'Maybe fine dining is still going to exist, but I myself don’t see it at the moment'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

John Chantarasak is a chef and the founder of acclaimed pop-up AngloThai. He is half Thai, half British, born in Liverpool and brought up in Wales – and his unique brand of cooking is a testament to his multicultural upbringing.


The former head chef at Som Saa spread his wings two years ago and began hosting pop-ups in the capital's top kitchens. Appearing on Great British Menu this year helped his raise his industry profile further. 

We spoke to John about his heritage and style of cuisine, how the coronavirus lockdown has laid the groundwork for a very different restaurant landscape to what it was like before, and where he sees his and his wife's Desirees place in it. 

Thai Roots, British plants

When he was young, the chef was a drummer in a band. He then thought he was set on a career economics and business, but, aged 27, he left his city job and went on an eating-tour the United States.

“I felt that I had an affiliation with food – a little bit more than just enjoying eating out and drinking,” he said.

In a strike of luck, a friend of his in Bangkok whose family owned a hotel chain told him that they had partnered with a world-leading culinary school: Le Cordon Bleu.

“He ‘inceptioned’ the idea into my mind that maybe I should move to Thailand and enroll on the course and give it a go for a bit,” he said.

18 months later, the chef found himself working at Nahm, the Michelin-starred restaurant founded by David Thompson. Then, on his return to London, David introduced John to Som Saa pop-up founder Andy Oliver, whom he helped turn the venture into a success. So much so that they were able to crowdfund enough money to launch a permanent restaurant.

The transition from being a musician was easy, he joked: “Very little pay for lots of unsociable hours, plenty of drinking and wild behaviour, and a lot of self-made hustling to get things done.”

Yum Khai Dao - Fried egg salad with celery leaf and sweet-spicy-tart dressing.
Recipe here

Other than giving guests an indication of the food they are likely to eat under his roof, the name Anglo Thai speaks to John’s heritage. The chef’s father is Thai, and his mother is from Cornwall – and so his food is Thai in format, but relies on British ingredients.

The chef favours a “minimalist” approach, he explained “two or three things on a plate, always very seasonal, highly thought-out produce” that he found in his favourite British restaurants.

“I don’t think that you need to use Thai ingredients to make Thai food, and I think that my family based over there would mirror that sentiment.”

He added: “The belief for me is that Thai food is a way of balancing certain seasonings. Some of the more prominent flavours in Thai cuisine are sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and you can achieve those flavours with domestic ingredients from within the British isles."

Lancashire Prawns, Sea Buckthorn Nahm Jim

Partners in crime

John and his wife Desiree oversee the entire Anglo Thai operation together – front and back of house, wine selection, PR, marketing and finance.

“You work very long days when you do that," he said, "but it’s rewarding because you know every aspect of your company.”

The couple is currently operating out of Newcomer Wines in Dalston, while they mull over potential locations for a permanent site. And while finding vacant premises was a challenge before the pandemic, he said, "I’m pretty sure it will be a much easier exercise now.”

As the future of London restaurants hang in the balance, the chef believes recovery will be a case of rebuilding everything from the ground up – with fine dining taking a backseat to a more casual, affordable offering.

“Maybe fine dining is still going to exist, but I myself don’t see it at the moment," he said.

"I just don’t see a huge market for it outside of the billionaires and people that I have no touch with at all.”

As he sees it, guests are more inclined towards the so-called casual fine dining offerings.

“For the modern day, everyday person,” he said, “it’s all about getting something affordable, but quality.”

Anticipating a return to some form of normality within 18 months feels optimistic to John, echoing the widespread sentiment that the restaurant scene might have changed forever.

Seeing institutions like The Ledbury go down, he said, “is pretty interesting to see that that’s the best option for these guys, that they’re saying no it’s not worth us spiralling out for the next ten years just to get back to where we were.”

In this context, AngloThai’s adaptability could prove to be its biggest strength.

If some projection into the future is possible, the aim for John is “to build something quite humble that stands on its own two legs and is sustainable.”

“The fact that you can dictate your own hours, choose to do what you want to do and put out your personality on a plate or an atmosphere or a bottle of wine – that’s something really nice and rewarding from that.”

“Food and drink is probably my favourite thing. I’m quite basic in that respect – and if you get to add a little bit of travel into that as well, it’s always fun and exciting. And I do it with my partner in crime, my wife, so it’s just very easy going living in a lot of respects.”

“I think that there’s a lot of hospitality in what we do, and it’s really nice. To do it on that scale, that it’s possible to do it, is really nice.”

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 6th August 2020

'Maybe fine dining is still going to exist, but I myself don’t see it at the moment'