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Saffron sublime: Chef Gai marks quarter of a century perfecting classic Thai dishes

Saffron sublime: Chef Gai marks quarter of a century perfecting classic Thai dishes

Let’s face it, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out in Phuket; from street food all the way up to our Michelin-starred PRU, and in between offerings of all cuisines at a multitude of price points including a world-class selection of both premium imported and quality local products.

By Chris Watson

Saturday 21 March 2020, 11:00AM

Worapong ‘Chef Gai’ Paenchoo is all smiles after serving up classic Thai dishes at Banyan Tree’s Saffron restaurant for 25 years. Photo: Supplied

Worapong ‘Chef Gai’ Paenchoo is all smiles after serving up classic Thai dishes at Banyan Tree’s Saffron restaurant for 25 years. Photo: Supplied

But this was not always the case… Just for a moment, let us reflect on what was available 25 years ago. I am sure that many of you reading this article were probably here at that time. For those of you who weren’t, let me share a picture: Banyan Tree Phuket had just opened in the Laguna complex, and yes, there were several other notable hotels, but at that time it was truly a luxury pioneer, a leader that has evolved into what it represents today.

I am indeed confident that for those who lived here at that time, Phuket, and more specifically, Laguna, was a different place altogether. However, imagine not only what it was like for residents for the first time finding their way around this charming and unspoiled island, imagine the hotel employees and for the purposes of my diatribe today, those culinary wizards, the Chefs! What was it like for them? Diners were definitely much less demanding, but equally getting hold of quality food products was an almost insurmountable daily challenge and surviving as a restaurant, albeit within a hotel, with commitment to the same concept till today, is an achievement worthy of acknowledging.

Saffron is Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts signature Thai restaurant across its ever-expanding portfolio of properties. Named after the spice derived from the crocus with 75,000 flowers needed to produce just one pound, this unique and highly priced spice is a refined and treasured delicacy.

The very first Saffron restaurant was opened together with the hotel in Phuket, in 1995 and led as a group concept by Executive Chef Renu Homsombat, still carving a path to offer authentic Thai recipes with an occasional innovative twist. Chef Renu was recently celebrated by Banyan Tree on International Women’s Day for her dedicated contribution.

As with all Banyan Tree’s product offerings, environmental awareness through supporting the local community with an emphasis on sustainable local products is always paramount. With Saffron’s reputation for connecting the diner with the local environment, I am excited to be experiencing this restaurant for the very first time. It’s Head Chef is Chef Worapong Paenchoo, nicknamed Chef Gai, who has been with the restaurant almost since opening day.

Originally from Trang province, he will cook for me today his signature dishes. We meet and I leave myself in his hands; Omakase! Or as Thais say, Laew Tae Khun! I begin with Khong Wang Ruam, a delectable platter of appetisers including moist chicken satay, banana blossom prawn salad and fried white snapper rice noodle rolls. Whilst enjoying this, Chef Gai pauses for a moment at table to tell me he learnt to cook from his mother using carefully sourced products in traditional methods; his passion till today, to slow cook.

His next dish perfectly exemplifies this philosophy; a four-hour braised short rib beef Massaman curry, cooked Southern style as Chef Gai tells me, “With lots of love!” It is certainly a triumph of a perfectly balanced sauce with pickled vegetables ensuring it is not oversweet, the meat literally falling off the bone.

Diamond Resort Phuket

As this is served to me, a charming waitress arrives with a trolley showcasing an intriguing range of different rice; turmeric, organic brown, pandan and of course jasmine. During my selection, I am delightfully educated in their individual health benefits; a first time for me!

I continue with a Kanom Jeen Nam Ya Pla, a salmon yellow curry, theatrically finished off tableside and a traditional Phad Thai with that perfect taste profile of sweet, savoury and sour that has made this dish world renowned.

Chef Gai again joins me, enthusiastically narrating each dish and how he has adapted and evolved the recipes over the years. He informs me that Saffron started out as a simple curry house when diners had more basic requests and local product expectations were not that high. But this has changed and we now have truly exacting standards to meet the diner demands sought after by international visitors.

Although, Chef Gai laughs and adds, “Most returnee diners frequently request the same dishes they had during their last stay, a little reluctant to explore new flavour combinations; the classics are the most popular.”

Almost time for me to leave, I am gently persuaded to end with a house specialty of banana fritters with Thai tea ice cream and a classic mango sticky rice. Whilst the former is slightly decadent and the latter refreshingly delicious, I can only manage a few of course, generous mouthfuls before my capacity is reached! I say farewell to Chef Gai and his team reflecting that Saffron is indeed a gem, a jewel in Banyan Tree’s crown and with Chef Gai at the helm, I am confident of another successful coupling of a further 25 years.

Chris Watson is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.

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