The hearts behind Khao are set on the creation of the extraordinary
As the sun drops behind the panorama of the Doi Suthep mountain range, it casts shadows over the rice fields only a few metres away from the recently opened restaurant Khao, at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. And as we settle in for an extraordinary dinner, the hotel’s F&B Director Rohan Ogale explains the genesis of the almost avant-garde menu—which sees creative minds following an impulse to take Thai food and turn it into something it has never been before.
“It’s more than fine dining,” says Rohan, explaining how tradition has melded with eclecticism. By tradition, all the dishes are influenced by the Silk Route, as generations of northern Thais have, over time, mixed central Thai flavours with those of Yunnan cuisine and Burmese cuisine. “We wanted to put together dishes inspired by local recipes, handed down from generation to generation, but to take the recipes and ingredients to another level.”
The restaurant has been working with organic farms all over Thailand, including those of the Royal Projects, in order to find the best produce possible. Sometimes that’s just around the corner, as in the case of the Four Seasons’ very own herb garden, but it’s also included finding capon chicken in other parts of Thailand, a bird that has been specially reared to give a juicer, more flavourful taste. The entire menu, in fact, has been built on an exploration of the country to search out the chimeras of Thai produce.
Like the food menu, the cocktail menu is remarkably unusual, consisting of concoctions devised by renowned Spanish mixologist Javier De Las Meulas. One such drink is the Mon Jam cocktail—inspired by a nearby mountain community—which is infused with local herbs and made with spirits at the local distillery of award-winning distiller Nikolaus Prachensky. If you’ve always wondered what rice wine tastes like, but have never been brave enough to face one of Thailand’s infamous lao khao stands, Prachensky has created ‘Spirit of the Rice Field’, a much finer version of the popular drink that is exclusively made for Khao. It’s technically vodka, but like lao khao is made with rice (grown on the farms of Chiang Mai’s German Consul). The restaurant also has a carefully chosen wine list, with international selections alongside premium Thai wines.
Thai Head Chef Anchalee Luadkham gives me some insight into how she managed to transfuse traditional Thai tastes with original concepts, taking local dishes and somehow turning them on their ear. Before arriving at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, Anchalee worked for a number of years honing her Thai cuisine expertise at a leading luxury brand propety in Chiang Mai.
“I learned from my family,” the chef says, adding that her mother and grandmother were her main influences. She never formally studied Thai cuisine, but after gaining plaudits she was asked to teach in a Thai cooking school. This later led to working at Chiang Mai’s two most exclusive resorts.
“I worked with many executive chefs, each with their own original ideas, but here we tried to do something completely different,” she remarks.
While some of the dishes presented during our meal had hints of what might be served at some Thai restaurants, her Laab Lobster and Tom Yum Kha Moo (traditional sour soup but with roasted pork leg) defy what one might call “ordinary” Thai food. As for the rest of the restaurant’s fare, there’s hardly a dish on the menu you might have already been acquainted with, however each somehow resonates with something you’ve tried in the past. As well as the aforementioned dishes, try the Yam Pla Fu, a crispy catfish with tangerine, perhaps with a side dish of Pad Chayote Neam, a light, healthy choice consisting of fried chayote, tangy fermented pork, and cherry tomatoes. If you are dining Thai-style and sharing dishes, you might also go for the Ping Ruam—pork and chicken on skewers served with cucumber and galangal relish and spattered with peanut dust—or the Gai Ok, a roasted chicken leg with green peppercorn, pickled chili, and Lanna chili dip. In addition, diners are treated to six kinds of locally grown rice—at least four times more choice than one usually gets.
Rohan goes on to say that each dish has its own story, whether that revolves around the Northern villages from where the produce came, the method in which each meal is cooked, or the historical context of each dish. While the dishes can be prepared to suit the tastes of the guests, he says that the emphasis is on giving diners a unique experience, or in some ways taking them on a journey through Thailand and Thai cuisine.
“Guests who are looking for normal Thai fare will be surprised,” he says, referring to the unusual dishes, “But that’s our intention. We want to present something different.”
Anchalee echoes these remarks, saying that a lot of guests, after perusing at the menu, look rather nonplussed and proceed to ask where the Pad Thai is. She says if that’s what they want she can make it for them, but she encourages diners to experiment.
“I know that a lot of guests have never seen or tasted food like this,” she says, “and I’ll change the style to suit certain needs. But if they gamble with the dishes they’ve never heard of, after tasting them they always want more.”
Interview by James Austin Farrell