Introducing Thailand Tatler’s Generation T luminaries—the young game-changers shaping the country for the better
Pongcharn Russell, the 27-year-old executive chef of modern Australian bistro Freebird, is building a blossoming culinary career and is back where he wants to be, doing what he loves to do
This month we profile Pongcharn Russell, the 27-year-old executive chef of modern Australian bistro Freebird. Known as Top, he took an unconventional route to establishing his blossoming culinary career but following a 10-year apprenticeship in some of the UK’s best kitchens, he is back where he wants to be and doing what he loves to do.
The Beginning I wasn’t one of those who were fortunate enough to know what they wanted to do. I stumbled onto this path by accident. I was a waiter in a UK hotel and I asked the chef if I could experience the back of house—the kitchens—for a week or two. He said yes and so I started doing double shifts: completing my waiting duties in the morning and then heading for the kitchen at three o’clock for dinner service prep. Eighteen-hour days were a killer! But it was the first time that I saw Western cuisine created in depth and that was exciting for me—chefs would spend days making a soup or consommé and then it would be eaten within a few minutes. That dedication was eye opening! So I called my parents and announced that I wasn’t going to university. Of course, they were disappointed. They had sent me to an international school before sending me overseas to study in the UK, so the least they expected was that I would get a bachelor’s degree of some sort. They took some convincing. I was 17 and had finished my A Levels early. I just wanted to get on.
Proudest Achievement Being handpicked by my first mentor, chef Alexis Gauthier. He won his first Michelin star when he was only 28. Back then there were only 12 one-star Michelin restaurants in London. He worked at Roussillon but was leaving to start his own restaurant, Gauthier Soho. I’d only been cooking for a year and a half, so it was an honour to be chosen as part of the opening team. Within six months we’d won our own Michelin star. To be given the responsibility of cooking the meat and fish, as well as preparing sauces, at the age of 19—well, it was unheard of and I was very proud of the trust placed in me. When I moved on I didn’t go to restaurants for the name of the chef, I went because there was something at each restaurant that I needed to further my learning. To be appointed executive chef at Freebird was also a great honour.
On Being A Chef I think cooking well and being a good chef is 95 per cent effort and five per cent talent. You have to be hardworking and persistent. Repetition is the best way to learn—when you do things a thousand times you get to know them by heart. It’s about the consistency, doing it day in and day out and having the discipline to do it right.