Golden Plates 2023: Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine bridges two beautiful worlds

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      As journeys go, it’s been a fascinating one, with Nutcha Phanthoupheng’s childhood spent exploring the rice fields of rural Thailand, her time these days guiding one of Vancouver’s most celebrated upscale restaurants, Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine.

      The constant has, as one might expect, been food, starting with the bonds that are forged in the kitchen when one generation passes their knowledge onto the next. If you’re lucky, you have memories of baking cookies with your grandmother, or flipping burgers at the barbecue with your dad.

      Phanthoupheng’s fondest recollections growing up start with being at her mother’s side, playing relentlessly curious, pint-sized sous chef during the preparation of family meals. In the middle of last decade, after relocating to the West Coast with her young family to continue an education in health care, those formative memories would change the course of her life.

      “When I was in high school I wanted to be a nurse,” Phanthoupheng tells the Straight. “But I also loved to cook with my mom in our house. I didn’t have that chance to cook with her anymore when I was studying nursing. When I moved to Vancouver, I had the chance to cook again with my family—with my kids. So I felt like ‘Do I want to be a nurse? Or do I want to do cooking, which I really love?’ Being a nurse I didn’t have time for my family. So I decided to be a chef.”

      That led her back to Thailand, where she would study with mentors including a Thai Iron Chef heading up a two-star Michelin restaurant, and former chef for Thailand’s Royal Family. That was rounded out by top honours in food carving.

      There are, of course, chefs, and then there are the chefs­—both internationally and locally—who’ve become the culinary equivalent of rock stars. Although Baan Lao only opened in 2020, Phanthoupheng is arriving at the point where she’s sitting at the same table as West Coast giants like Vikram Vij, David Hawksworth, and Hidekazu Tojo.

      That’s reflected in her being voted Best Chef in this year’s Golden Plates. Baan Lao, meanwhile, took home top honours in multiple categories, including Best Fine Dining and Best Overall Restaurant. As for how she got there, Phanthoupheng has built a reputation as a talent who balances relentlessly imaginative innovation with high artistry and showmanship.

      To score one of the 20 seats at the intimate Baan Lao is to enter a world where servers wear white gloves, and theatrical dishes feature everything from swirling dry ice for the grilled organic beef tenderloin with thai chilli (marinated beef tenderloin and hand-crushed toasted rice with wild anchovy sauce, lime, and palm sugar) to details like intricately carved, edible pineapple spoons.

      Liquor nerds know pandan leaves as a secret weapon to break out when a cocktail needs an exotically grassy kick; here, they are combined with lemongrass and butterfly peas for the between-courses palate-cleansing drink Nam Ta Khrai Bai Toei Un Chan Ma Nao. Everything, from the lobster phat thai to deep fried papaya salad with roasted organic cashews to the roselle sorbet sorbets, is made fresh daily by Phanthoupheng.

      For a good indicator of the experience at Baan Loa, consider this description for the dessert known as Chef Nutcha’s Childhood Memories: “Chef Nutcha spent months developing this exquisite dessert that evokes a visible representation of the landscape from her rural upbringing: Coconut sesame mousse represents the stones she overturned to forage for insects, while the charcoal rice cake mimics the rock formations of her homeland. Each ‘rock’ is stuffed with hand-roasted, fresh coconut. Chocolate-covered ants add to the bucolic vignette, with the earth element created from almond and charcoal coconut ash. The delicate branches of a chocolate tree support the clouds of cotton candy.”

      Part of the goal at Baan Lao, Phanthoupheng says, is to honour her roots (ingredients, including rice grown on her family’s farm back home) are flown in from Thailand to make the experience as real as possible.

      “For example, holy basil from Thailand is really hard to find here­,” she notes. “You need it to be authentic, but most places will substitute other kinds of basil. And it can be hard to find real Thai galangal. We don’t go through a middleman, we work with an importer to bring in our fresh herbs after we’ve gone to the farms ourselves to source our ingredients. For the rice, my grandfather bought his own rice farm, which he gave to my parents. We grew the rice for ourselves for a long time. We still plow the fields with water buffalo.”

      Making use of BC ingredients—from Fraser River salmon to local vegetables­—is also of high importance at Baan Lao.

      “We live here, we go for walks here, and we raise our children here,” Phanthoupheng says. “So of course we want to support local businesses.”

      Consider that an expert bridging not only past and present, but also of two worlds, as part of an ongoing journey that’s far from over. GS

      Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine is located at 4100 Bayview Street in Richmond.