When I sat down for the first nine-course meal of my life, I was greeted with a letter at my table setting.
Written by Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine executive chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng, a.k.a. Chef Nutcha, it welcomed me to her elegant dining room in Steveston overlooking the Fraser River.
She described her restaurant’s traditional Thai cuisine as a “symphony, where each element has to be perfectly tuned to ensure a harmonious, balanced taste experience”.
“This evening, we will be transporting you on a memorable culinary journey featuring nine unique courses,” Chef Nutcha wrote.
And what an experience it was. It opened with Maa Haaw as an amuse-bouche. This stir-fried minced Berkshire pork was infused with Thai herbs and a dash of bird’s eye chili and served in a small round ball on fresh pineapple. It didn’t last long on the table.
Over the next two hours, staff delivered four appetizers and five main dishes.
Along the way, I tried Phat Thai Goong, which was prepared in an edible netting. That was followed by a spicy soup, organic and free-range duck, and next up were two styles of organic rice grown in Chef Nutcha’s home region of Isaan in northeastern Thailand.
The final main course, Baan Lao’s signature sockeye salmon dish, befit the restaurant’s location at the mouth of the Fraser River, which is the mightiest Pacific salmon–bearing waterway in the world.
All of this was followed by a house-made organic lime sorbet as a palate cleanser, then a coconut glutinous-rice dish as dessert, and, finally, a finisher of fresh, hand-carved watermelon that landed on the table looking like a wild plant blooming in a field. The entire banquet was supplemented with tea pairings; these beverages came from Japan, China, and Taiwan.
The service was stunningly gracious without being stuffy. The food was magnificent, with each dish presented and served in a distinctly artistic manner. It was like going to the theatre and being surprised again and again and again.
Canada has no Michelin-starred restaurants yet. But the attention to detail at Baan Lao, along with its elegant yet homey vibe, could conceivably put it in the running for one of these prestigious designations, which are based on meticulous judging that places a premium on originality.
But it’s not just the food and the presentation that attracts diners’ attention. The bright white interior, high ceiling, hardwood floor, and floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Fraser River are augmented by four paintings by a world-famous elephant. Yes, you read that correctly. This artistic Thai pachyderm, Suda, even signs her proportionally accurate creations, which she paints with her trunk.
Her works of art have been featured on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal—and if you don’t believe me, check her out on YouTube.
After my first visit to Baan Lao, I came to appreciate how this suburban restaurant did exceedingly well in this year’s Golden Plates awards voted on by Georgia Straight readers. They chose Chef Nutcha as the chef of the year only one year after Baan Lao opened.
In addition, the restaurant was honoured as the best restaurant overall, best new restaurant, best fine-dining establishment, best Thai restaurant, and best hidden gem. It’s the closest that any restaurant can get to a clean sweep in the Golden Plates.
Chef Nutcha, a former nurse and cancer researcher, trained under Chef Vichit Mukura, who served the Thai Royal family. After moving to Vancouver in 2014, she craved the type of natural Thai food that she ate as a child.
In an interview with the Straight, she said that she grew up in the rural and landlocked province of Khon Kaen, which is heavily agricultural. Everything she ate as a child was secured fresh, including fish from local waterways. She recalled clearing salamanders and grasshoppers from the rice fields. Water needed to be pumped from the ground. Honey would be collected from local bees.
“I would go hunting and foraging for fresh ingredients in the surrounding fields and forests, bringing them home to cook with my mother,” Chef Nutcha told the Straight through a translator. “We didn’t have electricity, so we cooked over an open fire, preparing meals for our family. Each bite was fresh and delicious. That’s how I was raised.”
She added that while Thai food always has a fair amount of heat, it’s not necessarily as overpoweringly hot as many westerners believe. The cuisine in Baan Lao, for example, is subtly flavoured and cannot be described as mouth-burning.
“In the northeast of Thailand, there’s no sea access, so the food is more vegetarian-based,” Chef Nutcha said. “In the south, there’s 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.
“At Baan Lao, we use authentic Thai herbs and spices,” Chef Nutcha maintained. “We have a living herb wall at the restaurant to grow fresh herbs. I grow some in my garden at home and we source locally grown organic herbs.”
So what’s more important to Chef Nutcha—the ingredients or the cooking technique?
“That’s difficult, as choosing the organic ingredients is so important to me,” she replied. “But I think, in general, it’s the cooking technique. Anyone can purchase all the ingredients, but without the proper cooking techniques, it’s just a pile of ingredients.”
Chef Nutcha’s interest in healthy food was honed in a hospital in Bangkok, where she worked as a nurse. In this capacity, she worked on trials of treatments involving cancer patients.
“I recognize that what we eat has a direct impact on our wellness,” she declared. “So I wanted to create meals that are healthy, organic, locally sourced when possible, and have no preservatives.”
And she’s keen to emphasize that Baan Lao is a team effort. It wouldn’t have been possible to launch the restaurant without everyone involved sharing in the same vision.
She chose to live in Steveston because she found it to be such a quaint and charming community. It’s also an ideal location for her and her husband to raise a family.
“It can be tough to establish work-life balance when owning a restaurant,” she conceded. “So I wanted to be close enough to home that my kids can easily stop in to see me on their way home from school and when they’re out for a walk.
“We love being part of the community here, and we’re close enough to all the amenities of Vancouver, too,” Chef Nutcha continued. “When we envisioned Baan Lao, we dreamed of a beautiful waterfront location—and we found it.”