Kirsty Manning-Wilcox meets a Bangkok master whose dedication to grain includes growing what he serves.
Vichit Mukura is a busy man. He's the head chef of one of Bangkok's finest restaurants, an organic rice farmer on weekends, provincial restaurateur, husband and father and was recently named "most handsome chef in Thailand" in a French-owned restaurant guide.
During the week he runs Sala Rim Naam, regarded as one of the best places serving traditional Thai food in Bangkok. Even better, as part of the Mandarin Oriental, it occupies an unbeatable location on a terrace across the busy Chao Phraya River from the hotel.
When we meet, Mukura is preparing for his first chef's table, an idea launched this year in which groups of up to 10 can book a private table in Sala Rim Naam's busy restaurant kitchen and plan exactly what, and how, they will order.
"We might have a particular type of fish, and we will ask the customer exactly how they would like it cooked," Mukura says. "And then we choose the soups and salads. It's a bit of a food adventure and I hope we will have some fun."
Then he dashes off to prepare a banquet for 400. "Lucky for me, I have an excellent sous chef," he says, laughing.
Diners might not realise that the reddish unpolished rice served at Sala Rim Naam is grown by the chef at his farm in Chonburi, about 100 kilometres south of Bangkok, near Pattaya. Crunchier than traditional jasmine rice, the organic red rice is thought to contain more antioxidants and less glucose than white jasmine rice, making it a good choice for diabetics and those seeking a low-sugar diet. Mukura serves his heirloom variety of red rice whole, with husk.
The next time I meet Mukura he has replaced chef's whites with jeans and gumboots. On the way to his farm, we stop for a duck-and-noodle soup at a hole-in-the-wall diner between villages.
Mukura and his wife, Suwannee, have run a modest family restaurant in the town of Chonburi for the past 20 years. His true passion, however, is the family rice farm. His prime rice paddock is the size of a suburban quarter-acre block. He's building a dam where he plans to grow fish, fed on the husks of his rice. Influenced by their Buddhist beliefs, Mukura and his wife plan to have a sustainable farm where everything serves a purpose and every plant contributes to the cycle of life.
What are his plans for the red rice? Some is served at the Mandarin Oriental and the rest is for his family, but the quantity is small at this stage.
Are there plans for the children to join the farm? He has a son and daughter working and studying in Australia. "They think I am a bit crazy," Mukura says. "Why would I bother to make the time and grow rice on my one day off? Rice is cheap and you can buy it. But it is not the same and healthy as growing your own.
"One day I will retire here and have my little farm and vegetables and I will be very happy. I will build a house for friends and people to come and visit. I may run a cooking school here in this outdoor kitchen where I show them how to cook traditional Thai food and we share a meal with friends."
When can I book?
Kirsty Manning-Wilcox travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.
Thai Airways has a fare to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne (about 9hr) for about $1060 low-season return. See www.thaiairways.com.
To dine at Sala Rim Naam, go to the main lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok at 48 Oriental Avenue and you'll be directed to the waterfront to catch a ferry across the river to the restaurant. An a la carte menu is served on the terrace and set menu inside. Bookings advised via firstname.lastname@example.org. A place at the chef's table costs 3413 baht ($107) for six courses and 4590 baht for nine courses.
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok turns 136 this year. Foodies can check in and eat their way through eight restaurants on-site. Rooms cost from 13,300 baht. See mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.