Senae Thai’s Dee Buizer was born in Bangkok, Thailand’s metropolis-melting pot of cuisine. She opened her first restaurant Sweet Basil in Berkeley, California thirty years ago. With the help of family, she went on to open several additional restaurants in California, Maryland, and Arizona.
Most recently, Dee opened Soi Four in Scottsdale while her husband Jim Buizer was the senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University. However, Jim eventually accepted a position as a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, bringing the family to Tucson. Since opening downtown last year, Senae Thai Bistro has served up Dee’s signature elegant and authentic Thai cuisine.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?
Interestingly enough, I would have to say the French dish duck á l’orange, served with sautéed spinach. This, because it exposed me to how a dish can be prepared in a way that each flavor emerges subtly and on its own, and yet combines with the others into a sublime medley of integrated flavors. It is also a dish that when presented correctly, is beautiful to the eye. I thought about how to incorporate this approach to Thai food, something that was not difficult at all. Our Seared Breast of Duck with Lemongrass Chili Puree is my version of Duck á L’Orange.
2) What are you eating these days?
I have been having fun bringing back dishes from my childhood in Bangkok. Once I’m satisfied that they are how I remember mom made them, I serve them to my family and close friends. With their “thumbs up” encouraging me, I will add them as a special to my menu. When I’m not dining on my new dishes, I will enjoy my Talay Pad Phed – seafood wok-fried with wild ginger, curry and basil, or my Tod Mun – a Thai fish cake seasoned with curry and kaffir lime, tossed with fresh cucumber relish in sweet chili vinaigrette sauce.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
That would be the traditional Thai omelet over rice. I was 11 years old, and had to beg my grandmother to allow me in her kitchen.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
Because we are very committed to serving only the freshest, healthy food, I am incorporating locally-grown, organic products as much as possible. Many of our ingredients come from Tucson’s Shamrock Foods and Merchant’s Garden. Another thing we are very proud of is our relationship with the University of Arizona Community and Schools Garden Program, where we buy the Thai greens, herbs, and spices they grow for us. In line with my philosophy of providing elegant and appealing, authentic Thai cuisine, an important aspect of what we do at Senae is to make our dishes beautiful. I’ve always held to the belief that to truly enjoy a meal, food should please more than just the palate — it should also feast the eyes with beauty and awaken the taste buds with tantalizing aromas. Even texture is important to me.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
That has to be my family; my husband Jim, our son, Sean, and our daughter, Danae. If not my family, I have to say that an amazing experience would be an evening at Senae with chefs Janos Wilder (DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails), John Hohn (GAP Ministries), Travis Peters (The Parish), Marcus van Winden (The Dutch Eatery), and Fulvia Steffenone (Caffé Milano), enjoying my dishes with a nice wine, in deep conversation about our respective creations.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
In America, that would be the San Francisco Bay area, where my siblings and I have three restaurants: Basil Thai Restaurant and Bar, and Basil Canteen in San Francisco, and Soi Four in Oakland. We also have a Soi Four in Scottsdale, which is delightful, but who can deny the draw of San Francisco for a foodie like me? If outside of our country, I would say Budapest, Hungary. Two winters ago, while traveling through Europe, my girlfriend and I spent a day in Budapest where found the best tasting spätzle with Hungarian goulash. I am determined to return one day.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
That’s easy — traditional wavy potato chips with Jamoca Almond Fudge and Pistachio ice cream.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
Hmm, I have so many “favorites”, but if you insist, I would have my grilled rib eye steak, served medium-rare, with Thai spicy-sweet salsa and sticky rice.
Catch chef Dee Buizer at Senae Thai Bistro at 63 E. Congress St. For more information, visit senaethai.com.