Voyageur Q & A with chef Cameron Stauch

Cameron Stauch is a chef who has lived on and off throughout Asia since 2000. His first cookbook, Vegetarian Việt Nam, will be published this March by W.W. Norton Books and will be available online and in bookstores in Thailand and North America. He currently lives in Bangkok and is married to Ayesha Rekhi who works at the Canadian Embassy in Thailand.

Where did you grow up and how did you become a chef?
I grew up in Kitchener, Ontario and attended McGill University for my undergraduate degree. Halfway through my Bachelor of Commerce I became interested in cooking. I worked in a couple of French bistros while finishing at McGill and before attending a two-year program at the Stratford Chefs School.

Where have you cooked overseas during your culinary career?
Ayesha’s work has allowed us to live in parts of Asia with rich culinary histories. In Hong Kong, Cantonese chefs taught me how to make dim sum and basic Cantonese dishes like steamed fish with ginger and scallions. In India, I learned that there’s such a wide variety of regional cuisines that you’d need several lifetimes to try all of the country’s dishes. I fell in love with the freshness and vibrancy of Vietnamese dishes when we lived in Hanoi.

What was it like to have the movie “Cooking with Stella” made which is loosely based on your time living in Delhi?
Aside from the main characters closely resembling our family the rest of the film was fiction. It was fun to have scenes that included places we frequented and friends of ours as extras. I really enjoyed being responsible for all of the food styling for the film.

In between your postings overseas, where have you worked in Canada?
I first worked at a couple restaurants in Ottawa that focused on using ingredients sourced by local farmers and suppliers long before it was trendy. I then moved on to work in the kitchen at Rideau Hall cooking for the Governor General of Canada. In between each posting I’d return to work in the kitchen. I was fortunate to cook for the last three Governor Generals, Adrienne Clarkson, Michaelle Jean, and David Johnston.

What was it like to cook for the different guests who’d pass through Rideau Hall?
No matter who the guest was, whether Canadians or visiting Royalty, we always tried to produce great tasting food that celebrated Canadian ingredients, Canada’s multiculturalism, and Canada’s regions.

What did you learn cooking for three generations of the British Royal Family?
I learned that their food preferences are just like many families in Canada. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip liked simple meals of small portions of good quality meat/ seafood and vegetables. Prince Charles had a great interest in organic farming and is familiar with a wide variety of cuisines but prefers a regular menu of comfort foods. While the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Will and Kate, were open to trying all kinds of foods no matter the spice level.

Cameron with the Emperor of Japan.

How did it come about that you decided to write a cookbook?

One of my jobs at Rideau Hall was to prepare dishes for people who had culinary restrictions (vegetarian, gluten intolerance, allergies). So when we moved to Vietnam these considerations were still on my mind. I soon learned there existed a vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine but that you needed to know what to look for in order to find it. I was curious to learn more.

I understand there’s a difference in what foods are consumed between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. Can you briefly clarify them?
In Thailand, the main form of Buddhism practiced is called Theravada. In general, Theravada monks and nuns will eat meat or seafood as long as the animals were not killed specifically for their consumption. Whereas, Mahayana Buddhism is the main form of Buddhism practiced in Vietnam. There, monks, nuns, and devout Mahayana Buddhists never eat meat. Lay Buddhists may eat vegetarian a couple of times a month or for an entire month as a form of religious observance.

And what exactly are the things you need to pay attention to in Vietnam to find vegetarian food?
It’s best to pay attention to the lunar cycle. Street food stalls and vendors in markets will prepare vegetarian dishes on the days of the full moon and new moon. In the larger cities, there are increasingly more vegetarian restaurants. Also, pay attention to the ending of the names of dishes. The addition of the word chay at the end of a dish, for example, pho chay (vegetarian pho), indicates the dish is vegetarian.

Which restaurants do you recommend people visit to try Vietnamese dishes in Bangkok?
I’d first go to Broccoli Revolution on Sukumvit soi 49 as they have some great vegetarian (actually vegan) Vietnamese dishes. I’d then try Tonkin Annam which is located down an alley off of Maha Rat Road and opposite Wat Arun.

Aside from a bowl of pho or a banh mi sandwich what dishes would you suggest we try?
I really like a noodle soup from central Vietnam called bun bo Hue. It has lovely undertones of lemongrass and is fiery from a red chile sauce. And I’m a big fan of banh xeo, a crispy crepe-like dish made from a lentil-rice batter. You wrap portions of it with herbs and lettuce before dipping it in a clear, tangy, hot dipping sauce. It’s a family favorite.

So what’s next?
I’m leading a two-week culinary tour this November to Vietnam. I’ve also recently started doing research on a Thai vegetarian cookbook. It’ll come out in two to three years.

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