One of Bangkok’s youngest and boldest innovators talks about his long voyage from Texas to “contemporary Bangkok cuisine”
The whole point of travel is to be surprised. For the hottest new chef in Bangkok, with an unusual background as a wandering foodie, the local ingredients that surprise him most at the market are the ones that inspire his best dishes.
Along the nightlife strip of Thong Lor, playground of affluent Thais and expats often looking for dining experiences that are the very luxurious antithesis of Thai, the recently-opened Canvas restaurant has become one very original, and tasty exception—thanks to a brash 29-year-old who hails not from Thonburi, but Texas.
At first glance, Riley Sanders looks like he must be the junior sous-chef in his own, very orderly open kitchen—with his boyish looks topped by a shock of ginger-coloured hair. But as soon as he talks about his restaurant concept and menu, there’s intense determination in his steely eyes. He’s been focused on becoming a chef ever since he watched Julia Child cooking classes on U.S. Public Television in his hometown of Austin.
“For my parents, it was canned food or the crockpot,” he recounts. “But wherever we went on vacation, I wanted to choose the restaurants, not the water parks.”
After trying to satisfy his parents’ ambitions by studying business at Baylor, he soon transferred to the Texas Culinary Academy, then took a grunt job at up to 60 hours a week at Chicago’s L20—so he could learn from Michelin-starred chef Laurent Gras “what it takes to cook at the highest level”. Vowing to “get away from what everyone else was doing”, he eschewed more classical French training in favour of Texas outlets showcasing Japanese and Southeast Asian influences.
Next, he really sailed away from solid ground—literally—by seeking a position as a private cook on a yacht. Fortunately, his wealthy, prematurely retired employers became Riley’s biggest fans and supporters.
“They were incredibly supportive, excited by my cooking and happy to be an audience for my experimentation,” he says. The work was more challenging than might be expected, as Riley points, “since ingredients were hard to come by. So I had to find new ways to cook lobster for four days or more.”
From “St. Bart’s to the Great Lakes” he delineates, the yacht docked frequently enough to allow him plenty of time to explore flavours on shore. This increased when he arranged to sail six months each year and wander independently during the rest. “I wanted to know what makes great food great in Oaxaca, Lima or Paris,” he declares. Along the way, he learned to admire the handling of ingredients in Japan, the vibrancy of Mexico, the possibilities of forest foraging in Copenhagen. This sometime sailor came ashore with the World’s Top 50 Restaurants as his guide to landlubbing.
Having first been beguiled by Thailand’s glut of exotic tastes in 2013, he now brings all his accrued ability as a finely-tuned food compass to everything he does at Canvas. “Who wants to work with the same old imports every day?” the chef asks rhetorically. And while he’s a proud supporter of the world-wide trend for farm-to-table freshness, he has yet to make permanent links with sustainable suppliers. But for now, he proudly bring forth from the fridge his own foraging finds of the day—in this case, some bitter cherry-like Thai-style olives.
This has led to an astoundingly playful tasting menu, creating an edible canvas of compositions: Phuket’s kobia fish served raw, sweet crayfish, the stringy cha-om herb spread over grilled squid, sour oranges, pepper leaf, preserved lemon, galangal, blood clams (similar to cockles), mangosteen turned into mousse, and a Thai-grown brassica (in the mustard greens family). He’s found a Thai-bred wagyu beef as well, and combines beef cheek with pungent kapi shrimp paste. The dishes may be described in English, the presentation Western, but the taste is supposed to exude Thai-ness. But it would be foolish to describe any specific menu with a restaurant so much in evolution and a chef who consciously refuses to be static.
“Everything is changing so fast that I expect to bring out 2-7 new specials each week,” he adds. “And I prefer to base them on finds in the night markets, so I can have the whole next day to get my dishes right.”
That may sound like a lot of pressure, but for a chef used to working in a ship’s galley many nautical miles from the nearest grocery, this is plain fun—and the best way to extend on dry land his voyages of discovery.
As Chef Riley summarized his philosophy at the market, “If I don’t know what it is, then it must be special.”
Interview by John Krich