GORDON & BEN: UNCHARTED IN LAOS
Gordon Ramsay’s new National Geographic series, Uncharted, follows the chef’s journey to six destinations across the world. Not only does he learn from highly talented local chefs, he also battles local geography to source prized ingredients and takes part in a Big Cook where the skills and knowledge he has accrued about the local cuisine are put to the test. For each adventure, Gordon was accompanied by one of his Head Chefs so that they could experience and learn from these different cultures together. Ben Orpwood, the Executive Head Chef of Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay, was with Gordon in Laos – here is what he had to say.
5am Coffees & Eggplant Stew
What happened on the trip?
“A few days before Gordon got to Laos, I flew into Pakse [a city in Southern Laos] with the National Geographic team. We made our way down the Mekong River to the Laos/Cambodia border via boat. When we got there, we then spent a few days in the markets finding out about the amazing local produce and cooking with the local cooks - just trying to get our heads around the cuisine! Based off what we’d learnt, Gordon and I then spent time working on a menu to present to the Island’s monks.”
What is the most memorable thing about your time in Laos?
“To me, what was memorable, and quite surprising, was that there are a lot of French restaurants. We were in the middle of nowhere very, very far off the tourist track, and still there were one or two French bistros! I remember the huge variety of laarp [a spicy salad], duck, pork, and Catfish - I loved it. Also, having the super strong coffee at 5am in the markets!”
What did you cook?
“We cooked every day, we were working with people from both southern Laos and northern Laos, so the cuisine was very different. Every day was a challenge. We cooked eggplant stews with the chef from the north and fresher spicy food from the south.”
Has the trip helped inspire your cooking at Lucky Cat?
“Yes, definitely. We have bought back clay pot ovens to use in the restaurant, also for me the big thing I wanted to take back was the use of herbs in salads and also using river fish more… we have also been working on a cocktail using local ingredients. It was a bit of fun using their local whisky made from sticky rice and we added loads of the local coconut and pineapple to make what we called a Pincolaos. I hope this will get a run on the menu at some point. I am also a huge fan of the laarp dishes we tried, so I’d like to include one on the menu in the future.”
“I wanted the series to reinstate the importance of keeping it local and in season, and drawing out some of the best-kept secrets that these chefs and local source experts have kept up their sleeves”
Gordon & Ben had the pleasure of working with Joy Ngeuamboupha at the top-rated, family owned and run Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School. Tamarind only uses fresh, local ingredients to teach its guests about Lao food, flavours, and cooking techniques.
As a child, Joy foraged for food in the forests of Laos, and learnt to cook in the paddy fields alongside his father before leaving his village and becoming a novice monk. Food, and sourcing ingredients, was always his passion and he shared this with Gordon during Uncharted filming – showing the Chef how to wrap fish in a banana leaf and helping him find ingredients.
Battling the Mekong River
“it’s one thing to visit restaurants serving the cuisine of the region, but to get the greater understanding of the ingredients and the people who rely on them, it’s essential to be part of the gathering process”
Foraging in Laos isn’t restricted to the forest, as Gordon soon discovered. The River Mekong, which is the twelfth longest river in the world, running through Vietnam, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Myanmar, and (of course) Laos is an incredibly biodiverse river, topped only by the Amazon in terms of fish biodiversity. Gordon spent time with locals, kayaking down the river to source ingredients – which ranged from the not-unusual river fish, to the perhaps-unexpected frogs, snails, and large insects called toe biters.
Whilst Gordon’s a strong swimmer, nothing could have prepared him for battling against the mighty Mekong in pursuit of fresh snails – “to go in that current and try to maintain a position without falling backwards for 30 seconds, I was gassed!”