Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2022: Justin Pichetrungsi

At Anajak Thai in Los Angeles, legacy and innovation are the name of the game in this chef’s highly charged cooking.


Justin Pichetrungsi has only ever worked in one professional restaurant kitchen, but it's the one he literally grew up in. He stands with two searing-hot woks to his right and a fry station to his left on the same tile floor that his father, Ricky Pichetrungsi, stood on for nearly four decades. Ricky opened Anajak Thai in 1981, in the quiet, family-friendly neighborhood of Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles. Justin was born five years later and experienced many of his formative childhood moments in the restaurant. "I brushed my teeth in the bathroom more than once," says Pichetrungsi with a laugh.

When Pichetrungsi wasn't at school, he was at Anajak, working front of house, bussing tables, and dropping off glasses of water. During the sweltering Southern California summers, his father would teach him how to cook. The first dishes Pichetrungsi ever learned to make are still the first two dishes he teaches the staff today: fragrant cashew chicken, made in a rip-roaring wok, and a garlic-laced pad siew that is finished with a heavy hand of white pepper. "The pad siew is one of the few recipes that has never ever changed—it has the fewest ingredients and is dependent most on movement and timing," he says.

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Pichetrungsi never set out to follow in his father's footsteps. A talented artist, he went to school for design and eventually landed a job as an art director at Disney, where he worked for nearly a decade as an Imagineer. All the time, he continued to wait tables at Anajak at night. Pichetrungsi jokes that the artistic talent skipped a generation (his grandfather was a prominent artist in Thailand), but that his mom, who also works in the restaurant, can pack "one hell of a to-go order." Evidence of his talents still linger in the restaurant: An oil painting of flowers he did at the nascent age of 13 still hangs on the long wall of the dining room.

Ricky experienced a stroke in 2019, making it impossible for him to return to the kitchen he had run for nearly 40 years. Pichetrungsi was forced to ask himself some tough questions: "What am I going to do about this? Knowing that this place may not exist, that these recipes may go away? It hurt me to think about what it would be like if I had to close it down." So at the end of 2019, mere months before the pandemic began, Justin decided to run Anajak full time.

Today, Pichetrungsi's influence on Anajak is immediately felt. A Kobe Bryant jersey hangs in the back of the restaurant as an ode to the late athlete, and the playlist is loud, unapologetic, and whatever Justin and his crew are in the mood to listen to. (It ranges from Mariah Carey to Drake's latest album; not everyone is happy about it on Yelp.) Wine bottles cover every inch of free space in the restaurant. For decades, the list consisted of four wines: three types of grocery store–favorite Kendall-Jackson and a Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Noir. Today, Anajak sells over 210 different wines, ranging from spendy classics to a slate of more experimental natural producers.

Read Justin Pichetrungsi's Los Angeles City Guide

He's also more intentional in his sourcing for the restaurant, investing in ingredients like dry-aged fish from The Joint seafood market. It's a staple ingredient for Thai Taco Tuesdays, a weekly series (lovingly known as TTT) born out of the pandemic but still going strong, which involves collaborations with local chefs and restaurants—and Thai-inspired tacos cooked up in the alley behind Anajak. It always draws an industry-heavy crowd. Under Pichetrungsi's purview, the menu has also expanded to include more regional specialties: There's a plate of Southern Thai–style fried chicken served with a heap of steaming sticky rice, wonderfully viscous sweet chile sauce, and an upgrade that involves a generous portion of glimmering caviar. It's best counterbalanced with an order of haw mok, a silky steamed fish-curry custard that ripples with a gentle pervasive sweetness from the inclusion of coconut cream. On weekends, Pichetrungsi cooks up an omakase menu with a Japanese bent, as a way to continue to challenge himself as a cook.

Anajak literally translates to "kingdom," and while it's very much Pichetrungsi's these days, he is particular about his approach to running the restaurant. He wants to honor the foundation his father built—from the building blocks of the recipes to the layout of the restaurant—even if he is updating it. "I'm happy adding to his legacy," he says. "I have no desire to take away from it or completely change it."

Anajak Thai, 14704 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA,

Meet all of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2022: Warda Bouguettaya | Damarr Brown | Ana Castro | Calvin Eng | Tim Flores and Genie Kwon | Melissa Miranda | Justin Pichetrungsi | Emily Riddell | Rob Rubba | Caroline Schiff

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