Michelin-Awarded NOK NOK Head Chef Khampan Pukdangpan: My Strengths Are Immense Curiosity, a Desire to Learn, and Team Spirit


Chef Khampan Pukdangpan with Michelin red label

In 2024, the Thai restaurant NOK NOK, part of the Tallink Group, received recognition as a new entrant in the prestigious Michelin Guide. The restaurant now proudly displays a shiny red plaque on its facade. This recognition is not something that every restaurant and executive chef can boast of, so we spoke with NOK NOK’s executive chef, Khampan Pukdangpan, to learn more about his journey and what was needed for this achievement to become possible.

1. Where does your passion for food and cooking come from?

I inherited my passion for cooking from my mother. As a child in Thailand, I always loved cooking for myself and others, experimenting with different ingredients that were readily available — papayas grew on trees, and my hunter father often brought home fresh meat. I remember making a sweet and sour soup with papaya and sardines using my mother’s recipe at my school when I was ten, which amazed everyone. After that experience, I knew this field was for me!

When I finished primary school, I did not go to high school, because it was too far to commute daily from home and my family could not afford the travel. I moved to Bangkok and decided to go to work instead. I knew I had enough skills and experience to earn my living.

2. What has your journey to becoming a chef been like? Where have you worked, and what have you experienced?

I wouldn’t say I’m extraordinarily smart, but my strength lies in my immense curiosity and desire to know every detail about the cooking process and try everything out myself. Not everyone is willing to share their kitchen secrets, so sometimes you have to be very proactive, play a bit of a spy, and learn that way!

My first job was at a restaurant in Bangkok. The owner treated me like a son, and I felt like part of their family. This close relationship made it easier for me to absorb cooking secrets from him. Now he’s 84, but he still remembers me.

My first experience abroad was in a large hotel in Abu Dhabi, working in a Thai restaurant. However, I did not like the food there — it wasn’t authentic Thai food, and I was disappointed. Having been exposed to true Thai flavours back home, I quickly realised this. It taught me to trust only myself and my instincts. Due to many disagreements with the executive chef, I was moved to the main kitchen, where I had to cook dishes from various cuisines —Chinese to Italian. I learned a lot about world cuisines and their secrets there! The Chinese chef I worked with back then is now my best friend, even though we mostly communicate through body language.

While working in Abu Dhabi, we also toured Dubai. On one trip, we passed a grand seven-star hotel, and I told my Chinese friend that I wanted to work there. When my contract in Abu Dhabi ended, I got a call inviting me to work at that very hotel—I was selected from 500 candidates! I experienced beautiful, pleasant times there, but also challenging ones. The team was excellent, and it seems I fit in well since I received seven best colleague awards. I’ve received similar awards in other restaurants, probably because I am very hardworking, curious, and I enjoy interacting and joking with others.

After gathering tips and skills from various world cuisines in Dubai, I wanted to continue exploring and growing. Over the years, I worked in resorts in Seychelles, Maldives, and Fiji, which were beautiful and enjoyable, as well as in Morocco and Dubai again. When my mother fell ill, I returned to Thailand for a while to take care of her and work with authentic Thai flavours again. Then, I felt the call to return to the Maldives and spent a few more years at a resort hotel there.

I’m grateful for all these experiences because I learned continuously, honed my skills, and gathered valuable experiences, mostly without days off because my desire to learn was so strong. I love learning from others, but I’m also very willing to share my knowledge and experience with others. I don’t mind if someone becomes successful and goes far with what they’ve learned from me—it brings me great joy!

3. How did you end up in Estonia, and how have you adapted? What are your favourite Estonian dishes?

After the Maldives, I got an invitation to work in Estonia, where I initially worked for a few years at the restaurant Tai Boh. Coincidentally, I also came across NOK NOK during its renovation phase, but they had already hired a new chef at that time. I returned to Thailand, got married to my first wife, and worked there for a few years. However, my curiosity and desire for new experiences could not be silenced swo off to the world I was again. This time life brought me back to NOK NOK. The summer of 2024 marks my fifth year here!

