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In this exclusive interview with Traveltalk, Chef Pam reveals her culinary inspiration and how she is helping women overcome the male bias in the world’s top kitchens.

Q: Chef Pam, I believe you have some Australian heritage. Can you tell us a little about this and whether you get to visit Australia at all?

A: My granddad is Chinese and my grandmother is Australian so my dad is half Chinese and Australian while my mother is half Thai and half Chinese.

So, our dining table was always full of food from both the western and Asian worlds. I remember having rice and other Thai/Chinese dishes together with spaghetti Bolognese!

I have visited Sydney as my dad and my brother used to study there. I have a lot of aunties and cousins that still live there so from time to time we visit each other.

Q: What was it that inspired you to become a chef in the first place?

A: With my family background I have been connected with food since childhood. Since I can remember, it was all about cooking (perhaps since eight?).

There were countless times my mom and I spent running around our family kitchen trying out different local ingredients which helped cultivate my deep appreciation for Thai-Chinese cuisine.

I grew up learning from her: cooking, grocery shopping, serving these foods to our family with her. Food is something that brings our family relationship together.

My mom is one of those people who you can call an extreme “perfectionist”.  Therefore, what I remember most was my mom teaching/explaining/perfecting the food that I was always preparing with her.

I remember cooking a simple shrimp dumpling with my mom. I cannot remember how many times I had to recreate the dish because it was not up to her standard. Until this day, I still don’t think I am.

I never knew that one day this would grow into my heart and become my great passion for cooking. I also think the best part about being a chef is that I can give happiness through food.

Q: Restaurant kitchens are notoriously tough places when you’re learning your craft. Did you find it hard competing with the predominately male chefs around you?

A: I am a very optimistic person. When I was working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and throughout my career the kitchen was always male dominant but I have always been able to get through those times regardless of any circumstances.

We can’t deny that it is tougher physically for females to be in the industry, involving all the hard work we do in the kitchen, but I always love sports, so I guess for me it’s like being a team player in sport.

When I opened POTONG, I faced many challenges such as COVID, construction, staffing, etc. But everyone in the industry also had to fight through those tough time together.

I don’t have any regrets because when I look back everything was a lesson for me. I think because of all the memories I have they made me feel so motivated and gave me the urge to keep going further in my career.

Some of those experiences also influenced me to start my POTONG project (which took me about three years!). All in all, those challenges just motivated me more to keep honing my skills further.

Q: All that hard work has paid off and you’ve been crowned ‘Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2024’. What does the honour mean to you?

A: First, I’m deeply honoured to receive ‘Asia’s Best Female Chef 2024’. This award truly goes beyond my personal achievement — I believe this is because of the skill of the chefs I’ve learned from, my respect for heritage and a relentless willpower and passion to become greater.

Words can’t describe the feeling that I have to represent Thai chefs in achieving this award. I’m also glad that we can bring Thai food to the world stage. I hope it also inspires young female chefs who have culinary dreams like mine.

I feel thankful and motivated by this award as I always love to challenge myself to a new task and push my boundaries. This award makes me want to grow even better and become the best version of myself that I can be.

Q: Now you’re giving back by setting up a scholarship program called Women For Women. What led you to start this up?

A: I believe that my relentless pursuit in the culinary arts, my respect for my heritage and the many projects that I have done that contribute to the whole community will result in a better outcome that can help empower female chefs.

I also believe that although I might be a small part of the industry, if little by little each of us contribute to the whole community this will again result in a better outcome that can help empower all other female chefs.

One of the most recent projects I’m involved in is the Women For Women (WFW) scholarship and internship program with the American Women’s Club of Thailand (AWC), promoting gender equality in the culinary industry.

AWC is run by volunteers who truly want to help make life different for the young Thai females in rural areas.

Through AWC I learnt that 6,000 THB (approx. $AU250) can help change the future of one child by obtaining a junior or high school diploma. I believe that education can truly make a difference in life.

I also learnt that many young Thai females in rural areas have smaller chances of getting a proper education. For example, if a family has two kids (one boy and one girl) and if they can only afford an education for one person, it will most likely be the boy.

Hence, I founded the WFW scholarship together with AWC Thailand which provides financial assistance to young females in rural areas who are passionate about pursuing a career in the culinary arts.

Q: It sounds like a great initiative. What do you hope it will achieve?

A: Our goals are actually quite simple:

1) To provide an opportunity for talented young female student chefs who are in need of help to gain valuable experience that may help them cope with the competitive kitchen environment and kickstart their careers. This will be addressed by our WFW internship program.

2) To help those females in rural areas in need of University-level education by funding their studies and helping them pursue their dreams. This will be addressed by our WFW scholarship program. (AWC has never been able to support University level before so this will be a breakthrough to be able to do that).

I believe that if each and every one of us helps each other to start making these small changes then finally it will become something impactful and strong that could help shape the industry for the better in the future.

If I can do this, anyone can.

Q: What exciting plans or new dishes have you got lined up for 2024 and further ahead?

A: I never stop and I will keep pushing for more success at POTONG! I want to make my guests excited. So, we have many surprises planned to launch during April for our newest course menu, “Revolution”. I think it is our best yet.

We have relooked at every dish we have ever made and have found the best possible way to revolutionise them. We hope to bring out the best in your taste buds and that the POTONG experience will make our guests still say “WOW”!

NEXT MONTH: Chef Pam reveals her cooking philosophy and shares some of her favourite recipes.