Cong Wen – trendsetter in Bangkok’s handcrafted donut movement
When Cong Wen started brassica, an artisanal fried chicken and donut haunt in the up-and-coming Nanglinchee area, he had no idea he would become a trendsetter in Bangkok’s handcrafted donut movement.
CIA graduate and Singapore-native Cong first trained in Artichoke and JAAN by Kirk Westaway, in the Lion City, before setting off on a culinary journey through Barcelona. This was followed by brief internships in restaurants nahm and Bo.lan, along with a tenure at Prelude – this was when he fell for the charm of Thai cuisine.
The heritage of old-school Thai fare, the abundance of farm-grown and handmade ingredients and the delightful experience of getting swept off his feet by a beautiful Thai lady, cemented Thailand’s position as the cornerstone in Cong’s skyrocketing voyage to perfect a cuisine of his own. Now serving up drool-inducing, fine-dining-quality fried chicken and brioche-like donuts, brassica, which is managed by a couple, oozes out homey warmth with real-deal deliciousness.
We got to sit down with Cong and talk about his insights into food and the dining scene in Bangkok.
What is your style of cooking?
Simple food but with good quality ingredients is my current way of cooking. I follow a lot of what you call “neighborhood restaurant” which focuses a lot on being cozy and affordable without sacrificing the deliciousness. I do this at the restaurant where I have our regular menu with our signature fried chickens and donuts and whilst keeping another “not fried chicken” menu where I put special dishes cooked with what’s blooming in the market and whatever ingredient I’m into – at the moment being Jerusalem artichoke.
What was the meal that inspired you to become a chef?
I always wish I have a good story to tell but I don’t. [laugh] There was no grandmother involved or a particular special dish. But I remember being happy every time I attended a cooking class back in high school which was mandatory for students then. There was also this one time I bought Hershey chocolate and there was a recipe written on the box for brownies and so I thought ‘aha, I’m gonna make it for this girl I have a crush on’ and so I went on and baked her the cake. Turned out she loved it so much and she shared it with her friends. That was how people came to know me, the guy who makes good brownies. I think these were little things that inspired me to become a chef.
Who’s your role model?
My mentor, Bjorn Shen of Artichoke restaurant in Singapore. He really taught me how to act as a chef and as a businessman.
What position did you start off with in the kitchen?
I was frying fries and wrapping burgers at KFC. These were the first two tasks I got in the professional kitchen.
What are the most valuable lessons you learned from those places you’ve got to train in?
The first thing I learned is to find what you are good at. Not everyone can be a fine-dining chef but it’s also not meant to be for everyone. So, find your style of cooking and be the best of what you are good at. I have trained before in an haute cuisine restaurant and found that it was not for me. What I knew then and still know now is that I make delicious fried chickens and donuts. There’s really nothing fancy but that’s more than enough for me.
Another thing I learned from all my training is to be hardworking and dedicated to your career and cooking. It takes a lot of work and passion to become successful at what you do. You need to give it your all and do your best.
Why fried chicken and donut?
My first job ever in this career path was KFC and since then I’ve been dealing with a lot of chicken. Me and my mentor, Bjorn Shen, were doing a lot of Thai-style chicken dishes: gai yang (grilled chicken), gai thod (fried chicken), you name it, back in his chicken-centric restaurant, Bird Bird. So making fried chicken at my own restaurant seems natural to me.
Also, with the goal of opening a restaurant operated by a two-person team – me and my girlfriend – I was looking for something I can do myself and at the same time, give me the time to do whatever needed in the kitchen. So fried chicken made perfect sense. As for donut, I realized that Bangkok was lacking artisanal donut shops and I saw that as a gap to be filled. And like fried chicken and waffle, what other pastry would go well with the fried bird if not fried donut? [laugh] So again, matching the two together just made perfect sense to me.
How long did it take you to perfect brassica’s signature dough?
It took me about four months to finally come to the dough I’m happily proud of. But to be honest, it’s an ongoing project. I’m constantly in search of how to make my food better and better all the time.
You use a lot of locally-sourced and artisanal ingredients which are not really typical for small-scale restaurant, what inspired you to do so?
Regardless of the size of the restaurant, it’s more like a common sense to me to cook with what available around you. If you are in Bangkok and you have all these pristine ingredients that are so good, why import? The chocolate in Thailand is, in my opinion, comparable to French chocolate. I can find it here so why not celebrate the fact that you guys make some of the best chocolates in the world? 🙂
What do you think are the differences and similarities of the dining scenes in Singapore and Bangkok?
I think one similarity between the two is that there’s always someone opening a new restaurant or a café every single day. But as for the differences, I think Bangkok has a far greater advantage of having terrific local produce – like fresh veggies, Thailand-grew chocolate and even a variety of excellent artisanal cheese made in Thailand.
What do you like the most about the dining scene here?
The one thing that sticks out to me the most is the passion of Thai chefs. Everyone is so passionate about reinventing their own food and celebrating their roots. It’s something I don’t see too much in Singapore.
If you were to be an ingredient, what would you be and why?
Butter because it makes everything better. 🙂
What is the food movie/documentary you would recommend foodies to see?
I recommend The Chef Show. It’s very real. Many food shows talk about philosophy in cooking but that is not always approachable for home cooks. The Chef Show shows how you can really enjoy the process of cooking and how to make simple food tastes great.
What is your most memorable meal so far in Bangkok?
My most memorable meal here would be at Yang Gao Gorn in Soi Phaholyothin 14 where they serve up age-old Thai recipes. Last time my girlfriend and I went, we ordered 12 dishes in a row. They were all so delicious.
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
Be humble and just keep on working. It’s a tough industry, but you should know that already so don’t complain. [laugh] Enjoy the mundane process and if you are asked to peel tons of potatoes all day long, know that it will benefit you in some ways as a chef.
To this day, I still call myself a cook. I don’t like to entitle myself as a chef. I’m just grateful to have a restaurant to cook the food that I love. 🙂
Thank you Chef Cong Wen.
Due to its mix of residential buildings and old-fashioned restaurants, Nanglinchee boasts this cool, old-school charm that draws you in with its undisturbed urban beauty. However, the area is now slowly starting to boom with new bars and trendsetting restaurants, with one of them being the new vintage chicken-and-doughnut haunt, brassica.