Walking home from school in Thailand as a child, Wichian ‘Lek’ Trirattanavatin had one thing on his mind – what was he going to eat? He “couldn’t wait to get back home” for his grandmother Anong’s cooking, and he credits her as the main inspiration for the dishes on the menu at Saan Restaurant in Ponsonby, Auckland.
Today he’s head chef at Saan and fulfilling his dream of serving his grandma’s recipes in his own restaurant, thanks to the backing of Krishna Botica and Tony McGeorge of Café Hanoi (where Lek was previously senior chef).
Saan showcases delicious, authentic Thai dishes that have been passed down through the family for generations and transcend Kiwi/Thai staples curry puffs and green chicken curry. It’s cuisine he describes as “simple and flavoursome”.
Lek admits he was a fussy eater before going to live with his grandma who had a restaurant in the village. She taught him how to forage for herbs and the freshest ingredients, to use the whole animal, to cook, and even how to make the pottery serving dishes. Therefore it was important to him that the beautiful pottery plates at Saan are handmade by artisan ceramic makers in Thailand.
Lek is committed to serving the best ingredients too. He imports organic brown rice from Thailand because it tastes better and supports farmers back home. Locally, he’s begun using Te Mana lamb bred in New Zealand high country, finely marbled and rich in naturally polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats. It’s the hero ingredient of Lek’s personal favourite dish on Saan’s new menu – Mussaman Gae, Lek’s spin on the classic Thai Mussaman curry.
His food philosophy is simple – it’s his grandmother’s method and technique. Even though he was formally trained as a chef at the prestigious Dusit Thani Palace College (now Le Cordon Bleu Dusit) he “learned more from my grandma” and it’s the cooking legacy handed down through his family that makes his cooking and the dining experience at Saan truly special. Eighty per cent of the recipes on the menu come from his grandmother or parents (who are also both chefs) and offerings include some “not too spicy but tasty” royal cuisine too. His great-grandmother cooked for the royal court in Laos, hence the name Saan, which means ‘handed down from generation to generation’ or ‘to weave’.
“I feel as if I’m inviting people into my own home,” says Lek.
Saan, 160 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland. 09 320 4237. Opening hours Saturday to Tuesday 5pm to late, Wednesday to Friday 12pm to late, and brunch from 11am Saturday and Sunday.