When I sat down for the first nine-course meal of my life, I was greeted with a letter at my table.
Written by Refined Thai cuisine from Baan Lao Executive Chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng, aka Chef Nutcha, he greeted me in his elegant dining room in Steveston overlooking the Fraser River.
She described her restaurant’s traditional Thai cuisine as a “symphony, where every element must be perfectly tuned to ensure a harmonious and balanced taste experience.”
âTonight we’ll take you on a memorable culinary journey with nine unique dishes,â wrote Chef Nutcha.
And what an experience it was. It opened with Maa Haaw as an appetizer. This sautÃ©ed Berkshire ground pork was infused with Thai herbs and a pinch of bird’s eye chili and served in a small round ball over fresh pineapple. It didn’t last long on the table.
Over the next two hours, staff delivered four starters and five main courses.
Along the way, I tried the Phat Thai Goong, which was prepared in an edible net. This was followed by a spicy soup, an organic, farmhouse duck, and then two styles of organic rice grown in Chef Nutcha’s home region, Isaan, in northeast Thailand.
The final main course, Baan Lao’s signature sockeye salmon dish, suits the restaurant’s location at the mouth of the Fraser River, which is the most powerful Pacific waterway for salmon in the world.
This was all followed by a homemade lime sorbet as a palate cleanser, then a dish of coconut sticky rice for dessert and, finally, a finisher of fresh, hand-carved watermelon. hand that landed on the table like a wild plant blooming in a field. The whole banquet was completed with tea pairings; these drinks came from Japan, China and Taiwan.
The service was incredibly courteous without being overwhelming. The food was magnificent, with each dish presented and served in a distinctly artistic way. It was like going to the theater and being surprised over and over again.
Canada does not yet have any Michelin starred restaurants. But Baan Lao’s attention to detail, along with its elegant yet warm vibe, could potentially put it in the running for one of these prestigious designations, which are based on meticulous judgment that places great importance on l ‘originality.
But it’s not just the food and presentation that catches the attention of diners. The crisp white interior, high ceiling, hardwood floor, and picture windows overlooking the Fraser River are complemented by four paintings of a world famous elephant. Yes, you read that right. This artistic Thai pachyderm, Suda, even signs her proportionately exact creations, which she paints with her trunk.
Her artwork has been featured on CNN and the Wall Street Journal, and if you don’t believe me, check it out on YouTube.
After my first visit to Baan Lao, I realized how extremely well this suburban restaurant performed at this year’s Golden Plates Awards, voted by Georgia Straight readers. They chose Chef Nutcha as Chef of the Year just one year after Baan Lao opened.
Additionally, the restaurant has been honored as Best Restaurant Overall, Best New Restaurant, Best Fine Dining, Best Thai Restaurant, and Best Hidden Gem. It’s the closest any restaurant can get to the Golden Plates.
Chief Nutcha, a former nurse and cancer researcher, was trained by Chief Vichit Mukura, who served the Thai royal family. After moving to Vancouver in 2014, she craved the type of natural Thai food she ate as a child.
In an interview with the Law, she said she grew up in the rural and landlocked province of Khon Kaen, which is heavily agricultural. Everything she ate as a child was fresh, including fish from local streams. She remembered removing salamanders and grasshoppers from the rice fields. Water had to be pumped from the ground. The honey would be harvested from local bees.
âI would go hunting and looking for fresh ingredients in the surrounding fields and forests, bringing them home to cook with my mom,â Chef Nutcha told the Law through a translator. âWe didn’t have electricity, so we cooked over an open fire, preparing meals for our family. Every bite was fresh and delicious. This is how I was brought up.
She added that while Thai food always has a fair amount of heat, it’s not necessarily as overwhelming as many Westerners think. Baan Lao’s cuisine, for example, is subtly scented and cannot be described as hot.
âIn northeast Thailand there is no access to the sea, so the food is more vegetarian,â Chef Nutcha said. “In the south there is more Muslim influence, so curry dishes are common.”
The rice comes from a family plot in Isaan and is transported across the Pacific to its destination in Steveston.
âIn Baan Lao, we use authentic Thai herbs and spices,â said Chef Nutcha. âWe have a living herb wall in the restaurant to grow fresh herbs. I grow it in my garden at home and we source our locally grown organic herbs.
So what is most important to Chef Nutcha: the ingredients or the cooking technique?
âIt’s difficult because the choice of organic ingredients is so important to me,â she replied. âBut I think in general it’s the cooking technique. Anyone can buy all the ingredients, but without the proper cooking techniques, it’s just a bunch of ingredients.
Chef Nutcha’s interest in healthy food was sharpened at a Bangkok hospital, where she worked as a nurse. In this capacity, she worked on treatment trials involving cancer patients.
âI recognize that what we eat has a direct impact on our well-being,â she said. âSo I wanted to create healthy, organic, local meals when possible and without preservatives. “
And she would like to point out that Baan Lao is teamwork. It would not have been possible to launch the restaurant without everyone involved sharing the same vision.
She chose to live in Steveston because she found it to be a quaint and charming community. It is also a great place for her and her husband to raise a family.
âIt can be difficult to strike a work-life balance when owning a restaurant,â she conceded. âSo I wanted to be close enough to home so that my children could easily stop to see me on their way home from school and when they go out for a walk.
âWe love being part of the community here and we’re also pretty close to all of Vancouver’s amenities,â continued Chef Nutcha. âWhen we envisioned Baan Lao, we dreamed of a beautiful waterfront location and found it.â