The Renaissance Man

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White tablecloths, dishes sprinkled with truffle, and an impressive back bar. Thonglor’s quiet, French-inspired garden haven, Surface, is a celebration of the finer things in life and stands in stark difference—in terms of fare—from its “nose to tail” Isaan-style sister restaurant, 100 Mahaseth. But leave it to Chalee Kader—a French-trained, half-Thai, half-Indian, American-educated chef— to successfully execute both ventures.

Surface, Kader’s first restaurant in Bangkok, is a less stuffy nod towards his affinity with French cuisine and his time working as the chef for the French Embassy in Bangkok along with several other stints at some of the city’s top French establishments. Now seven years strong, the Bangkok establishment is still teeming with people hungry for Kader’s comforting dishes, from Himawari Gyu Chuck sliders to Oyster soaked in dashi over noodles.

But across town, the decidedly cool chef has crowds lining up for comfort food of an entirely different sort. Brain, tripe, bone marrow—100 Mahaseth’s menu pays homage to the forgotten food of Thailand’s northeast.

Nose-to-tail really relates to how our indigenous people have been eating, and it’s a style that has been almost completely lost when brought to Bangkok.

“I wanted to highlight all the produce and flavour that comes from that area in a restaurant that is authentic yet approachable.” Opened in early 2017 with dedication and purpose, the restaurant has rocked Bangkok’s food scene. Dishes like fermented pork ribs and grilled oxtail pack a serious flavour punch. “This is food that we all love to eat. Everyone in the kitchen understands the food because they are from Thailand’s northeast, which I think has added to the success of 100 Mahaseth.”

But refined dishes of snowfish hijiki angel hair and hardy bowls of spicy beef offal soup don’t mark the end of Kader’s culinary boundaries. Surface and 100 Mahaseth are just two of eight restaurants he has opened in Bangkok since 2011. Popular establishments like Holy Moly (where calorie bombs like caramel and camembert cheese stuffed puff pastry bites are the lighter options on the menu), Chinese-style hot pot joint Mrs Wu, and drinking holes Beer Bridge and Bad Motel all belong to Kader. Not to mention that the renaissance man even started one of Bangkok’s coolest sneaker shops, Knock BKK (which, for the record, doubled as a restaurant).

With so many ventures under his belt, it’s easy to imagine that Kader’s love for cooking would become fogged by the demanding business aspect of starting your own restaurant. However, Kader has held on to what brings him the most joy. “To me, cooking is an art. It is still a huge pleasure for me,” says Kader. “When you get older, there are, of course, pressures to make something of your work, but I have always treated cooking as something I am passionate about. Sometimes you just can't mix passion and numbers.”

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There is an incredibly chilled-out and humble air about Chalee Kader, making his impressively flavourful food that much more endearing. Despite the massive success of all his outlets, he still can be found most days in the kitchens of either 100 Mahaseth or Surface, apron-on, cooking tool-in-hand with no less dedication than he had when he began his career so many years ago.