Tam Nan's Chef Larisa Vesterbacka, the Only Female Executive Chef in Laos, On Her Recipe for Success
The Executive Chef of Tam Nan is a woman of wisdom and talent. Helming the flagship restaurant of Belmond’s La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang, Laos, Chef Larisa Vesterbacka combines her interest in chemistry and passion for culinary culture together to highlight Laotian cuisine. Tam Nan, meaning legend, represents not just its menu but its executive chef.
Vesterbacka built her career from working at many renowned restaurants where she fell in love with the rich cultures and cuisines. From growing, cooking and preserving fruits and vegetables at her home in southern Russia to becoming the only female Executive Chef in Laos, this chef is not afraid to bring her expression in recipes to tell a story. Whether authentic or contemporary, the menu honours the beautiful heritage of its culture.
Here, we chat with chef Larisa Vesterbacka on her culinary journey thus far.
1. How did you discover your passion for cooking?
I have grown up with a love for cooking. My grandparents had a large garden with plenty of fruits and vegetables that we used to marinate, dry and boil using a variety of seasonings to make pickles and jams for the winter period. I liked helping my grandmother, who was an excellent cook and taught me how to work. I enjoyed making dough even though my hands were very small at the time. I think my passion for cooking must have started when I was only 5 or 6 years old.
2. How would you describe your culinary philosophy?
People here in Lao say “sabai sabai”, which means 'take it easy',” you come with a smile and you leave with a smile. I think this matches with my philosophy towards food and life, balance and harmony. In this fast-paced world, some things are still best enjoyed at a slow pace and the pleasure of an unhurried slow-cooked meal.
"In this fast-paced world, some things are still best enjoyed at a slow pace and the pleasure of an unhurried slow-cooked meal."
3. What inspires you in cooking and creating dishes?
I was inspired to create dishes from traditional methods that preserve local heritage, and enjoy discovering new flavours and combinations. My encounter with Asian cuisine solidified my lifelong passion for its electrifying spices, flavours and interesting textures, and I have since then spent over 15 years in Asian cuisine including in China, Thailand, and Cambodia.
My signature dish at Tam Nan is “From Beijing to Luang Prabang’ - a roasted duck. Marinated with a mix of Lao spices on the first day; washed in rice vinegar, bael fruit tea and jungle honey on the second day; then sun dried for 2 to 3 days, and then slowly cooked.
To add a smoky flavour to the dish for a richer taste, the duck is prepared and served on a hot stone slate board. I always present the dish by adding our signature “rainbow sauces", which are seven kinds of sauces ranging from savoury to sweet, to complement the duck with seven different flavour profiles.
4. As the only female Executive Chef in Laos, can you share with us some tips for the women who inspire you to be in the position that you are in today?
My advice to all cooks, whether you’re a man or a woman, is firstly always move forward, don’t be afraid of anything, and never give up. Second, constantly improve your skills, learn new things, seek out new tastes and combinations, and travel a lot because nothing expands your horizons as much as travelling does.
"My advice to all cooks, whether you’re a man or a woman, is firstly always move forward, don’t be afraid of anything, and never give up."
5. What do you love the most about Laotian cuisine?
I love the traditional slow cooking method to extract rich local flavours. That includes cooking with bamboo, banana leaves and fresh coconut over a charcoal grill or even stewing soup in a clay pot. I also use sous-vide, slow cook tempering technique to add a deep flavour of spices; and hario-syphon to extract the rich Laotion flavours.
One of my favourite Lao dishes is Orlam, a spicy and sour soup with Laotian herbs. To re-create my version of it, I marinate buffalo meat with a mix of spices, then sun-dry the meat for 3-4 days, after, chargrill and slow cook it in a clay pot for 48 hours with lemongrass, galangal and unique Lao spices, such as spicy wood or pepper wood. This mix of techniques helps me achieve a multitude of flavours in harmony, bringing up the aroma, smokiness, umami and sourness, creating balanced flavours for the taste buds. As Laos can get quite humid, a slightly spicy soup can help the body dehumidify and promote blood circulation.
6. What do you hope the guests take away from a dining experience at Tam Nan?
Our guests can experience a modern version of Laotian cuisine, try interesting combinations of local seasonal products, learn about unique local ingredients, spices, and cooking techniques through culture and traditions.
Also, every guest at our restaurant feels the special atmosphere and energy of this place, relaxes, and forgets about stress and problems, because our food makes them happy.
All imagery is provided by Lotus International.
Book your own table at Tam Nan HERE.
Address: PO Box 50, Phouvao Road, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR 0600 | Website: belmond.com/hotels/asia/laos/luang-prabang/belmond-la-residence-phou-vao | Phone: +856 71 212 530 | Email: email@example.com | Instagram: @belmondresidencephouvao | Facebook: @laresidencephouvao