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Interview with Chef Kasem Saengsawang of Farmhouse Kitchen

Farmhouse Kitchen Chef Kasem Saengsawang
by Laura Jenkins
6 September 2016

Chef Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang opened Farmhouse Kitchen with his wife and business partner, Iing Chatterjee, in 2015. Challenged to create a fun, contemporary food experience merged with the traditions of his childhood, he presents a daring interpretation of Northern Thai food in the SF Mission.

In an interview with ASNC, Pop explains his inspiration for the contemporary Thai comfort food created at his Mission neighborhood restaurant. Farmhouse Kitchen is one of the food vendor sponsors at the 2016 Asia Society Northern California Open House.

How did you become chef at Farmhouse Kitchen?

My passion for food can be attributed to my daily trips to the local market with my grandmother. It was in that marketplace— in Loei, Thailand— where I learned how to select the freshest meat and produce to make meals daily for my family. These meals typically consisted of papaya salad and Tom Yum soup— both of which can be sampled at my restaurants.

Although I studied computer science in Thailand, I found work as a manager at a Thai restaurant in San Francisco before being offered the job at Blackwood— which I happily accepted. With the job, however, came the challenge of creating an Asian/American fusion menu to dazzle the Marina district’s scrupulous foodies. I said, “We have to be better than the rest. Our diners expect nothing less than perfection.” I achieved this by merging my mastery of traditional Thai fare with contemporary American cuisine using all local organic meat and produce.

My wife and I opened Kitchen Story, a California cuisine with Asian influences, situated on the border of Castro and Mission, in 2012 and it easily became a neighborhood staple.

Which region of Thailand does Farmhouse Thai represent?

Our menu is currently inspired by the Northern Thai regions. Our spices are specially handpicked from Chiang Mai. The spices have many similarities to Burmese or Indian spices, involving a lot of coriander and cloves. However, the preparation is very different.

For example, the Tom Yum soup is often made with chili oil. Our version does not use chili oil. We cook the whole chicken down to get bone broth, then add Northern spices, meat, and vegetables. The chicken meat we use in our soup is hand shredded. The preparation requires more time and technique, but you get all the wholesome nutrition in one cup of soup!

What commonalities exist between eater in the SF Bay Area and those in Thailand?

Diners in the SF Bay Area are diverse and well educated when it comes to Thai or Asian cuisine. They are well aware of the ingredients or what generally they would expect from the menu at a Thai restaurant. These ingredients usually include coconut curry, chili and jasmine rice. People know of Thai food, such as Pad Thai and green curry, but most people are not aware that Pad Thai can be made 20 different ways, depending on the region or even the village!

What changes do you see in the way people are experiencing Thai cuisine?

People are more open to trying adventurous ingredients and are definitely not afraid of spice! This makes me very excited.

What is your favorite food in the Bay Area?

Wagyu Rib Eye Steak.

When the moment you discovered that cooking was going to be your profession?

My first job in the States about 6-7 years ago when I was working inside the kitchen as a prep cook. I laddered up to start cooking the wok station in a few months.

What do you hope people experience when they try the food at Farmhouse Kitchen?

We call ourselves “Thai Food New Generation,” and what we represent is another angle on Thai cuisine.

Farmhouse Kitchen has its own culture. We want our guests to experience this the moment they walk into our restaurant- from the quirky decoration, to the beautiful outfits worn by our Thai staff, to our bold, innovative dishes.

What do you hope to get across to people unfamiliar with Thai cooking? And to those who are familiar?

Open mind and open heart.

What inspires you to be innovative?

My wife! She loves food and is my best critic.

What is your favorite cooking tool?

My knife!

What is your favorite dish to cook at Farmhouse Kitchen?

Som Tum.