Thai fine dining near the waterfront in Steveston Village
By Catherine Dunwoody
Recently awarded number 14 in the Best New Restaurants division on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list; Chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng is delighted that her fine dining Thai restaurant is being recognized nationally.
Chef Nutcha’s multi-course set menus are exceptional, with earthy, highest quality Thai flavours doing a delicate dance around locally sourced produce and proteins.
I sat down with Chef Nutcha to chat about the restaurant she opened just a couple of years ago, which has everyone intrigued and has changed the way most of us see Thai cuisine.
Chef, how would you describe your health and wellness vision, in general? And how would you say that applies to your cooking at Baan Lao?
Growing up in rural Thailand with no electricity, no running water and no refrigeration taught me a lot about the power of fresh, organic food and sustainable sources, and looking to nature for the answers to our wellness. Then studying and practicing as a nurse and cancer researcher further solidified my belief that food is medicine. Perhaps that’s my vision for health and wellness – “food is medicine”.
I want my guests to appreciate the difference in taste when food is made from fresh, organic ingredients. I’m out shopping for fresh ingredients every day. I select the fresh produce. It takes a lot of time, but I believe it’s worth it. Fresh ingredients are essential for me. That’s how I was raised, and I continue that now.
We invested in our own equipment to grow microgreens all year round. I grow edible flowers and fresh herbs in my organic garden at home and bring them to the restaurant each day.
The ingredients I select for my Baan Lao guests are exactly what I would select to feed my family. I want to know each food source. I want to know how animals were raised. I’m very selective when choosing the food sources for Baan Lao guests.
Tell me about the sustainability of insects as a protein option. You’re very gently introducing a bite-sized item to your new menu. Do you plan to increase the volume of insects in future dishes?
Insects were a routine, staple part of my diet as a child. I’d go out each day catching fresh insects for us to roast over an open fire. They’re a wonderful source of protein; they’re organic, and sustainable. But I know that North Americans may not embrace that element in their food.
I considered including insects in my first Signature Dinner Experience menu, as they are second nature to me. But being a first-time restauranteur, I was concerned people would think it was a gimmick and that I was trying to shock them. That’s really not it at all, so I wanted to build my reputation as a chef before introducing insects.
Insects are now part of both menus at Baan Lao, and guests have really embraced it. We have wild, hand-roasted, organic insects as part of our amuse bouche. And on our Signature Dinner Experience menu dessert, we have chocolate-covered ants. But I think I’ve integrated insects into the dishes in a natural, unobtrusive way, so it’s not too shocking for people.
I don’t know how significant insects will be in my next menu, as I haven’t started working on it yet! The inspiration for new menu items evolves over time for me and is influenced by feedback from our guests.
How has making Canada’s 100 Best list affected you as a chef, and for the restaurant?
As a first-time chef and restauranteur, I’m so flattered and humbled to receive the recognition. Every award we’ve received – the Vancouver Golden Plates, Canada’s 100 Best, and so many others, are so encouraging and I’m so honoured. And it’s a wonderful boost for our team to receive recognition for all their hard work. But I’m really not in this for the awards.
What made me so happy and excited when they announced the Canada’s 100 Best lists was that the Vancouver area was represented so beautifully, with such a diverse selection of restaurants! Together, all of us put Vancouver and BC on the map as a foodie destination. It’s wonderful!
Do you aspire to receive a Michelin star?
Isn’t it fantastic that Michelin has finally come to Vancouver? I’ve had a number of guests and media tell me that we deserve a Michelin star. What an honour that would be! That recognition is definitely a pinnacle of success for chefs. But, honestly, that’s not what motivates me.
The biggest compliments I receive are when I go out to visit guests at the end of their meal at Baan Lao, and they’re so happy and have enjoyed their experience. When I see guests eating the food, relaxing and enjoying their dining experience – that’s what I love. That’s what motivates me. When guests say to me that we deserve a Michelin star, I often remind them that they are my Michelin star.
Having had no experience running your own restaurant, what have the challenges been?
Oh, my goodness. The biggest challenge has definitely been finding staff, though that’s not unique to us. The industry is experiencing incredible staffing challenges and opening in the midst of the pandemic has definitely highlighted that for us. But we have team members who have joined us, grown with us, and are like family. We are so grateful for them!
Another big challenge for me has been my commitment to sourcing organic, sustainable ingredients, and personally selecting our suppliers. I want to source directly from farmers. I want to know how each ingredient is produced. It’s time-consuming but I want to find the best ingredients. I’m quite particular, and I’m very committed to the health and wellness of our guests and the planet.
Do you have other women in your kitchen, on your culinary team?
I recognize being a chef is a male-dominated role in the industry. And being a female Asian chef has turned some heads, though I didn’t really understand that I was such an anomaly when I first embarked on this career.
As a mother to two young girls, I want my children to grow up believing in themselves that they can be anything they want to be. So, I make sure that I hire and support other women on my team. Currently, my kitchen team of five includes three women, so the women outnumber the men! I’ve been so fortunate in building Baan Lao, and I want to be sure I’m giving a hand up to other women.
Isn’t it wonderful that the World’s 50 Best Restaurants has an award for the Best Female Chef? Hopefully one day soon, acclaimed female chefs will be so common, it’s no longer necessary to make that distinction. I believe the industry is slowly evolving.
Baan Lao’s Signature Dinner Experience Menu – “From The Fields of Thailand To The Shores of Canada” (served exclusively on Saturdays. $290 per person) and “A Taste of Baan Lao” menu (served Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. $150 per person) can be booked online.
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