ourselves. Everything takes time.

R&D It took us 11 versions before I was happy with the menu. We are not always successful in our experiments. We do not stop until everything meets my standards.

The other day, my Group PR Manager, Pear was taking notes on our menu. We were only on the second course, and it took her five pages! This tells you why we need seven stations and eleven chefs in our kitchen.

Chef Joe Jantraget, 80/20 BKK

Since ingredients are seasonal, what is your thought process in menu creation? 

We change our menu every three months. It is always experimental. When the team is familiar with the current menu, we start again with a new one. Nothing on the menu is repeated. This keeps the team on their toes.

It always starts with ingredients and the weather. Yes, the environment. If it is summer (around 44 degrees), more than 60% of the dishes are cold or at room temperature. 

In the summer, most restaurants will be blasting their AC to cool their guests down. Not at 80/20 BKK. Think about it; if you walk into a cold room, your body temperature drops, you will feel cold. At that moment, you focus more on how you feel, rather than the meal. 80/20 BKK will always be at perfect room temperature so that our guests can fully experience our food. These little details matter.  

In that sense, your food menu follows a sequence? Tell us more.

I always hit them first with something bold and familiar, like Thai fermented sausage. I will then challenge the palate with something that Thai cuisine does not typically offer, like pickled fish. For me, it does not matter what technique you use or how it looks on the plate – as long as you taste the complexity – it has a different texture, balance like sweet, salty, spicy, bitter. That is Thai cuisine. 

80/20 BKK Fermentation Lab
“Traditional recipes serve as a guide. Most of the ingredients we use cannot be “Googled”. Even locals wouldn’t know. We rely on traditional recipes to learn about food pairings, connecting the dots. We have our own fermentation lab and started a flavour bible, recording and compiling what we have discovered.” – Head Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget

What is the direction of your new menu? 

Weather is unpredictable during the pre-monsoon season. People will get sick quickly. I will focus more on local Thai herbs that can heal and strengthen their immune system. We believe that food is medicine in Thai cuisine. I want them to feel good when they leave. Full menu here

Pre-monsoon menu 80/20 BKK
“Our pre-monsoon season menu still consist of small bites just like our previous summer menu. We focus on using a lot of local herbs.” Morning Glory, Lotus Stem, Green Mango, Herbs Emulsion, Fermented Fish

There is no such thing as right or wrong recipes. Every dish has its own story. Every household has its own version of Pad Kaprow. The purpose of food should be positive and bring people together.

Chef Joe Jantraget, 80/20 BKK

Tofu Nam Khing
Pastry chef, Chef Saki’s creation, Tofu Nam Khing. Silky job’s tears milk tofu served with warm aromatic tea, made with job’s tear, perilla seed, barley, koji, white turmeric, peppercorn & dried banana chillies. Garnished with sugarcane tuile & mung beans natto.

What is your vision? 

What defines us as Thai chefs? Are we those chefs that follow old recipes (Green Curry, anyone?) or chefs that push boundaries? How many of us know Thai ingredients well?  I would say only 5% of us. Maybe 2% know a lot more at the back of their hands. I would probably reach 10% in my lifespan. That is how much potential Thai ingredients have. I cannot change anything by myself. Together with the younger generation, we can.

For me, it does not matter what technique you use or how it looks on the plate – as long as you taste the complexity – it has a different texture, balance like sweet, salty, spicy, bitter. That is Thai cuisine. 

Chef Joe Jantraget, 80/20 BKK

In Part 2 (coming soon mid this week), Chef Joe shared about how he built his stellar kitchen team from scratch again when the entire previous team left. He also shared about what makes a great chef and his advice for the younger generation. 

-This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Words and photography by Theresa Burhan. Edited by Fatima Al Rayes. Food photography by Foodie Collection


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