Nutcha Phanthoupheng didn’t set out to be a chef. Born and raised in the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand, Phanthoupheng began her working life first as a nurse and later as a cancer researcher at Bangkok’s Princess Chulabhorn Hospital. These days, though she’s still wearing a starched white lab coat, Phanthoupheng’s experiments take place in her Richmond restaurant.
Phanthoupheng is the chef and owner of Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine, set in an airy loft-like space on the Steveston waterfront. For her elaborate multi-course tasting menus, Phanthoupheng draws heavily on her scientific background, her childhood experiences, and her training in traditional Royal Thai cuisine to craft a parade of meticulously plated dishes using ingredients ranging from Vancouver Island–raised water buffalo to hand-roasted wild crickets.
How did a child from Thailand’s countryside grow up to become a chef in Canada, preparing sophisticated Thai cuisine?
When Phanthoupheng was a young girl in Thailand’s rural northeast, close to the Lao border, her family raised, foraged, or caught nearly everything they ate, she recounts. Although they had no running water or refrigeration, her mother taught her to cook, crafting simple meals from the fresh ingredients they produced or sourced themselves.
But cooking was what you did for your family, she says, not a profession. Roles for women in her community were traditional, and she decided to study nursing at Khon Kaen University. Nursing in Thailand, she explains, “is a very respected profession. And I knew I wanted to be able to help people. That’s a part of Thai culture—you care for one another.”
As a nurse, Phanthoupheng quickly noticed the connection between food and good health. Working in medicine “opened my eyes to how much our food sources impact our health,” she says, and she repeatedly saw how poor diets or lack of access to healthy foods contributed to illness.
She found herself counselling patients about what they ate and how to improve their diets. She even met the Canadian man who would one day become her husband when she treated him for a foodborne malady.
Phanthoupheng returned to school for an MBA, which led to a role in cancer research at Princess Chulabhorn Hospital in Bangkok. Yet, ironically, her busy medical career left her little time to focus on her own meals, and she began to miss the experience of cooking. It was only after she married and moved with her husband to Canada in 2014 that she finally had time to return to the kitchen.
Yet even as she devoted herself to preparing meals for her family, which now includes two daughters, ages five and eight, she didn’t think of cooking as a potential career. It was her husband who urged her to cook professionally. “Originally, I wanted to open a small café, but my husband thinks bigger. He encouraged me to chase my dream.”
While Phanthoupheng had management experience from her medical career to combine with her cooking skills, she initially doubted whether she could pull off a major restaurant project. She also decided that, although she knew the basics of Thai food, she needed to expand her knowledge of the country’s culinary traditions.
She returned to Thailand to study privately with Chumpol Jangprai, chef and co-owner of Bangkok’s R-Haan, a restaurant that has earned two Michelin stars for its multi-course Royal Thai menus. She also trained with chef Vichit Mukura, who, like Phanthoupheng, began cooking in his mother’s kitchen, eventually earning a Michelin star at Khao in Bangkok.
Finally Phanthoupheng felt ready, and in February 2021 she opened Baan Lao on the Steveston waterfront, not far from where she and her family live. “I love living in Steveston. It has the feel of a small town.”
Her goal at Baan Lao, she says, is to help customers understand and enjoy traditional Thai cuisine, which she currently serves in two fixed-price offerings: the 12-course signature menu, and the less extravagant but still elegant eight-course Taste of Baan Lao menu.
Dining at Baan Lao can feel like participating in a science experiment. Staff set a Bunsen burner on the table to infuse coconut milk soup with a heady blend of herbs. Like a pharmacist compounding a medication, Phanthoupheng appears tableside with a mortar and pestle to blend a dressing for her deep-fried papaya salad. A palate-cleansing drink of butterfly pea flowers is served with a syringe; when diners inject a lemony liquid into the aqua drink, its colour changes to a pastel lavender.
Phanthoupheng’s parents grow the organic rice she serves at Baan Lao. She uses the rice to craft crackers that become a base for a chili-tomato condiment she layers with a roasted grasshopper, cricket, or other insect. Insects, she notes, were a frequent source of protein for her family.
The chef transforms water buffalo, another ingredient she ate as a child, into her signature massaman curry. She sources her meat from Vancouver Island’s McClintock Farm.
And a dessert she designed draws directly on her early years. Called Chef Nutcha’s Childhood Memories, it’s an edible diorama of the landscape where she was raised. A puff of cotton candy becomes the leaves of a chocolate tree planted in “earth” made from almonds and charcoal-coconut ash. Coconut-stuffed “rocks” are actually rice cakes, and edible flowers are scattered around the plate, just as they decorate much of Thailand’s terrain.
Now that her restaurant is established, this medical professional-turned-chef says that one of her favourite activities is talking with her customers about her food: asking how they’re enjoying the dishes she’s prepared and continuing to share the Thai heritage and cuisine that are so important to her.
“Baan Lao is our Thailand,” she says. “Our home.”
All photos courtesy of Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine. Read more local food and drink stories.