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The Yao of Cooking

Self-taught chef Yao Chookong draws on her background in healthy Thai cooking to build community (and spread joy) in NoCo.

By Carrie Visintainer

When you step into Yao’s kitchen, the first thing you’ll notice is the aroma. A touch of garlic. Green chiles. Lemongrass. A hint of lime. The sweet-sour smells waft up from the cutting boards around a wooden table, coming together as ingredients for green curry paste. The final meal will include vegetable spring rolls, Massaman curry, perfectly prepared black rice, a vegetable cashew stir fry and, for dessert, mango sticky rice.

Where to buy Asian ingredients:
Bangkok Asian Market on the corner of Drake and Shields is a great spot for specialty items, and more and more mainstream grocery stores are carrying Thai ingredients.

Next, you’ll notice Yao’s smile, her spunky short haircut and her enthusiastic voice as she holds up a red onion and says, “We use fresh, organic ingredients whenever we can, yes? Healthy is best!”

Born in Phatthalung, South Thailand, she began her adventures in cooking at a young age. Her mother was the head chef for the village, preparing from-scratch meals for community ceremonies, and young Yao watched closely. “I was curious, always eating, always tasting,” she says. She also noticed something interesting: People seemed to be drawn to good food. It brought them together. She loved this, yet she never thought about becoming a chef.

And then one day in her late twenties, after spending time at university in Bangkok, Yao found herself at Pun Pun, a farm and living center in North Thailand, near Chiang Mai. She’d heard about the owner, whose vision hinged on sustainable practices like seed saving, earthen building and self-reliance. “I hadn’t thought of food in exactly that way before,” said Yao. “But I knew right away I wanted to be part of it.” Two weeks later she was there to stay.

One of her main responsibilities at Pun Pun was to cook—which was a challenge. The owner didn’t have much money to give her to buy ingredients at the market and sometimes she had to cook for upwards of 25 people. So she learned to use what she had. “I’d go out and see what was in the gardens,” said Yao. “If I found bananas, I’d use them. If I needed buttermilk for pancakes, I’d figure something out. I learned to cook without worrying about rules.”

The people at Pun Pun loved her food. So she started teaching, engaging others in her process. As she watched the community grow, she remembered the insight from her childhood: Good food brings people together.

This philosophy has carried through her life, which now involves running two restaurants in Chiang Mai—Bird’s Nest Café, which she describes as Thai fusion, and Olé, which is Mexican with a Thai twist (read: they serve a pumpkin enchilada filled with green curry). True to her core values, she chooses to work with people who share her beliefs, both in managing the restaurants and in supporting a network of organic farmers. Her customers and partners often become her friends.

Yao also spends part of each year in Loveland with her friend and his family—a guy she met at Pun Pun, who, when she first visited America, had to teach her how to open a can. She’s the author of a Thai cookbook, The Yao of Cooking, and is working on a second book about bread making.

So what’s her advice for the amateur chef? Don’t worry about the “proper way” to cook. “Food is no right, no wrong,” she says. “Different people have different tastes, so have fun with it!”

Ginger Cinnamon Lemongrass Tea
A warming drink recipe from Yao Chookong’s cookbook.

Makes 1 serving (can reuse mix three times, as the ginger keeps getting stronger)

1 knob ginger, smashed (leave skin on if organic)
3” lemongrass from the bottom of stem, smashed
1 cinnamon stick
2 C. water

1. Combine in a pot and bring to a boil for about 10 minutes.
2. Strain and, if you like, decorate with sliced fresh ginger, lemongrass strips, and the already-used cinnamon stick, either hot or over ice. Serve with honey and sliced lime.

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