The nature of cross-cultural culinary exchange is changing right before our eyes. Not so long ago the foreign chef in Bangkok was an unofficial gastrodiplomat: the Italian chef trafficked happily in truffles and tiramisu, the French chef lapped up the praise for his steak tartare, and that was that. Then, a few years back, the likes of David Thompson, among other audacious international chefs, began claiming they could cook local food better than the locals. Now, however, we are seeing something arguably even more exciting: nomad chefs trained in some of the best kitchens in the world using Thai ingredients to rustle up inventive, globally-inspired food that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen—or tasted—before.
Pulling off this risky approach with no small amount of pizzazz is Canvas—a new restaurant from the team behind Thonglor speakeasy Rabbithole. With its European-inspired facade and dazzling two-level interior accented with bunches of dried flowers, brass fixtures and black and white tiling, it certainly looks the part. But the real attraction is not the modern rustic design, nor the large open kitchen flanked by a bar counter, nor even the artisanal cocktails, but some of the most immaculate and intricately-constructed dishes to have graced Thonglor—that and the take-no-prisoners enthusiasm of Riley Sanders, Canvas’ young Texas-born head chef.
“We want to be a restaurant that really defines contemporary cooking in Bangkok today,” says the flame-haired 28-year-old. One of his formative experiences was working at L20, a now-defunct Chicago seafood restaurant that won three Michelin stars under chef Laurent Gras. “I worked there thinking that I want to know what it takes to be the very best at what you do, and I learnt that,” he says earnestly. Another defining period were the three peripatetic years spent on a super yacht. “I was lucky because the owners were very open to letting me cook whatever I wanted. It became this sort of food lab where I could experiment and get really inspired from the travel I was doing. It was an opportunity not a lot of young chefs have.”
These experiences gave him a wellrounded viewpoint of what constitutes good food, but as with so many foreign chefs foraging, fermenting and flaming their way into contention these days, from Gaa’s Garima Aroma to Le Cochon Blanc’s Chandler Schultz and 80/20’s Andrew Martin, it is Thailand’s bountiful local produce—the palette of ingredients at our fingertips—that currently excites him. “People are starting to think about ingredients here outside of how they’ve been used traditionally. There’s a lot more potential than what’s been realised so far,” he says.
(See also: Gaa Proves To Be A Culinary Mix Master)
Unusual gourmet ingredients taking centre stage on Canvas’ slim 11-item a la carte menu (a tasting menu is due this month) include termite hill mushrooms, marian plums, mud crab and pickled mulberries, among other locality- and seasonality-showcasing ingredients. For a spell there were also beautiful cape gooseberries—“sweet and tart and juicy and aromatic and floral”—but they disappeared all of a sudden, leaving Sanders somewhat bereft, until something else filled the gap. “Just being involved with how fruits comes into season and how quickly that changes has been incredibly interesting because it’s a lot different to back home.”
All of this locavore chest-thumping would be inconsequential were Sanders’ food not interesting—which it consistently is: a pudding-like starter of charred and steamed corn; pigeon confit with roasted watermelon and lightly charred wild pepper leaf; Mekong catfish caramelised with a Japanese-inspired tamarind glaze and served with charred grapes and coconut emulsion; sous vide lamb neck with blood clams and two unlikely purees made from Chinese preserved plum and sataw stink beans; and pillow-soft roasted chestnut cakes with a toffee-like bael cream. Conceptually novel and many textured, these and other dishes leave you excited for the future of food in this cruelly unsentimental city of ours.
Canvas, 113/9-10 Sukhumvit soi 55; 09-9614-1158; canvasbangkok.com
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