The first bite of my meal at Bo.lan happened not at the table but in the kitchen. On the September evening we visited the Bangkok restaurant, I sampled a spoonful of warm, savory rice followed by a hit of sweet, mouthpuckering mangosteen. The rice was topped with Plick Ga Glua, a toasted teenage coconut pounded with coconut sugar and salt. Complete opposites served in their simplest forms. This was only a prelude to the multi-dish gastronomy journey to come — a trip through the native flavors of Thailand, executed with Michelin-star precision and an eye for natural forms. One of our six main dishes — a coconut-cream relish of blue swimming crab with local greens and crispy fish cake — was delivered on a tree slab; the third dessert was a smattering of petit fours served with roasted rice tea.
In name, menu, and mission, Bo.lan is a collaboration between chefs and owners Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones. Also wife and husband, Thailand-born Songvisava and Australian-born Jones met while honing their skills in the kitchens of London. After marrying and relocating to Bangkok, they started Bo.lan with the intent to serve Thai food “as it should be,” according to their episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” That means no dumbing down of flavors or curbing of the often-intense heat to acquiesce to foreigners’ preferences. Instead, Songvisava’s and Jones’s menu displays the full force of the country’s complex flavor profiles.
“Thailand is a hospitality country. Whatever you ask, it’s, ‘Yes. I can do that for you,’” Songvisava said during the episode. “Thais have been serving what the customer wants … at my restaurant, we’re not going to do that. We want to show them the real thing.” Every dish at Bo.lan is executed from scratch, and every ingredient is sourced locally.
This has been no easy feat. Songvisava and Jones spent years finding and building relationships with farmers, fishermen, and other purveyors throughout Thailand. Nothing is imported, except for wine. They achieved using only local ingredients years ago, “but the organic part is still a challenge,” Jones told me during our visit. “We’re getting closer and closer to 100 percent — we’re probably around 85 to 90 percent now.” Songvisava said that the often labor-intensive traditional methods they employ — pounding out chili paste, making their own coconut milk — are dying; and that Thai cuisine is in danger of becoming industrialized.
Prior to our meal, which was part of a fam trip hosted by the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau in September, Songvisava and Jones gave our group of journalists a taste of this approach with a hands-on workshop. At one station, we sampled and noted the differences between several varieties of organic Thai bananas and mangoes. At another, we attempted one of the many processes the restaurant team employs to recycle its waste. For example, paper is never thrown away — it’s turned back into beautiful seeded paper that can then be used for business cards and menus.
That’s harder than it sounds. In the restaurant’s outdoor garden, Songvisava had prepped a station for our group to make our own seeded paper. Mixing old receipts with water, I spent several minutes arranging the pulp into a rectangle on top of a framed mesh screen, then squeezed out the excess water with pieces of foam. What’s left looked like a very waterlogged piece of paper. I flipped the frame, but the paper fell apart in clumps. I tried again, this time thinning out the pulp even more. I flip, and it sticks. Success! Well, almost. When we hang the paper to dry, half of it falls to the ground. Songvisava’s neat square, however, hangs on the clothesline intact and ready to dry. This definitely requires some practice — and patience.
Patience is part of their ethos. Take, for example, the multiple keyhole gardens outside that have been lined with wine bottles. This upcycling represents one of Songvisava and Jones’ many creative solutions in pursuit of their goal of making Bo.lan a zero-waste restaurant. They haven’t yet been able to find the right recycling facility for their wine bottles, and they’re currently considering establishing a cooperative with other area restaurants to either recycle or upcycle them. This as-it-comes approach illustrates how the couple tackles sustainability. Some areas are trickier than others, like ingredients that come in plastic packaging.
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“There are still some suppliers that we deal with on a regular basis who want to send things in a plastic bags or plastic-lined cardboard, and it becomes a challenge because they consider anything plastic lined to be multiuse,” said Songvisava. “Therefore, it’s not recyclable…and it gets thrown into a landfill. That’s really frustrating.”
The team at Bo.lan separates food waste and upcycles as much of it as possible, turning it into fertilizer, for example. Used cooking oil gets turned into soap that gets used in the kitchen. They’ve also installed their own water-filtration system, serving water to patrons in their own reusable glass bottles and eliminating plastic water bottle waste in the process. No food goes to a landfill.
The couple actively seeks solutions. For example, the formula for turning cooking oil waste into soap came from a university. When she comes across a challenge, Songvisava said, she tries to talk to people who have expertise in that particular area. In addition to working closely with universities to seek out opinions from teachers and students on projects, they also seek out solutions from such sectors as industrial design, Songvisava said.
Songvisava and Jones would like to put together a reference manual for their team, which, she mused, could also be shared with a wider audience. But, she noted, there isn’t a one-stop shop for designing a zero-waste restaurant from the ground up. “And I don’t think there should be either, because every restaurant faces different challenges and has different aspects that they need to focus on.”
What’s next? “We have a very different goal, and that’s to get the restaurant outside of Bangkok,” said Jones. They want to downsize, going from accommodating 80 guests at present to no more than 15 guests a night. He envisions an entirely off-the-grid, self-sustaining restaurant on a plot of land that can produce its own food and electricity and recycle its waste and water. “I think,” Jones said, that’s “10 to 12 years away.”
Bo.lan is part of Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery, a worldwide collective of 1,300 restaurants in 45 countries selected for their commitment to using organic ingredients and sustainable and ethical practices. Search restaurants by region at the Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery website. Printed regional guides (USA, UK, Australia and World) are also available.