Saipin Chutima

F&W Star Chef

Restaurant: Lotus of Siam (Las Vegas)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My grandmother. I started cooking alongside her when I was about 7 years old. She told me that when making food, you should put your heart and soul into it and do the best that you can.

What was the first dish you ever cooked with her?
The first dish my grandmother ever taught me was a Thai chile dipping sauce, or nam prik. It’s very versatile—it can go into a curry eaten with rice, or as a dip for raw vegetables, which in Thai is called nam prik num.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
A green curry or a red curry are both good to try making from scratch. Those are the easier ones. When you get past those it becomes very complex! Lad na is another good one, a Thai dish of wide rice noodles with gravy. The gravy is pretty easy. It’s almost like a Chinese noodle dish, but with Thai flavors and textures. It requires the same easy steps as pad thai, except it’s less well known.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
It’s a book in Thai by a man called Mom Tanasee. He was a member of the royal court. He wrote the book back in the ’40s or ’50s. It doesn't have any colorful pictures. I like it because he describes not just the food but the atmosphere and time of day that you should eat it. How you should eat a certain type of dish at sunset, another type at sunrise.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
It’s hard for me to pick one; I make all of them, and all from scratch. But my daughter Penny wants me to pick my khao soy. It’s almost like a curry but not really. I learned it on the border between Burma and Yunnan province. It’s got a yellow base, but the texture is pretty liquidy. It shouldn’t be thick because it’s not eaten with rice, but with egg noodles. Sometimes you can have it with beef, pork or chicken, but a lot of people like it with beef. We serve with pickled vegetables on the side, with onion and a spritz of lime. It’s a pretty heavy dish—most likely people would eat it during lunch or dinner. Not that many Thai restaurants serve it. The way other people make it, they often make it too sweet.

Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
1. Pork in hung-lay sauce. It’s almost like a curry, but there’s no curry; it’s just very stewed. It’s not well known in the U.S., because not that many people have traveled to the northern provinces to try foods beyond pad thai. Hung-lay was the number one thing on my mind to bring to the U.S. when we first moved here.

2. Sai oua, northern Thai spicy sausage. Most people don’t know that Thai people make Thai sausages. They would assume they’d be German-influenced. But no, Thai people have quite a few different sausages! Where German sausages are more sour or tart, this one is more herbal. It has kaffir lime leaves, dried herbs, so it has a bit of a kick. I make it at the restaurant. It’s a long process; it takes about eight hours to make it.

3. Kha nom jeen nam ngyow. It’s a rice vermicelli curry made with mainly pork. We also serve it with pork blood, which is pretty popular on the Thai northern borders. Again, not that many people are aware of this dish’s existence. When you go to the north, they show you to tourist areas where it’s not found. But if people like pork, this would be the number one dish to order. The spices don't quite burn your tongue, only the back of the throat, so you’re not numb to the tastes. You get a tang, a saltiness, an herbal spice, also dried chile spices, so it’s all flavors in one. It’s a pretty good dish.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
The number one thing is to understand why you do what you do, to pay attention and to taste your food. Everyone has to taste everything. Take fish sauce: One bottle might taste saltier than the other, even if it has the same label. You don’t know which one is saltier until you taste it. They don’t write that on the label for you. Same thing with fresh chiles: They change with the seasons. So who knows, maybe summer they’ll be very hot, and winter they’ll be dull.

One technique everyone should know.
The timing of your ingredients. With Thai food, we cannot rush to finish a dish. You need to add the ingredients at the right times. You can’t add calamari to a dish first or it will overcook by the time the rest of the dish is ready. With a sauce, sometimes you have to let it boil to a certain point before you add everything else because it might be too tangy or too salty. You have to have an equilibrium between those flavors.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I always have to learn every day. And what we think we’ve perfected today will have to be perfected the next day. My husband likes to quote Julia Child: “The day you stop learning is the day you die.”

What are your talents besides cooking?
I’ve put my family on a Thai cleanse, the liver and gall bladder flush. I haven’t done it for the restaurant yet, but I’ve been testing it on my kids. So far it’s working pretty well! The first day, you go on a light fast. You drink hot water mixed with lemon and honey in the morning, and raw vegetables. I grow a few veggies in the backyard, so we eat those since they’re organically grown. I make a drink of blended herbs and water that helps cleanse out your body. You drink juices throughout the day. The third day you have to drink a mix of olive oil, lime juice, honey and hot water. We’ve been doing it for two or three weeks, and it’s been doing pretty well.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Galangal and lemongrass. You can’t be without either one in Thai food. And kaffir lime leaves. They’re necessities.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
A knife, matches, pot rice, and water. Everything else can be found in the forest. I lived in the jungle growing up, so I’ve been through worse!

Three restaurants you’re dying to get to in the next year and why?
1. Yamakase in Los Angeles, but it’s omakase, and it’s invitation-only, so my husband and I are trying to see if we can get a reservation.

2. Totoraku is a Japanese steakhouse, also in LA. But sadly it’s also invitation only, so we’re trying to see if they can get an invite there, too.

3. Morimoto is opening a restaurant at the Mirage in Las Vegas. I want to try it.

How often do you get to Los Angeles from Las Vegas?
My husband and I try to go about every weekend. We love to try new places. We also have some favorite standbys, like Newport Tan Cang Seafood. They have a location in San Gabriel, but the Rowland Heights one is better. It’s been there for the past 25 years. It’s the same owner. The seafood is so fresh. I love the Dungeness crab, the oysters and their crab with curry sauce.

If you could take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, who would you take and where would you take them?
I think we’d take Tony Bourdain to Thailand and go eat the real deal. We’d go for the truly off-menu, the foods that aren’t quite legal here. I’d take him all over, too, and not just northern Thailand.

What’s your favorite snack?
I like miang kam; it’s a traditional northern Thai snack of a leaf wrapped around coconut shavings, fried shallots and other foods with a squirt of lime.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
No souvenir, just the fact that we return relaxed and stress-free.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
Something easy, like a noodle house. In Thai we call it a kao gang restaurant, a street vendor, who serves the basic rice and curry, the basic noodle dish. Something fast and easy, not just easy for us to make, but for people to eat who are in a hurry. It seems like people don’t have time to sit and relax when they dine anymore. It seems like everyone is in and out.

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