Weerawat Triyasenawat, aka Chef Num, opened his trailblazing, hyper-local restaurant, Samuay & Sons, with his brother 5 years ago in his hometown of Udon Thani in Northeastern Thailand. His reputation has, over the years, continued to grow at home and internationally, and he recently brought his unique take on Isaan cooking to London, at Thai hotspot, Kiln, where he was guest chef for a night.

 

We interrupted his kitchen prep before the event, which expanded from 75 to 95 covers due to popular demand, to ask him about his philosophy on food, foraging in endangered forests, and what it was like opening a forward-thinking restaurant like Samuay & Sons in a city less familiar with having dining norms challenged.

 

So Chef Num, it’s great to see you here in London. Have you been here before?

No, it’s my first visit here, but I’m enjoying it so far and looking forward to trying some of the local restaurants.

 

You’ve spent quite a bit of time outside of your native Thailand, haven’t you?

Yes, I spent 9 years in the US, firstly on a cultural programme in Oakland, California, at Laney College. I spent my last two years in San Francisco restaurants.

 

What did you learn from your time cooking in America?

The most important thing I learned from my stay in the US is the farm-to-table concept. When I returned to Thailand, I realised it was time for me to learn to cook Thai food, and I decided my path was to really get to know my local ingredients.

I worked at Bo.Lan [Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones’ Michelin-starred restaurant] in Bangkok. Then I opened my restaurant with my brother in our own city.

 

How Udon Thani locals react to your restaurant?

Well, people didn’t really understand what my brother and I were trying to do. Even my family didn’t really understand. We cook simple Thai food using organic local ingredients, but this is not what people were expecting from a meal out.

It was very difficult: they were expecting a huge menu with 50-100 items, but we had just 16-18 items, with no pictures of the food, and we changed the menu every few months. In Thai culture, people don’t want to wait for their food, but we make everything fresh, and this takes time.

It was a big struggle at first, financially, and to educate the guests. We didn’t do any marketing, we relied on word of mouth. As it was a new concept, it took time for people to get to know about us and what we were doing.

 

 

But you’re getting quite an international reputation now, which must be helping?

Yes, it’s getting better every year. Many Bangkok tourists come to try our restaurant. And in the last couple of years, we were lucky to have had articles written about us in international magazines.

We try to improve ourselves every day, and we try to improve the message, as well. Five years ago I had vision, but I didn’t quite have the knowledge, and every day I have been learning what’s right and wrong, and our guests have been walking along together with us.

 

Has your culinary concept at the restaurant also evolved?

It has changed a bit; we’re now more clear in our direction. In our second year we realised we wanted to focus entirely on very local ingredients. We want to preserve local wisdom from farmers, and the foragers who are living in the countryside.

Once a week I go to the countryside, and learn simple recipes, and then bring the ideas back to my kitchen. There I keep to the authentic flavour but give it a modern reworking. Over the years, we’ve built strong relationships with locals who forage, and now we call them and ask them if a certain ingredient is available, or I ask them to take me and we go foraging together.

I like to tell people stories about local wisdom and local ingredients, and how if one disappears the other is affected.

 

Are the ingredients you use under threat from biodiversity loss?

Yes, forest areas are very much endangered. In my region, and across Thailand, monopoly plantations to support industries are a huge problem. In Isaan, sugar cane is the main threat to preserving local forest species diversity.

Pak wan, for example, is an edible shoot that comes after early summer rains. People eat it with ant eggs. But it’s difficult to find it in the wild now; it can be farmed but the flavour is totally different.

Many ingredients are under threat, and this means not just the plants, but the flavour profile of Isaan food. Isaan cuisine is rustic and straightforward, so it relies heavily on fresh ingredients. Pak wan is very simple, you just boil it, add chilli and ants eggs, and season with fish sauce and salt. But it’s difficult to find wild pak wan now, which is such a key flavour in the dish.

And the fish sauce, pla ra, is changing too, as in the old days it was home fermented from freshwater fish mainly, but now no one makes it at home anymore and we are forgetting how to make this the old way with traditional techniques.

 

So you make sauces and all dishes at the restaurant by hand?

Yes, we make everything ourselves; this is our experiment. Or we try to find the right people to do this in the traditional, craftsmanship way – we want to support these people. They have always been doing it, and I like to make them proud of what they are doing.

 

Would you ever open another restaurant elsewhere, in Bangkok, for example?

It has never crossed my mind to open anywhere else. I came back to Udon Thani to be close to my family again after 9 yrs in the US. It’s part of Asian culture to return home; it’s your chance to take care of your parents.

Working at Bo.Lan really inspired me, and I have carried that philosophy to my hometown. We want to preserve local wisdom; it’s a trend in modern cuisine to cook with local ingredients and I like this movement. Many of the young generation of Thai cooks think in the same way.

Having a restaurant outside of Bangkok has meant that while I know the suppliers in Bangkok, in Udon Thani I can actually go out with the guys and learn from them. Today when my chef colleagues in the big city want some rare item, they call me. Some chefs also call me for advice. More chefs are helping local people now, and this can make a better life for them, care for our plants, and look after the food chain.

 

Crucial issues, indeed, as our environment is increasingly being pushed to its limits. Thank you, Chef Num, for this fascinating talk and your inspiring work.

 

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