The Yum List chats with Rachel O’Shea, chef at the Buffalo Dairy Farm in Luang Prabang…
What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
I am the Head Chef and GM of Production at Laos Buffalo Dairy – the first dairy in Laos. I got into the industry as a way of expressing my creativeness. I am a chef by training and love to cook and create new and interesting things. I have always used cooking as a type of therapy – walking up and down the aisles in the grocery store, picking out ingredients and then going home and creating something.
Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
In December of 2016 the ex-president of Laos, Choummaly Sayasone, came to visit us. We got exactly one-week warning that he would be coming sometime to visit. As timing would have it, Susie – my business partner and the CEO of LBD – was leaving for Bangkok for a few days. We desperately crossed our fingers and hoped he wouldn’t come while she was gone. At the time, we also had a guesthouse that we were running as well, so we were mighty busy. When we asked how many people would be coming so I could prepare food for them before I got swamped with Susie being gone and having to work in the guesthouse too, the answer we got was 25-30 people. No problem!
As the days passed, we all went on about our business, doing what needed to be done, and waiting patiently for the call. Steven – Susie’s husband and the Farm GM – started working to get the farm into ship-shape. I made cheese and Susie ran the business. Finally, came the time for Susie to leave us for a few days and go to Bangkok to work on getting some much-needed equipment straightened out, and still, the call hadn’t come about when our special visitor would arrive.
The not knowing can make you really nervous! The weekend has passed and Monday rolled around… Susie was away, Steven was at the farm and I was playing the social director of Merry 1 Guesthouse. As I was sitting at the desk, taking a moment to breathe after breakfast service was done, guests had checked out, map tours had been given and everyone seemed to have happily gone on with their day, the phone rang. And was Steven calling to tell me we had a date. They had decided to come in two days!!! His PR people thought he would join us at the farm around 1-2pm, which meant Susie would barely make the end of the visit!!! (Insert panic noises here.)
Fast forward to the day of the visit – as all well-planned events go… Susie’s flight was delayed!!! She was barely going to make it to start with and now she’s going to be late????
Poor Susie had also picked up her mum in Bangkok and needed to land, get home – thank goodness we only live about five minutes from the airport – change and get out to the farm!
By miracles of miracles, this is Laos, and no one is on time! Luckily He was about three hours late, which gave Susie time to arrive and us to make sure everything was ready.
A motorcade went down the road and we stopped breathing waiting to see, but it was only five cars, so yeah, not him. A little while later, our 25-30 people showed up but were clearly more like 60!!!! Not only did we have the ex-president, but we also had the governor and various government officials.
It was a very busy and exciting day on the farm!
What’s the best/ worst part of your job?
The best part of my job is being able to create new things on an almost daily basis right now. Using buffalo milk is quite different to using cows milk and you need to make allowances for different recipes. For example, cow’s milk is about 3% butterfat, but buffalo milk is about 8-9% butterfat, which gives a smooth, creamy feel.
The worst part of my job is having to make allowances using the buffalo milk! I had a hard time in the beginning creating my cheese recipes because no one would share their recipes or how they came up with them. Since buffalo cheese is a niche market, chefs guard their recipes very closely, so I shed many a tear in the beginning out of frustration when the precious little amount of milk that I had failed to create what I wanted or just came up with something completely different than what I was trying for.
What’s your personal favourite product at Laos Buffalo Dairy?
I think at the moment my personal favorite has to be the ice cream because I use all natural ingredients and because of the butterfat in the milk, it has a very creamy texture. You can see by the look on everyone’s face when they first taste it at how shocked they are. It’s just that good!
What’s one of the funniest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
Some of the funniest things I’ve seen around the farm are when it’s “play time” for the buffalo – mums and babies!! On occasion, usually when it’s raining, the mums go a bit crazy when it’s time for the milking. Usually the buffalos will walk themselves, nice and orderly, into the milking shed. Since swamp buffalo love to be wet and wallow, when it hasn’t rained in a while and it happens to be raining outside, they will go off on a run around before going into the shed. It’s always funny to see the staff running around in circles with them trying to get them back into the shed. Eventually the buffalo just decide it’s time and wander into the shed themselves and line up for milking time. You can tell when the babies are feeling frisky as well. They have their own paddock to have a graze or wander in and on occasion when they are let out they all play follow the leader and go on a run around. It’s very sweet to watch and I’ve even managed to get some videos for our media.
A day in your life on the farm…
A day in my life at the farm usually starts with mozzarella making in the morning, as it’s an all day process – luckily with breaks in the process to allow for doing other things. I’m still training my staff – it’s a constant training lifestyle as we experiment with more cheeses and dishes for the café. Then we move on to other cheeses and baked good items as well. At the moment I’m still formulating recipes to use here so sometimes I leave my staff to do the cheese and I go play with whatever I think may be successful.
What do you do for fun?
Fun? What’s that? 😛 Between the farm and my kids it leaves little time for fun. But I like to watch movies with my kids and when I can, I go out with friends to catch up on life going on outside of the farm!
What’s something you’d like guests to know about Laos Buffalo Dairy?
We have a completely different business model from other companies. While we know that it would be far easier to run our business if we owned the buffalo outright, we decided that we wanted to make a difference here in Laos. Instead of owning the buffalo, we rent them from the farmers. Each buffalo comes in to the farm when it is about eight months pregnant so we can vaccinate it and monitor the last two months of pregnancy. When the baby is born, we are there to help if need be. Depending on the buffalo, we will rent them for approximately six months giving the farmer an income stream he never knew existed. The farmer retains ownership of the buffalo and the baby through the whole process and when the mum is done milking we return her and the baby to the farmer. During the buffalos stay at the farm we also attempt to get it pregnant to keep the cycle going. A healthy buffalo is a happy buffalo and makes for a happy farmer!
What’s your favourite food and wine pairing?
Why, our cheese and a good red wine of course! I’ve been experimenting with blue cheese and have just tasted a young one that will be fabulous with a nice red or a really good champagne in a few months. The creaminess of the cheese will be set off really well by the bubbles I think!
What’s your view on the Luang Prabang food scene?
The people and tourists of Luang Prabang are really lucky. There are some fabulous high-end restaurants here and some really local places as well. While I don’t have the time to go out and eat a lot, I do have to say that the town does not disappoint when we do get to go out. From pizza to pasta, curry to khao soy, there are so many options and just about every single one is not only affordable but also memorable.
What’s in store for you in the upcoming months?
In the upcoming months we will be increasing our number of head on the farm. We will be at 100 buffalo (and that’s just the mums!) by the end of January, which means an increase in milk for me in the kitchen. Between the cheese processing and the café we will be busy, busy, busy! We will hopefully be able to buy a refrigerated truck in that time so that we can expand our customer base. We know that Vientiane is patiently waiting for us to be able to get our stock into their hands and we would like to comply!
We will also be starting the build on our next shed so that we can start to increase our head count to 100. And eventually we will build our permanent café at the back of the farm with an incredible view of the mountains.
Read about The Yum List’s visit to Laos Dairy Farm here.