Restaurant of the Year 2016: Maenam
A room that has done more for the city—and continues to do so—than most know
April 13, 2016
When asked his age, Angus An says he’s 36. No, he corrects himself—35. “I feel 46, to be honest with you,” he says. It’s an understandable mix up. Age is an easy thing to forget for someone like An, who opened his first restaurant, Gastropod, when he was just 26. Maenam, his flagship restaurant, came three years later, and he’s since opened three casual eateries and won more awards for his work than most chefs twice his age. Indeed, 35 seems almost impossibly young considering the fact that, according to this year’s Restaurant Awards judges, An has been instrumental in not only putting out amazing food night after night but also transforming Vancouver’s dining scene in the process.
“He reinvented himself with Maenam,” says Anya Levykh, a food critic for the Westender, “and he reinvented people’s concepts of what Thai food could be.” He also reinvented what a Thai restaurant could be, and expanded that definition to include modern decor, intimate service, and carefully crafted cocktails and wine pairings—features that were traditionally reserved for more continental establishments. Levykh says that if it weren’t for Maenam, places like Bao Bei, Torafuku, and Pidgin might not exist. “It’s not just the best Thai restaurant,” she says, “it’s a really great restaurant—a definitive restaurant.”
But despite pioneering a new category of dining in this city, An—who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Maple Ridge—had very traditional aspirations at the start of his culinary career. After graduating with a fine arts degree from UBC, he trained at New York’s French Culinary Institute before putting in his time at some of London’s best fine dining restaurants. “At that point, I was determined to be a French chef,” An says. “French food was the pinnacle of what my career would be.” That is, until one day a friend invited him to work at Nahm, the world’s only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant at the time.
The seed that would eventually blossom into Maenam had been planted, even if An didn’t quite realize it yet. Nahm is also where he met Kate Auewattanakorn, his future wife and business partner, and when the couple returned to Vancouver in 2006 they opened Gastropod, an upscale experimental restaurant in Kitsilano. But despite rave reviews Gastropod didn’t survive the recession, and in 2009 the pair made the decision to close it and try something new.
That something new was, of course, Maenam—the Thai eatery the two had imagined would be their second restaurant. It was an instant hit. “We were able to provide ethnic food with slightly… sexier vibes,” he says. “Before, 20 years ago, I don’t think that was there. Even the good ones were not romantic, not a nice night out. Now there are restaurants where you can go and have a really good night. That’s what was missing.”
According to Levykh, while An came after trailblazers like Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala, he’s inspired many others with his approach at Maenam. “And I think in a way he was the one who made [contemporary Asian dining] more mainstream,” she says. But it’s not just those sexier vibes keeping Maenam in business. “It’s his technique,” Levykh says. “Everything from the way he trains his kitchen to the knife work to the layering of ingredients—that Thai balance of the five basic flavours. It’s in every single dish that he serves.” She says she’s lost count of the number of times she’s eaten at Maenam over the years. “It’s constantly being refined, it’s constantly being improved, and every time it’s a little bit better than the time before.”