By Wanda Love
At ease in her pristine white chef’s coat and hat, Chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng glides ethereally from table to table at Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine in Vancouver. She has just spent the past 12 hours preparing her signature nine course dinner for a sold-out crowd, yet her demeanour is calm and relaxed. Greeting each of her sated guests with a smile and friendly conversation, she graciously accepts their applause and accolades.
Despite opening Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine in the midst of the pandemic, her restaurant is thriving with many dates fully booked months in advance. It’s high praise for a new chef and first-time restaurant owner, though she doesn’t display the slightest hint of ego and is quick to credit her team for the success.
As a child, she assisted her mother in preparing meals for the family in the bucolic setting of a small village in rural Thailand. With no electricity or refrigeration, family meals were prepared using rice from their own field, produce from their vegetable garden, and protein from the buffalo, chickens, and pigs they raised. To supplement what they raised, Nutcha would hunt the surrounding forest foraging for wild mushrooms, honey and capturing other natural food sources, including insects, frogs, lizards, fish and birds. This natural, organic, farm-to-table upbringing has helped guide her passion for seeking out fresh ingredients.
She has always loved to cook, however Nutcha didn’t start her career with aspirations to be a chef. Her desire to care for others initially led her to a medical career. “Becoming a registered nurse and treating patients who live as I have been raised, I knew many of the common health challenges were caused by contaminated water sources, poor hygiene standards, improperly handled food and food storage. For others, their disease stemmed from the use of unregulated preservatives and pesticides.” With steely resolve, Nutcha returned to her studies, obtaining an MBA and securing work with the cancer research department at Princess Chulaborn Hospital.
Her transition to chef is surprising to many, yet she insists it is as a natural progression. “My career in health care made me intensely aware of the impact the food we consume has on our health and wellness. I have always loved caring for others. Now I fulfill that by preparing healthy food. I was raised consuming meals made from fresh, natural ingredients and firmly believe not only is it better for your health, but it tastes better, too.”
After marrying and moving to Vancouver with her husband and young children, she longed to pursue a career as a chef, incorporating what she had learned during her medical career, reinforcing her commitment to preparing healthy, organic, traditional Thai cuisine.
Nutcha travelled back to Thailand to study with Chef Chumpol Jangprai, the Iron Chef of Thailand and the only two Michelin star Thai chef in the world. She continued her training under Chef Vichit Mukura, who served the Thai Royal family, and now has his own restaurant that is recognized with a coveted Michelin star.
With the focus at Baan Lao on fresh, organic, sustainable ingredients, Chef Nutcha personally selects all food suppliers. She routinely spends her days off visiting local farms and markets to meet with the farmers. The rice served is from her own 15 acre organic rice field in Thailand that has been in the family for generations. She believes knowing exactly where our food comes from is essential, and that respect for the environment is imperative.
Entering Baan Lao, the clean, crisp design aesthetic features a soaring ceiling and floor to ceiling windows allowing a stunning waterfront view. Sunsets make the white walls within the restaurant glow, mirroring the soft pink hue of the evening sky.
Each table is beautifully set with perfectly polished cutlery identical to that used by the Thai Royal Family – minus the crest, of course.
Complimenting the Signature Dinner Experience menu, wine pairings provide a stunning mix of reds, whites and ice wine, from local vineyards and from around the world, as selected by award-winning Master Sommelier, Pier-Alexis Soulière.
In a unique twist, a tea pairing menu is also available featuring a diverse selection of curated teas from Certified Tea Sommelier, Emmanuelle Viennois.
The parade of 13 different dishes begins with an amuse bouche of minced, organic, Berkshire pork, perched atop a hand-carved ‘spoon’ of fresh pineapple, indicative of the chef’s creativity and carving skills.
Her artistic talent is showcased in the breathtaking presentation of each dish at Baan Lao, using her own creativity along with skills honed during private lessons from the top food plating artist and stylist in Thailand.
The organic beef arrives, appearing to be served on a cloud as the dry ice wafts from beneath.
Later, a glass dome lifts with an intoxicating smoky scent before the organic, free-range duck breast is revealed, surrounded by a sumptuous red curry sauce.
Phat Thai Goong, commonly known as pad thai, is anything but common as it emerges from Chef Nutcha’s kitchen. It’s beautifully wrapped in a delicate, lacy cage of organic egg, topped with tiger prawn and brightly-coloured edible flowers from chef’s own backyard garden just a few blocks away.
Salmon filet arrives to the table, perfectly cooked and decadently adorned with caviar and edible gold leaf. A feast for the eyes, but the homemade green curry sauce will have you wishing for a private moment to lick the plate clean.
The dramatic presentations continue, providing many Instagram-worthy moments. Though often restaurants rely on the show to carry the food, it’s not so at Baan Lao. Chef Nutcha’s culinary prowess is evidenced in the ingenuity of each dish she has created, while deftly balancing and layering an exquisite array of flavours in every bite.
Motivated by her desire to guide guests on a healthy, exquisite culinary journey through her homeland, Chef Nutcha is flattered by the attention she is already receiving as a new chef.
Having visited 17 different Michelin-starred restaurants in Thailand as she prepared to launch her culinary career, she smiles shyly and her eyes sparkle as she says, “yes, I’d love to have Baan Lao earn a Michelin star.”
Check out Chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng’s rising star at Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine in Vancouver.
Wanda Love is a freelance spa and travel writer who loves exploring the diversity of food, spa and travel experiences available from down the block to around the world. Follow Wanda on Instagram @travelspalife.