Local ingredients and home cooking lead to a James Beard Award nomination for a Camden chef from Thailand
By Sharon Kitchens
Illustrations Julie O’Rourke for Muwin Collective
Photos Jon Levitt for Muwin Collective
Food is a strong part of Thai culture. Even in big cities, edible traditions are upheld, such as a community lining up at dawn to offer food to a silent procession of monks who give blessings. While Americans might open a conversation by asking, “How are you?” Thai people often greet each other by asking if the other person has been eating.
Ravin ‘Bas’ Nakjaroen and Paula Palakawong are the husband-and-wife owners of Long Grain, a Camden restaurant that serves ethnic comfort food influenced by their native Bangkok, a Thai city known for street food that melds cuisines from neighboring countries.
Nakjaroen, the chef at Long Grain, learned the fundamentals of Thai cooking from his grandmother and mother. They shopped with him at local food markets and instilled a sense of pride in cooking delicious and comforting food from scratch, using the best available ingredients. When Nakjaroen was announced as a 2014 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast no one in Camden was surprised.
Long Grain opened in September 2010 and the buzz has continued since then. Part of the reason could be timing: Consumers are more aware than ever about the importance of locally sourced foods and the men and women who are their farming neighbors. Every dish at Long Grain starts with good ingredients like locally foraged mushrooms, eggs from Bowden’s Farm in Waldoboro, tofu from Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and meat, seafood, and greens sourced nearby.
“My husband always says it is an honest food,” Palakawong says. “There is nothing to hide what we do. When we say it’s homemade, it’s homemade. When we say it’s local, it’s local.”
Because Palakawong and Nakjaroen are from Thailand, Long Grain is often perceived as a Thai restaurant, but the menu features comfort food inspired by dishes you might find at markets in Bangkok where the food is as much Thai as it is a pan-Asian medley. A popular vegetarian item at Long Grain is the garlic chive rice cakes, which are pan-fried and served with sautéed bean sprouts. In a Chinese restaurant this type of dish would likely be served with soy sauce, but at Long Grain they add a little more chili and vinegar to make it brighter and more flavorful.
“We use more seasoning than any other Asian country,” Palakawong explained. “Indian foods use more dry spices, Thai use everything. Japanese and Chinese only use soy sauce, they don’t use fish sauce. Thai use all kinds of sauces; that makes Thai food more accessible.”
Spicy Thai Basil Minced Chicken
Spicy Night Market Noodle Soup
Pla Mug Manow
Pad Kee Mow
Pad Ped Moo
Pan-fried Garlic Chive Rice Cakes
The couple is not only committed to local foods, but to incorporating ingredients Maine has to offer in dishes that would normally rely on foods from a tropical climate. In the spring diners find locally foraged ramps on the menu in place of leeks or scallions, which do not come in until July and August.
Palakawong said locals especially know and appreciate the difference in their use of locally sourced ingredients. In a small town, everything travels fast—in Camden it is not just the ingredients that attract the locals, but what Nakjaroen does with them. The unique combinations burst with fresh taste.
Long Grain uses seventy-five pounds of Heiwa Tofu a week, year-round. Most of Heiwa Tofu’s soybeans are grown in Maine. Through the reemergence of a grain-growing community, the company has been able to recruit more farmers. According to Heiwa Tofu owner Jeff Wolovitz, soybeans are an excellent fit into many of these farmers’ rotation schemes for oats, wheat, corn, or even potatoes.
Wolovitz appreciates the couple’s support of the local food economy and the cooking. “Bas is spot on with it,” said Wolovitz. “Cubes of tofu quickly stir-fried, piping hot, and seasoned near the end. So simple. You can really enjoy the tofu that way. One of my favorites is the Pad See Ew with tofu and pork. Traditionally, tofu isn’t vegetarian food, it’s just another protein source that everyone eats.”
Patrons range from fishermen to summer residents and the restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner throughout the year. On most summer evenings, the homey 30-seat space is full for hours, with diners eating plates of house-made noodles and stir-fries. As a testament to the food, the staff never tires of “family meal.” In other restaurants, family meal is often different than what’s on the menu. At Long Grain, the food is so simple and easy to prepare that the staff eat just like the patrons.
And the prices are reasonable (nothing on the menu is more than $17). “A lot of the time people think when you eat locally it has to be expensive,” said Palakawong. “It is our job to work on the pricing. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion when someone comes in to eat with us.”
If the crowds, positive customer reviews, and recent James Beard nomination are any indication, Long Grain’s proprietors are doing their job and a lot more. Nakjaroen’s mother and grandmother would likely be very proud of what their son and his wife have accomplished. At Long Grain, good ingredients sourced locally allow the food to speak for itself.