Quick! What’s the first Thai dish you can think of? For most of us, it’s probably Pad Thai, Green Curry or Tom Yam soup that comes to mind. And that’s not surprising according to the owners of Khao San Thai Kitchen.
Photo by Ingrid Keunzel
When Samphan Treeyachat and Rungroj Suntiwan met fourteen years ago, there were only a handful of Thai restaurants in the city. Suntiwan had already been in Canada for three years and was enrolled in SAIT’s professional cooking program, during which he worked at well-loved Thai Sa-On on 10th Avenue SW. On his second day in Canada in 1999, Treeyachat’s uncle brought him to the restaurant for some “home” cooking. Realizing the two were close in age, Treeyachat’s uncle introduced the pair. The rest is history.
“There weren’t many Thai students at the time, maybe less than ten. So when the new guy comes in, you know right away!” says Suntiwan.
Treeyachat followed in Suntiwan’s footsteps, eventually completing both the cooking and hospitality management programs at SAIT. He even got a job on the service side at Thai Sa-On too. The duo remained friends while moving on to work at different restaurants – the Calgary Golf and Country Club for Treeyachat and the Glencoe Club for Suntiwan.
Keeping in touch, Treeyachat says they would always fantasize about opening their own restaurant one day. Plans started formalizing two years ago when they would meet at least once a month to talk about menu ideas, funding and locations. Weekends started to fill up with viewings of possible kitchens until suddenly last year the space the once-popular tapas bar JaroBlue occupied became available.
“One day this [restaurant] came up for sale online and they only had it on the market for two days,” says Treeyachat. “We came in, looked at it and the next day put down the down payment. Then we thought about it, ha ha ha. ‘Are we going to quit our jobs? Are we going to do it?’ It was just like that. And, then we did it!”
Judging by the smiles on their faces, it was a good decision. Their pre-planning and experiences in other Thai kitchens proved useful as the menu and service-minded mantra came together easily.
“I was always thinking about the food we were going to serve,” says Suntiwan, who runs Khao San’s kitchen. “I knew to keep to dishes Canadians would recognize, but to make them authentic.”
Pad Thai, Green Curry and Tom Yam soup were instantly on the menu as well as other favourites from all-over Thailand. But, the pair added dishes with similar flavours like Tom Kha, a coconut milk-based soup, and Braised Short Ribs in Massaman Curry, a Canadian-spin on a traditional Thai curry. They even developed a Salmon Panang Curry, something you definitely won’t be finding in other Thai restaurants in the city.
Yet Suntiwan knew a big part of preparing these authentic dishes would be recreating the freshness one would experience in Thailand. Luckily for diners today, it’s much easier for Suntiwan to find the ingredients he needs right here in Calgary than it was fifteen years ago – even if they do come from over 12,000 kilometres away. He frequently visits Asian grocery stores like Lucky Supermarket to find his fragrant, essential ingredients of lemongrass, coconut milk and shrimp paste.
Next to freshness, Suntiwan focuses on ensuring all of Khao San’s dishes are bursting with flavour. By carefully combining spices and herbs, Suntiwan creates an intensity on the plate that becomes addicting. This is because both partners agree that Calgarians’ taste buds have certainly evolved past the standard ‘steak and potatoes’ staple the city has always been known for.
“In the fourteen years that I’ve experienced the Thai cuisine [in Calgary] it has changed, “ says Treeyachat. “Before, the curry [here] was bland because restaurants were afraid. But, right now I would say it is very close to the curry you have in Thailand.”
That said, adding spice and heat to Khao San’s dishes has become a delicate art for the restaurant — one that involves the cooperation of both the all-Thai-raised kitchen and service staff, including the duo’s wives. Treeyachat and Suntiwan say that together with their staff they have to work to combat one big misconception about Thai food: its spiciness.
“Many people think Thai food is spicy,” says Treeyachat who runs the front-of-house. “We have to explain to them that 50 per cent of our food isn’t spicy at all.”
For example, Pad Thai isn’t supposed to be spicy but have more of a sweet flavour. If you want to add spice and heat to your meal, Suntiwan encourages guests to use the complimentary quatro of chilli sauces, which grace every table during service.
“People come in and ask for their Pad Thai to be spicy,” he says. “Actually, no! Ha ha ha. We serve Pad Thai, and then you can adjust your own spiciness. You can make it as spicy as you want.”
Adding their own spice doesn’t seem to bother Khao San’s guests once Treeyachat’s service team explains the menu and Thai flavours to them, turning many into repeat customers.
“We’re really proud that we can keep them coming back,” says Suntiwan. “Some of our guests have never had Thai food, but they try it and they come back. That proves to us our food is good.”
Sitting on a reused banquette from the space’s JaroBlue days, the lively duo seems to enjoy this quick mid-day break from the fast-paced restaurant world. The lunch crowd has gone back to work and for a minute they get to recount the past decade and a half over a pot of coconut green tea.
“Right now we work hard,” says Suntiwan. “There are two families [involved in the restaurant]. Sam’s wife works with him out front and my wife works with me in the kitchen. So, most of the work in the restaurant is done between the four of us.”
And there’s more work to be done. Just a year and half in and they are figuring out ways to expand the business by staying open later for those with midnight munchies, and attracting more people to try Thai food whether by coming in for a sit-down meal or ordering takeout. However, the base is there. Khao San Thai Kitchen has become a go-to place to eat in Calgary’s food community and its name just might have something to do with it. Khao San in Thai means ‘raw rice’ – the base of Thai cuisine.
“It’s our staple,” says Treeyachat. “We start from scratch. We start from a little grain of rice and build it up from there.”
Built it they have, from beginning as new Canadians learning English as their second language, to completing highly regarded culinary programs, Treeyachat and Suntiwan really are living the Canadian dream.