By using 100% local ingredients, Cuisine de Garden is the most nature-inspired restaurant in Chiang Mai thanks to small and local farmers.
Dim lights barely guided a path marked by broad naked stones as hovering branches faintly swayed to the songs of cicadas welcoming dusk into the night. Chiang Mai is typically bustling with scooters and foreign tourists sporting loose T-shirts, but the scurry fortunately disappears 15 kilometers southbound on Route 108. Hang Dong district is renowned for antiques, wood carvings, and furniture production. It’s by no accident that a former furniture designer has given his hometown a different fame, by virtue of his culinary vision. The stony path accessorized an obscure secret garden. Or rather, Cuisine de Garden.
Wide panels of wooden doors placidly unveil a zen-like utopia. Inspired by NOMA’s minimalist interior, Chef Leelawat “Nan” Mankongtiphan still wanted to incorporate Chiang Mai’s artistic heritage and his roots as a designer. In the back of the restaurant remains his family’s furniture factory. His food is placed on dishes that pay homage to artists who own small shops and restaurants in the area. This is all part of Chef Nan’s intent to divert attention away from Bangkok while showcasing Chiang Mai’s art and history.
Decades ago, Chef Nan arrived in Chiang Mai to work with his mother as a furniture designer. Curious about other career challenges, he took Japanese cooking classes then attended Western culinary school. After training in a French restaurant, he opened the first Cuisine de Garden. A Western bistro at the time, it failed due to his lack of experience. Determined, he represented Thailand in an international cooking competition where he excelled in molecular cuisine. In 2003, Iron Chef Thailand named him one of the country’s Top Ten Molecular Gastronomy Chefs.
Ask anyone in Chiang Mai’s culinary world, “what’s the best restaurant around here?” Hands down, Cuisine de Garden is the unanimous answer. Chef Nan’s 15-course nature-inspired tasting menu symbolizes his authenticity as it transforms the city’s fine dining scene previously defined by French or Italian influences. Today, more chefs are rediscovering Northern Island’s produce, incorporating provincial herbs and spices into innovative ways to taste food. Chef Nan explained,
“Everything we do is based on nature, which is our concept: nature-inspired. We’re the only restaurant in the city featuring a tasting menu, even if many reports say that I’m crazy to do it here since Chiang Mai locals prefer international cuisine.”
As the first restaurant in Chiang Mai to release a tasting menu, Chef Nan passionately puts local producers and farmers at the forefront of his composition. The first few years of a newly renovated Cuisine de Garden focused on molecular cuisine, scientific sous-vide or creations made from liquid nitrogen. Four years later, the chef decided to support Thai products made from his local area. As opposed to stereotypical Thai flavors often associated with sweetness and coconuts, Northern Thailand’s cool and drizzly climate in mountain valleys cultivates complex savoriness with a punch, especially unique spices and green vegetables exuding uncommon flavors. Chef Nan notes,
“We decided to learn more about Thai wisdom that’s been lost already, like using edible seashell in our presentation. We also practice the technique of fermentation to educate diners on how locals used to eat for a long time. I want to give our guests knowledge.”
A waiter approached the table to present Mango Sphere for palate cleansing. The fresh mango juice in spherification with finger lime caviar was light and refreshing to properly commence a vibrant meal that turned out to be a tasting voyage around the world. The veal dish – steamed with Lanna spice, Galangal salt and sauté edible fern – made its presence known making its march from the kitchen to the table in full aromatic tenderness. Inspired by Greece, grilled Halloumi cheese with red plum compote and red plume syrup was a fine example of Chef Nan’s efforts to promote a small local cheesemaker producing premium quality dairy products. His signature dish, “The Nest,” is a unique runny free range chicken onzen egg gloriously sitting on top of a crispy bunch of vermicelli and chicken. Some dishes are exhibited on top of smoked clay. Chef Nan said,
“We use the clay from the rice field, so you can smell the clay. There are lots of nutrients in the clay, I want people to feel the earth and know how locals live and cook. Nothing less, nothing more.”
A nature-inspired concept coincidentally aligns with the current movement on ethical travel in which Cuisine de Garden spearheads by using 100% local produce that narrates stories of farmers and their land. The reduced number of tables in the restaurant was intentional, as Chef Nan wanted to talk to the clients. From the start, he always wanted his team to focus on what they’ve done best: using food to communicate and educate customers. With an enormous potential for Cuisine de Garden to dominate the international culinary scene, Chef Nan kindly shook his head, “I don’t want that. At the end of the day, I just want to be happy with my food and be with my customers.”
Like he said: nothing more, nothing less.