How a Thai Cooking School Uses Food to Build Community

Home Cooking School Thailand
Savannah Aubinoe is a lifestyle and documentary photographer and human rights activist based in San Francisco, California / SavShoots.com

The soothing scent of lemongrass licked the tip of my nose as the breeze brushed through sun-swathed snap pea plants, lime leaves, cilantro and colorful chilis—yellows, oranges, reds and purples dotting the fresh foliage like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

I’d fallen asleep during the 20-minute car ride from Chiang Mai to Grandma’s Home Cooking School, and I woke up still dreaming. I opened my eyes to a sun-drenched sanctuary—a private estate with a pond, chicken coops, pavilions and an alfresco kitchen beside a pristinely maintained farm. Ratchakorn Pornprasert, the co-founder and general manager who goes by Rachel, had invited me out to take a Thai cooking class.

I’d already spent a week in Chiang Mai, a charming city infused with an inexplicable, enchanting energy in Thailand’s mountainous north. An echo of peace emanates from hundreds of ornamental Buddhist temples, where meditation on Buddhist ideologies consumed many of my mornings. Earlier that week I read: “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

 
“Thai food is not only just food, we believe that food can express our culture and bring people together.”
 

It’d be impossible not to still your mind in a place as peaceful as Grandma’s Home, enveloped by the sights, smells and sounds of nothing but nature. A woman aptly named Joy was my chef—a fervent cook with a contagious smile. She was both affable and patient and, with her help, I transformed from a woman with a proclivity for burning microwavables to a Thai-food chef who cooked one of the most fulfilling meals I’d ever had.

Grandma’s Home Cooking School exudes a family feel. Rachel’s co-founder, Phiraphong Verochana (who goes by Paul), acquired the land from his grandmother who bought it years ago and had spent most of her days caring for the Longan trees. She still visits to cook Thai food for the staff.

“For us, Thai food is not only just food, we believe that food can express our culture and bring people together,” Rachel told me. “We live in a big family, and we usually [end] up in the kitchen helping our families cook. These are the experiences that we would love to pass on to our guests—how family influences Thais, and how family plays an important role in Thai culture.”

 
“We wanted to create a business that can support the Thai culture and community. The cooking school gives us all of that.”
 

Just two years ago, Rachel and Paul met Joy, who also grew up helping her grandmother cook for the family while also working in her uncle’s Thai restaurant. Their relationship was so organic that starting a cooking school felt obvious—they’d combine all of their passed-down family recipes and start teaching them to curious foodies like me.

“I always wanted to have a cooking school and organic farm—we love cooking and eating and, since college, Paul and I spent our day off trying out famous and new restaurants,” Rachel said. “You may think if we like eating, then why don’t we just open a restaurant, right? For us we wanted to create a business that can support the Thai culture and community. The cooking school gives us all of that. We can support Thai culture through culinary experiences and by sharing our organic produce to villagers. And we have created beautiful connections with our guests who have become friends. For those who stay longer in Chiang Mai, we meet them for dinner and, sometimes, they came back to visit us or we exchange recipes where we teach them Thai food and they teach us how to cook their food. For us, these are very precious experiences.”

 
“As a woman working in hospitality, Rachel takes care of her business the way her mother always taught her—to pay attention to every detail, from the ingredients to the class sizes.”
 

As a woman working in hospitality, Rachel takes care of her business the way her mother always taught her—to pay attention to every detail, from the ingredients to the class sizes. Because the cooking school is fairly new, and the property is still under some construction, Grandma’s Home can currently hold up to eight guests per day. They welcome approximately 70 guests per month at the moment, and are looking forward to welcoming even more as they complete construction.

I’d never have known the place wasn’t finished. And, frankly, having the quiet garden to my photographer and myself made the experience feel even more like home.

I spent some time learning about the farm, gathering eggs from the chickens and riding red bicycles around the estate. The farm boasts everything from holy, sweet and lemon basil to ginger, butterfly pea flowers, lemongrass, eggplants, an array of fruits and more.

“There are many Thai cooking schools in Chiang Mai, however, we try to differentiate our cooking school by [having] our own organic farm,” Rachel said. “We grow our own vegetables organically to serve our cooking class. Our guests will learn about Thai herbs and vegetables that are used in Thai cuisine, and they also have a chance to pick vegetables and herbs for their dishes … They also collect the fresh eggs from the chicken coop.”

After learning about Grandma’s Home, we prepared a four-course meal. On my menu was Tom Ka Kai (coconut soup), red curry with chicken, tofu Pad Thai and mango sticky rice painted blue with butterfly pea petals—flowers that promote women’s health.

The meal didn’t only sate my appetite; it satisfied my soul. Erupting with flavor, it was a simultaneously spicy, sweet and savory meal I made myself. I wasn’t anticipating the pride I felt while eating it. I’d never quite experienced the impetus to eat slowly to appreciate my food as fuel like I did then. That meal was cooked deliberately with organic ingredients that were grown under deliberate care. Knowing and understanding the process, personally, made me want to enjoy it deliberately, too—to smell the aromatic spices, to identify the fresh vegetables on my taste buds and to recognize how the fusion of all of them made me feel, physically.

And I was able to enjoy the meal in one of the three pavilions that set Grandma’s Home apart from its competitors, who often work in small kitchens in cluttered cities.

“Our team has designed the cooking pavilion in traditional northern style,” Rachel explained, noting that every detail is deliberate, down to the traditional clay tile that is used to absorb the heat. “This is a part of Thai culture so we can tell the stories through [the entire] culinary experience.”

There are no clichéd touristic touches to taint what’s still inherently Thai. Grandma’s Home kitchen is just an off-the-beaten-path, open-air, authentic oasis.

On top of cooking classes, Rachel said she and her co-founders also offer to rent the scenic venue out for conferences, weddings, parties, private dinners and workshops such as carving, Thai dancing, art and more. They also plan to open a coffee shop, restaurant and farming resort as they grow.

Grandma’s Home Cooking School
Grandma’s Home Cooking School offers a food oasis in Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of Savannah Aubinoe

Grandma’s Home Cooking School is located at 172/7 Moo 8, Saraphi, Saraphi, Chiang Mai 50140.