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Business trends

Thai restaurants and bars ride the 'omakase' boom

COVID restrictions and star chefs fuel spending on high-end food and drinks

Famous chef Dej Kewkacha, a forerunner in Thailand's omakase boom, serves a dessert plate at Kyo Bar in Bangkok. (Photo by Niyakarn Atiyudhakul)

BANGKOK -- Kyo Bar, located in Bangkok's high-end Central Embassy shopping mall, is crowded with customers. Inside, the counter is reminiscent of a Japanese sushi restaurant. Behind it, owner-chef Dej Kewkacha is carefully preparing his latest dessert masterpiece.

Soon enough, the concoction, dressed with unfamiliar leafy greens, appears. "This is a palette cleanser," a female chef serving the dessert says, "with ice plant."

The sweets bar offers three omakase courses costing between 450 baht and 900 baht ($13 to $27). The price range is hardly affordable in a country where the average salary is a little more than 1,000 baht per day. But people are scrambling to experience unique desserts created by a Thai chef.

Omakase dining originated in Japan when restaurant-goers began feeling they would be served better meals if they left the ordering up to the chef. The system can allow chefs to whip up brand new food experiences, perhaps even a dessert made with ice plant.

"It was a memorable experience," a 35-year-old female office worker said. "It forced me out of my comfort zone on put me on a fun roller-coaster ride of flavors. And talking to the chef was also a fun part of the experience. I could feel the passion and thoughts that were put into making the course."

Kyo Bar serves unique desserts like this one using ice plant leaves.

Kyo Bar's success is emblematic of an omakase boom that has arrived in the Land of Smiles.

With the pandemic preventing overseas travel, well-off Thais have started spending more on domestic consumption. And as they venture into unknown gastronomic territory, many are entrusting their meal selections to talented chefs.

Omakase courses, once available only in sushi restaurants in Thailand, have since spread to a diverse range of food and beverage emporiums.

"Customers who order omakase are mainly women aged 25 to 40," said Dej, who was inspired by Japanese mutli-course kaiseki meals. "Thai people were not familiar with the concept of omakase when I started the course, but with the recent boom, everything has become omakase."

Hario Cafe Bangkok, a coffee shop operated by the Singapore subsidiary of Japanese glassmaker Hario, has begun offering a 1,500 baht omakase course.

Oranuch Thai Dining serves an omakase course of khao chae, a royal Thai cuisine dish made with cold rice.

"The response has been quite good," owner Jan Junsunjai said. "I think the popularity is due to the fact that people who don't know much about the food can easily experience something unfamiliar."

A Japanese restaurant offers omakase courses in Bangkok.

Salon du Japonisant, a Thai bar in Bangkok, offers omakase cocktails made of Japanese and other liquors. For 500 baht each, the restaurant creates individually tailored, original cocktails on the spot.

"Sometimes the menu can't offer enough," bartender Thanawat Wuttipittayathorn said. "Most of the customers like it. Sometimes I make something new, maybe weird. Customers ask about it and we have some conversation that leads to understanding each other."

In 2019, before the pandemic, 1.31 million Thais visited Japan, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, a sevenfold increase from a decade earlier. As more Thais become familiar with Japanese food, they are also gaining an affinity for omakase.

The emergence of "star chefs" has further fueled the boom.

With "IRON CHEF Thailand," "Hell's Kitchen" and other celebrity chef shows available through streaming services like Netflix, being a chef has suddenly become a "cool job," Dej said. "A culture has sprung up in which it is cool to eat a famous chef's dish in an omakase format and post [about the experience] on social media."

COVID-triggered travel restrictions have added more fuel still. "The driving force behind Thailand's omakase boom is boredom with the COVID pandemic and a desire to travel overseas, including trips to Japan where people can enjoy gourmet food," said Wannarat Wisawasukmongchol, associate director of strategic planning at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living ASEAN.

"Wealthy Thais are investing in good experiences and good food that they can have here because they cannot travel abroad [for now]," she added. "Through omakase, they can escape from their daily reality for a bit and experience premium, authentic Japanese culture."

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