Talking food with Sanguan Parr, head chef at Royal Lancaster London’s Nipa Thai restaurant
Sanguan Parr is by no means new to the restaurant industry, despite the fact she’s only ever had one job. Head chef at one of London’s best known Thai establishments, Nipa Thai, Sanguan very much fell into the world of hospitality. She went from teaching informal cookery lessons and raising her family to working her way up the ranks to head chef, and is now celebrating almost 20 years at Nipa.
We sat down with Sanguan and discussed everything from her key culinary influences to her favourite dish to cook.
So tell us a little bit about yourself career wise. 20 years at Nipa Thai shows fantastic dedication, what is it about the restaurant that keeps you?
It’s everything. The people I work with are all so dedicated to Nipa Thai. Royal Lancaster London as a hotel is a great place to work; we are treated well and looked after so I’ve always been happy at Nipa.
What/who were/are your main influences for seeking out a career in this renowned tough industry?
In Thailand we learn how to cook at school, and it’s one of the most important subjects. Growing up I learnt a huge amount just by watching my mum cook at home.
I first started to get into professional cooking by teaching at a friend’s house, which I did for about five or six years. Before that I was a housewife, but I’ve always been interested in food so I used to have lots of people coming to my house for dinner parties. They’d always enjoy the food immensely, and I realised there were people who wanted to learn how to make similar dishes themselves, so I started to teach.
I really fell into the world of hospitality, it happened completely by chance. I knew the previous Executive Chef at Nipa Thai and they said they were hiring, so I went for the job. The previous head chef didn’t think I would last longer than 6 months, but here I am 20 years later.
Was it a conscious decision to have an all female kitchen brigade? If so, why?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision, instead it is just a tradition in Thai kitchens. I’m able to discuss the cuisine with my team, who are all Thai, and being surrounded by fantastic female chefs is inspiring. Some of the team used to cook for the owner of Royal Lancaster London who lives in Thailand, so the food we offer is truly very authentic.
Do you have a favourite time of year or set of ingredients that you look forward to working with?
Nowadays it’s fairly easy to find ingredients all year round. It’s important for us too, because guests want to eat various dishes throughout the year, even if it’s not traditionally the season for it.
Personally, I look forward to mangoes coming into season in the summer. Mango and sticky rice is one of my favourite dishes to make and eat in the warmer months.
Of course I also look forward to Songkran (Thai New Year) in April as it is a time for us to celebrate and enjoy some great homemade food together as a family.
Do you have a signature dish?
My signature dish is probably Phad Thai. Historically in Thailand, dishes like this would be served from street food market stalls. You would get noodles, shrimps, egg and vegetables wrapped in a cone-shaped banana leaf – and meat would only be included if you pay extra!
What is your favourite dish to cook and why?
Pad Thai and Tom Kha Soup. Tom Kha is slightly different to Tom Yum which is very well known. Tom Kha is made of chicken and coconut, and you have to get the delicate balance of flavours just right, as it’s sweet, sour, salty yet spicy all at the same time. Having said that, it only takes two minutes to make!
Do your personal preferences influence the menu at all?
Not at all, we have to keep the options open for our guests and offer a wide variety. A lot of our guests return to us regularly, sometimes at least once a month, so it’s important for us to have a lot of choice on the menu for them.
How has the popularity in cooking programmes and televised chef competitions affected the restaurant industry?
I’m not sure if televised cooking programmes have changed much in Thai cooking. There are less young people in general because there is a lot to learn to master the cuisine, and most Thai chefs are older women or men.
I do watch a lot of Masterchef, and I can see how it’s making changes in the restaurant industry overall. The other restaurant at Royal Lancaster London, Island Grill, employs a lot of young people getting into cooking, and I can see how TV programmes would inspire people to move into the industry, give ideas to those already working in food, as well as generating more interest in the public.
Being a holder of a Thai Select award and 2 AA Rosettes must take hard work from yourself and your team, do you allow yourself time off? If so what do you like to do?
I don’t take a lot of time off, but I do go on holiday every in June or July. I like to go abroad, to see a different culture and way of life. Recently I visited St Petersburg in Russia and had the most fantastic boat trip on the canal. Our next travels will hopefully be to Japan.
I do have two full days off a week, the same as all my colleagues, so I dedicate one full day to my granddaughter who is one year old. Other than that I catch up on anything that needs to be done at home and quite enjoy the luxury of going out to eat dinner every now and again!