Chef ‘shuffle’ highlights Bangkok’s rise as world-class dining destination

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Gelinaz Shuffle invites world's top chefs to take over each other's kitchens for a night

Three Bangkok restaurants took part in this year's shuffle

CNN  — 

Sven Elverfeld doesn’t get out much.

The German chef, who heads Aqua at the Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg, is not one of those culinary libertines who spend half the year in the skies, leaving their underlings to knock out the tournedos and timbales at home while they stage pop-ups and guest appearances at fun locations abroad.

If he’s away for more than a few days, the Aqua kitchen goes dark – which is maybe one reason why it’s held on to its three Michelin stars since 2009.

But Elverfeld has trusted his team to keep the hobs burning for the best part of a week as he makes the 13-hour trek to Thailand for the second Gelinaz Shuffle, an ambitious, slightly crazy project in which 40 of the world’s top chefs take over each other’s kitchens on the same night.

MORE: Behind the scenes of the Gelinaz Chef Shuffle

Bangkok: World-class dining city?

So while José Avillez from Belcanto in Lisbon shows up in Wolfsburg, Elverfeld takes the reins at Gaggan in Bangkok and Gaggan Anand, the heavy metal guru of molecular Indian cuisine, is having fun at Momofuko Ko in New York City.

The fact that the Shuffle has seized the imagination of Bangkok, the sweltering capital of a nation still classified as “developing,” indicates that something pretty exciting is happening in the kitchens here.

In addition to Gaggan, high-end Thai restaurants Nahm and Bo.Lan, are involved in the event.

International classical and modern techniques have finally come to terms with the flavors and fragrances of Thai cuisine and diners are the winners.

The opening of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in late 2014 was seen by many as a sign that the city had reached a kind of culinary maturity.

Sven Elverfeld takes in the scents at Bangkok's Or Tor Kor market.

A few days before the dinner itself, some of the Gaggan staff take Elverfeld around Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor market.

Tourists come for selfie opportunities against the walls of garlic and lemongrass, or to gape at the squirming seafood.

The chef goes along with the fun, but he’s here to work, chewing thoughtfully on a nub of pomelo, the Asian cousin of a grapefruit.

“We can use this,” he murmurs, crouching in intense negotiation with his assistants over the menu ideas he brought from Germany, tweaking one component, deleting another.

Where is he going to put it?

He grins enigmatically, and goes off to look at wooden foot massagers.

One of the trademarks of Shuffle is that diners don’t know who their chefs will be until they sit down; you get the feeling Elverfeld will be good at the anonymity bit.

MORE: World’s best chefs share their favorite food experiences

A tough, sophisticated crowd

Thailand’s not the only place affected by shifting culinary currents.

After the 2007-8 economic crisis, chefs who might have looked for their next job in New York or Paris went instead to Hong Kong or Tokyo, Singapore or Bali.

Local diners had become more adventurous, taking gastro-tours of Europe and North America and returning to demand the same standards of produce and preparation.

Diners at Gaggan won’t give the guest chef an easy ride just because of the Michelin stardust he trails behind him.

Elverfeld is aware he’s off his home turf.

“If I go to Hong Kong, I enjoy dim sum, but I can’t say which one deserves three stars and which deserves none,” he admits.

“But it’s all food, all part of the same matrix. If it works, there’s space for it.”

What was his first experience of Asian food?

“Spring rolls, from the only Chinese restaurant in town,” he recalls.

“And my tastes developed from there.”

On the Gelinaz menu: Spiced pigeon with with kefir, pomegranate and curry couscous.

Culinary traditions collide

There’s a pot of tom kha gai, a classic chicken soup, on the hob.

Surely he’s not going to serve such a definitively Thai dish to a Thai crowd?

Everyone remembers the howls of horror in 2010 when Australian chef David Thompson opened Nahm in Bangkok, mischievously telling the locals they’d lost touch with their culinary roots.

Elverfeld grins again, goes back to stirring, tasting, watching.

The beautiful people slink in for the first service at 6 p.m. and Elverfeld’s menu is finally revealed.

The tom kha gai has become a foamy cream supporting intensely smokey eel fillets; that pomelo gives a hit of sharpness to a dish of tuna and foie gras.

Tandoori pork belly with red cabbage is another serendipitous encounter of German and Asian cuisines.

Sven Elverfeld's Aqua at the Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg has held three Michelin stars since 2009.

A decade ago, this whole event would have been unthinkable.

A chef of Elverfeld’s caliber wouldn’t have come to Bangkok; diners wouldn’t have risked an evening on an unknown quantity.

But tonight it’s different as they toddle back to their BMWs aware that they’ve enjoyed not just a great meal but something bigger.

The day before, the calm buzz of the kitchen was ruffled by news of the US election result.

Tonight shows that, in the world of food at least, borders are open and differing culinary traditions can meet and marry and collide and conflict, with a German chef gently marshaling staff from Thailand and India, Peru and Costa Rica, Serbia and Wales.

It’s beautiful.

At the post-event party, Elverfeld hangs to one side, preferring to be an observer, not the observed.

How does he think it all went? “Everything’s a surprise,” he says.

And he grins that damned grin again.

MORE: Meet Gaggan Anand, the ‘world’s best’ Indian chef

Tim Footman is a Bangkok-based freelance writer.