Canvas chef Riley Sanders is creating a cuisine inspired by a city and that city is Bangkok. Sanders’ inventive food is rooted in beautiful, fresh, local produce, sourced from across Thailand. It has earned Riley and Canvas a Michelin star.
The 2019 Thailand Michelin Guide was released a few days ago and many of the Bangkok restaurants we often recommend to you here to dine at are in the guide’s second edition. They include some of the ten Thailand restaurants I chose for the Truth, Love and Clean Cutlery guide and some of the restaurants we featured in our story in this month’s DestinAsian magazine on Bangkok’s second dining renaissance.
For now, I want you meet Canvas chef Riley Sanders whose inviting Thong Lor restaurant has just won its first Michelin star. We first started to hear chatter about this talented 29 year-old chef and the thoughtful food he was creating in early 2017. I got in touch in May last year to find out what he was up to with a view to potentially including him in an Australian Gourmet Traveller piece on new Bangkok openings.
Canvas chef Riley Sanders wrote back enthusiastically, telling me he was from Texas and had spent several years cooking for award-winning chefs such as Laurent Gras of Michelin 3-starred L20 in Chicago and James Beard award winner Paul Qui at Uchiko in Austin, and how he had decided to take a different path to most young chefs and had got out of restaurants.
“I took a job as a private chef on a yacht based out of Miami,” chef Riley Sanders revealed. “That allowed me to travel to over 30 countries in four years, including all over Asia, to Thailand multiple times, and to about 20 restaurants listed on the World’s 50 Best, and many more Michelin restaurants.”
Sanders told me about his culinary travels and how he went to markets, grazed on street food, and ate in hole-in-the-wall eateries around the world, spending every second of his free time away from the boat learning about the cooking of whatever country he was in at the time.
“I wanted to know more about what made great food great,” Sanders revealed. “I knew that I knew how to cook at a high level, but I wanted to have a more global view of cuisines around the world.”
Of all the cities that Canvas chef Riley Sanders visited, Bangkok became his favourite. Sanders explained how fell in love with the stimulation, excitement, and boldness of the Thai capital. He also fell in love with the ingredients and the potential and possibilities of using Thai produce outside of tradition.
With the help of investors, and friend and sous chef Steve Ortiz (who had worked at Alinea and Jean Georges), Sanders opened Canvas, a restaurant that he wanted to reflect Bangkok’s “stimulation, excitement and boldness” in the foodie neighbourhood of Thong Lor.
Using mostly Thai produce, Canvas chef Riley Sanders began concocting creative dishes inspired by Bangkok’s “sights, colours and markets”, such as the Mud crab and lotus with swamp algae, rice paddy herb and butter, and Octopus poached in coconut oil with smoked chillies, taro, pomelo, pennyworth and a 30-spice sauce that we sampled when we first dined at Canvas in July this year.
“We’re sourcing all but ten or so ingredients in Thailand, and are mixing techniques found in international cooking, both old world (fermentation, preservation) and ultra modern (controlled low temperature cooking),” Sanders revealed. “It’s all about making a great product and giving our guests an experience that is world-class and unique to this city.”
“Our food is refined and ingredient-driven. We intend to be creative, but not for the sake of novelty – we want to make real food,” Sanders explained. “I don’t consider us an Asian or a Western restaurant, and I don’t think fusion is the right genre either. We’re Bangkok, and we want to define what cooking in modern Bangkok can be by taking inspiration from the sights, colours, markets, and ingredients.”
Canvas Chef Riley Sanders Creates a Cuisine Inspired by a City, Bangkok
An interview with American born, Bangkok based, Canvas chef Riley Sanders.
Q. What was your earliest food memory? What got you excited about food? Because you said your parents weren’t great cooks, right?
A. Ha! Right! My parents were always really busy growing up, so there wasn’t a lot of time spent making dinner. My grandmother was a very good cook, though, and would grow a lot of produce in her small backyard garden – tomatoes, greens, eggplants – and an early food memory was waiting for the blackberries to ripen in the springtime. We’d pick them right off the vine and eat them immediately. Those that weren’t immediately eaten were typically turned into blackberry cobbler.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to cook?
A. I remember having a deep interest in food and cooking always. I would just play around with ingredients, not really following recipes, but throwing things together, because I thought it was fun. I didn’t know how to make food taste good, but I liked the heat and the action of the kitchen – mixing, measuring, stirring, the stimulation of it, and the excitement of what might come out of my experiments. I would also watch Great Chefs as a young child and I remember looking forward to the Saturday morning line-up of cooking shows.
Cooking was fun, even if I wasn’t very good at it. But I wanted to learn and get better, and I wanted to have a job where I could really enjoy the actual work. I was convinced to attend Baylor University, where both of my parents graduated from, but I realised quickly into the second semester it wasn’t what I wanted. I stopped going to class, called my parents, and told them I was done. I would go to culinary school and start working in a restaurant until then.
Q. Tell us what happened next. You went to the Texas Culinary Academy and end up working at the highly respected Laurent Gras restaurant L20.
