In a country that cooks European food notoriously poorly and has its own renowned cuisine, it might seem risky and even foolish to open a Western restaurant in a small northern Thailand town that is an hour and a half from a major city. But The Nest at Chiang Dao isn’t hurting for business, and owner Wicha Cavaliero’s commitment to quality cooking and ingredients is only part of the reason.
What makes a great chef and what, in turn, makes a great restaurant? The answers vary, but at the Nest, a few answers are clear: unpretentious surroundings and staff; locally-sourced, organic ingredients; and a commitment to quality, even if it means halting growth.
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Wicha, who was born in Bangkok and received her culinary training at Norwich City College and affiliated internships in the United Kingdom, speaks with an intensity and frankness that might lead you to believe she has been taking nips of sherry back in the kitchen. But this Michelin-trained chef is a serious professional who will not change her style to please diners.
Remote, rural and beautiful
A good example of Wicha’s unwillingness to compromise is The Nest’s location. At the foot of a massive mountain, tiny Chiang Dao is not the first place one might think of when opening a European restaurant. Only a small trickle of tourists makes its way up north to this quiet spot, but nearly all are here to dine at The Nest. She chose the location for its beautiful setting, as well as the opportunities for making an impact on a small Thai town. “I can do more here than anyone else, because they need it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be me, it could be anyone.”
“I want to bring up my children in an appropriate natural place. That is why this place is called the Nest,” she said. She notes that being in a beautiful, rural location has helped maintain a happy marriage. Stuart Cavaliero, Wicha’s British husband, is an integral part of the restaurant.
“I manage the restaurant and he manages me. Without him I probably wouldn’t have opened. He is more Thai that I am; he knows all the traditions and is very caring,” she said.
Patrons listen to ‘the stars talking to each other’
Though the restaurant has the business to support growth, Wicha prefers to keeps it small and simple. A tile-floored dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows looks out to the mountain, and Wicha notes that expanding the room would erase that view. “I want to see the view, I want to see the mountains,” she said. “I’d rather be happy and poor than rich and not happy.” Thus, the restaurant remains very intimate.
Keeping the operation small is just one tenet Wicha will not break. “The Nest is so popular because we have so many laws and unwritten rules,” she said with a laugh. “We don’t allow many things, such as music.” When I ask her why she doesn’t play music in the dining room, she nods her head towards the thunderstorm rumbling outside. “There is the rain, the bamboo, stars talking to each other,” she said. “I’d rather hear the sound of people laughing. And maybe the music I like, you don’t like. You can’t make it perfect for everyone. There’s only one kind of music that is perfect for everyone — it’s the sound of raindrops.”
Wicha treats her staff respectfully, and it is obvious that they in turn respect her. They move in comfort around her, asking questions during our interview or alerting her to any issues. Wicha is always quick to respond, jumping up to talk to a guest or check on something in the kitchen. “I don’t find my staff, they find me,” she said. She takes local residents, many of them Shan (from Shan state in Burma), under her wing and trains them, which is certainly a big time investment. “It’s easier to deal with people who have will,” she said, adding how proud she is of her staff.
As much of the food as possible is locally sourced. Wicha visits Chiang Dao’s Tuesday market and picks produce from vendors she trusts. She explained that much of the produce is not certified organic, but that local farmers do not have the money for pesticides (or expensive organic certificates). Vendors know her and what she likes.
The menu changes daily and is written on a chalkboard. Breakfast features classics such as farm-fresh eggs and homemade bread. One popular lunch feature is the grilled eggplant sandwich on homemade bun with green salad. Dinner entrees usually include a lamb, steak and duck option.
The Nest started small, with just six bungalows that had no showers or toilets. When a group of hoteliers arrived shortly after opening and had to eat steak under umbrellas, Wicha realized she needed to expand the dining room to its current size, as well as upgrade the bungalows. Today, there are more than a dozen huts, with soft mattresses and thick blankets, as well as a nearby Nest 2 location with a restaurant serving excellent Thai food.
The Nest has received international acclaim, though Wicha seems unaffected. She simply wants a business she can feel good about: “Even if I die tomorrow I can still feel proud,” she said.
The Nest at Chiang Dao, Northern Thailand. Credit: Catherine Bodry