Roasting with Johnny Lui

Johnny Lui, a pioneer of Bangkok’s brunch scene and the executive chef of Roast, opens up about his journey in the culinary world, the capital’s burgeoning food scene, and life as a chef.

There is something inexplicably charming about the smell of a roast straight out of the oven, the warm colors of an aromatic soup, or the sound of sizzling garlic hitting the oil of a heated pan. The combination of familiar ingredients brought together in an uncomplicated way is what allows comfort food to remain relevant in a world where molecular gastronomy and 25-course tasting menus are becoming the norm. Johnny Lui’s reverence for simplicity began after his first course in culinary school, where he was introduced to roasting. “It was eye-opening that something so simple--so easy to make--could come out so delicious.”

Taiwan-born, Bangkok-raised Lui was inspired by hearty Western cuisine after his time living in Seattle, Washington, where he went to school and began his career as a chef. “I almost failed culinary school and got kicked out the first term,” says Lui, “I was actually a really bad student at the beginning.” But taste one of his dishes today and you’ll have a hard time imagining that the humble chef has ever been anything less than brilliant in the kitchen.  

Now helming the kitchen of Roast, Bangkok’s favorite brunch spot, where he serves over 10,000 customers each month, Lui remains loyal to simple comfort-style food. “To me, food should be simple. Food should be easy to understand. Food should be appreciated every day.” he says. But don’t mistake his dedication to simplicity for a lack of creativity; Lui’s dishes come with an undeniable flare that is far from boring. Take his bacon fat-seared octopus dish that’s dressed with a sour orange sauce, a bit of herby salsa verde, fresh oregano, and bacon, served with blistered shishito for example. “We are not just trying to cook the classics--we are trying to elevate these dishes. We still present them traditionally, but with our own twist.”

 Running a successful restaurant in Bangkok is no easy feat. It seems as if the city’s dining options change monthly, with new spots opening up and even more closing down. However, after six very successful years at Roast, it’s safe to say Lui is doing something right. “Along the way people tend to get lost and forget who they are,” he says when asked about food trends in Bangkok. “For me it’s important to stay true to your principles. To do something successfully you need to work hard, commit, be humble, and be yourself.”

“I’ve gone through a lot in life. From moving away early, traveling at a young age, trying different foods. I want that to be reflected in my food.” says Lui. And we’d argue that the Asia-grown, Western-educated Bangkokian, has done a pretty good job at giving diners a glimpse into his past through dishes like the piri-piri chicken with charred tomato sauce, jalapeno salsa and fresh cilantro. “This dish brings back a lot of memories from when I was growing up in Bangkok. The street-side grilled chicken was my inspiration behind the dish, and I absolutely love it.”

But even as one of Bangkok’s top chefs, Johnny Lui isn’t phased by the proliferation of food trends or the recent notion of chefs as celebrities. In fact, his indifference to the hype of Bangkok’s top tables and trendy chefs is refreshing. When asked about his favorite places to eat, he was at a loss to come up with any names--an. “[QUOTE ON EATING OUT]”

And all the Michelin talk? “If one day in the future I get a star, I get a star. I’m not going to kill myself over not getting one. My goal is to cook yummy food and for people to enjoy that, star or no star.”

But the future's looking bright for Lui, who, while continuously adapting and enhancing the menu at Roast’s two locations, is helping open a new venture, Ocken, in Sathorn, this May.

The key to success for the down-to-earth chef is simple, just like his dishes: “It’s the dedication, commitment and determination that will define whether you are going to succeed or not. You always want to push yourself to the limit and never stop learning.”