A. So I worked at a casual, high-volume, American place doing burgers, steaks, fried foods, etc – I just wanted to get some experience in the kitchen, working the line. It was fun and a good experience, but I didn’t have much passion for making that food at the time. When I started attending Texas Culinary Academy, I took another job at a catering company. I’d be in school 5 days a week, then work 12-18-hour days on both Saturday and Sunday.
There I was, working early in the prep kitchen, then going to the offsite catering events and working carving stations or omelette stations, things like that. It was a job that allowed me to work part-time and get some more experience while in school. As culinary school was nearing its end, I was following Laurent Gras’ blog about the opening of L20. I was amazed. I sent him an email and got a response back that I could start my externship there. It was an absolutely incredible experience.
Q. And then you ate your way around the world?
A. I was working on a yacht during trips the owners would take – typically two months on, two months off. So I’d work, then travel to another country and eat, see the markets, and learn about that country’s cuisine. Then when the next yacht trip was coming up, I’d go back.
Q. That’s when you fell in love with Bangkok – what exactly was it that inspired and invigorated you? Was there a particular dish that you first tasted or a specific ingredient, perhaps?
A. I think it was because it was so different and exotic. I’ve always been a guy that likes excitement and stimulation, new experiences. So Bangkok was my first trip outside of the States on my own. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. A lot of people said you’ll either love it or hate it. I loved it! I usually use the word ‘vibrant’ to describe Bangkok. I think that’s true in the feeling of the city, and the flavours of the food, and the colours of the market.
I remember being in Huai Khwang at the daytime market there. I was looking at the durian. I had never had it before and had heard a lot of mixed feedback on it. There was an older man buying some at the time. To my surprise he offered me a piece and I tried it. It was amazing. I think that fits into my view that I like things that are a bit different or new, exciting, and challenging. Durian is my favourite fruit now.
Q. You have a map on the wall of Canvas identifying where your produce has come from – are you now sourcing directly from farmers or are you buying ingredients from a Bangkok supplier? Do you go to the markets?
A. It’s a bit of both. Someone from our kitchen – sometimes myself, or one of the cooks who lives close by – goes to Or Tor Kor market each morning to pick up the staple type products, such as fresh herbs, kapi, live prawns, fruit. I’ll usually go to Khlong Toey once a week or so for the more interesting things that aren’t always available at Or Tor Kor. But I do value the quality overall at Or Tor Kor, and the organics section. So we’re picking up the staples ourselves, because we want that specific bunch of basil with al ot of blossoms or the perfect size of pumpkin.
I also work with a few farmers, too, who are bringing us things like (edible) flowers and herbs. A fisherman is bringing (more sustainable) line caught longtail tuna killed with the ike jime technique in today, for instance. We have our butcher for the ‘Thai Wagyu’. Another supplier has been amazing for us and that’s Goon from Go Organics. She has connections with a tonne of farmers and can get things that are very rare or simply of very high quality. She brings in the rice, eggs, and palm sugar. She’s looking for buffalo for us now that we can serve as buffalo tartare.
Q. And you like to forage – have you done any foraging for Canvas?
A. I haven’t done any foraging for the restaurant. We do use wild and foraged products, but I haven’t done that myself. I did a visit up north several years ago, and did a bit of foraging with a guide. He was calling, like, every herb we picked “eat with laap”. Ha! Ha! I used to forage a bit for Uchiko in Austin on my off days with a couple of guys. We would look for prickly pears, sorrel, mushrooms, etc. So it’s something I’m interested in, but I don’t really know where to go out here.
Q. Your food is absolutely beautiful – to look at and to taste. Terence and I adored everything we ate. Are you happy with where you’re at? Is this what you imagined when you envisaged creating a cuisine inspired by a city? Where to next?
A. Thank you very much! I think happy is a bit of a stretch. Ha! Ha! I’d be happy if we had a full restaurant of happy guests every night, a happy staff and happy investors. But I sort of put myself last, honestly. I think in hospitality, it’s about making others happy and I definitely get a lot of joy and satisfaction when our efforts are understood and appreciated. I’ve learned a tonne about products since we opened. But I know I have so much more to learn, too. That’s very exciting, the amount of ingredients and the information about them that is out there.
I think with our cooking at Canvas, we’ll continue to focus on letting the ingredients drive us. I think we’ll see less quantities of ingredients on a plate, and higher quality, more techniques going into the dishes, but using less ingredients. I mean just building dishes around singular ingredients of great quality with two to three supporting ingredients, and several preparations of them. I’m not sure what’s next. You asked about ‘happy’ – I think I can be happy here for a long time as we keep pushing and improving.
Q. How do you feel about the Bangkok dining scene right now?
A. Very excited! It’s a great thing for the city to have a lot of really good restaurants doing really good things with local ingredients. I guess Bangkok has been known for cheap eats and street food, but I think with so many new places, they’re really going to be pushing the scene forward.
113/9-10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, Thong Lor, Bangkok
+66 (0) 99 614 1158
Have you eaten the food of Canvas chef Riley Sanders in Bangkok? We’d love to know what you think. Feel free to leave feedback in the Comments below.