Today, I feel that I have gathered enough experience worldwide and do not long to travel far anymore — if I were to document all my work and experiences, it would fill a thick book! I now have a family and a young child here, and with such a solid knowledge base, it is convenient to learn new tips and tricks from social media and YouTube—you do not always have to travel far for that.

Estonian cuisine is fascinating— a mix of different traditional cuisines. I especially love Christmas sauerkraut, crispy pork with mashed potatoes, and borscht. I learned to make borscht in Seychelles from a guest from Russia. I also love making cutlets, which I have learned to make here, but I have my own way of shaping them that I have also taught to others.

4. How would you describe Thai cuisine? What is its essence?

Authentic Thai food is the kind cooked in Thai homes—from fresh and accessible ingredients. One hallmark of Thai cuisine is its spiciness, but it is not the spiciest in the world. Different regions in Thailand have varying levels of spice preference — in the south, people love spices, while in the north, they prefer milder flavours. In the east and west, spicier food is favoured again.

Generally, the level of spiciness in Thai food is consistent. In Estonia, people do not like very spicy food, so here I have played around with the spiciness. NOK NOK’s guests have started to appreciate spice more and more, and regulars dare to ask for slightly spicier dishes each time they visit.

Three essential dishes that every self-respecting Thai restaurant should have on its menu are curry, soup, and Pad Thai. If these are on the menu, it can call itself a Thai restaurant.

Traditional Thai food with shrimps

5. What inspires you to create dishes at NOK NOK? How would you describe your style?

The menu is basically made up of my favourite foods – everything on it, I love. I also like to play with global flavours — for example, we prepare frog legs but do them our way, in a curry. We also have spring rolls on the menu, but they actually originate from China, not Thailand. At NOK NOK, we add a little Thai twist to the dishes.

Our menu features authentic Thai flavours that anyone can find while traveling in Thailand, but at NOK NOK, they are even better. So, there is no need to travel to Thailand to experience authentic local flavours!

I believe I had Thai food and spices in my blood even before I was born! Having spent so many years in kitchens, restaurants, and among different ingredients, I can identify every ingredient by its smell, and they immediately start coming together as a recipe in my mind. My personal style is to bring together experiences from around the world and use them in creating and enhancing dishes.

6. Congratulations on the Michelin recognition! What do you think led to this achievement? What are you most proud of at NOK NOK?

Thank you! I’m truly happy! Achieving Michelin recognition involves enormous work. Inspectors can visit the restaurant many times over the years—both the food and the service and atmosphere must meet their expectations and be consistently excellent. To achieve this, we need to maintain our standards and have excellent cooperation and a unified team.

At NOK NOK, we currently have an outstanding team, and I am very pleased with all the staff, especially the restaurant manager, Ruslan. We have a deep respect for each other, and our collaboration runs smoothly. He is well-versed in Thai customs and nuances and understands everything with half a word. The entire team helps and supports each other, solving challenges together—we can always find a solution to any problem together. I always say that no one is perfect and does not have to be, but honesty and learning from one’s mistakes are vital and unifying forces.

I believe it is crucial to care for your employees—everyone needs to feel important and valuable. To achieve this, every member should be recognised, and we should celebrate important events and birthdays together so that everyone genuinely feels cared for. You do not always need to give something; a kind word is worth even more. In such a team, members are more willing to contribute, ensuring our collective success. I call them my family, not my employees. We also eat together like a family.

And I love NOK NOK’s interior — it reminds me of Thailand. I particularly appreciate that every morning I’m greeted by a Buddha statue here—it brings peace to my soul.

Khampan Pukdangpan with a Michelin award

7. What are your future plans at NOK NOK? Are you aiming for Michelin stars?

I have a strong and clear desire to strive for Michelin stars! This requires raising our standards even higher, and the whole team must work like a well-oiled machine—if one part doesn’t work, it affects the entire system. We have a very good foundation for this, so I believe we can start moving towards striving for stars!

We asked the team of NOK NOK to say a few words about their chef:

“Khampan is a multitalent: he cooks, sings and plays the guitar! He is very friendly and great in the kitchen. He is always beaming positivity and is friendly with everyone – even when times are busy or tough! He is always willing to respect the guests’ wishes and change the dishes accordingly, if needed. He is cool!”

Khampan Pukdangpan with team