Rachael Reigelman has just returned from a ten-day whirlwind culinary tour of Thailand and she has the elephant pants to prove it.
“I came home with 15 pairs,” she says, holding out the fabric around the hips to show them off. “Once I realized how cheap everything was at the markets, I was like ‘watch out!’ These were about three dollars a pair–I had no idea what I was in for–I love bargains!”
But a shopping trip was not the motivation for Rachael’s adventure, it was only a perk; instead, this was a culinary exploration sponsored by Louisville Collegiate School where Rachael runs the food services program. Rachael has spent almost two decades with Sage Dining Services where, as head chef, she feeds 900 students and staff each day, so when the school was taking applications for a cultural immersion experience in Thailand, she thought she’d put her name in the hat.
Collegiate routinely offers global opportunities where teachers and staff can apply to chaperone. At the time, in 2019, Rachael’s daughter also attended the school so she thought the trip would be the perfect experience to share with her daughter. But the pandemic wreaked havoc on these best-laid plans: Rachael’s daughter transferred to a different school, the trip was put on a hiatus, and the Reigelman’s endured some family trauma. “I didn’t think I would get it, a lot of staff applied, and so many things happened during Covid, so when I got the news that I was going at the end of 2021, it seemed like a blessing,” Rachael says. “I wanted to seize the opportunity. As a chef, I could experience the culture and food of the region firsthand and bring it back to the school. Now that I’ve been, I’m ready to go back!”
Rachael now plans to host Thai cooking classes and keep the momentum going with the students that returned to Louisville inspired by Thai cuisine. She plans to host a family dinner where she will replicate some of the foods they relished abroad: mango sticky rice sweetened with coconut milk that they ate from the street; spicy stews with fish and shrimp; fresh pineapple and watermelon that they found served with every meal; sticky rice with various vegetables and pastes served in banana leaf satchels; breakfasts of Thai omelets, fish and rice, salads, and fresh fruit (sometimes served with a sweet & spicy paste to dip it in); and lots and lots of pad thai.
Throughout the journey that carted 21 high school students and three chaperones through Thailand, Pat, their tour guide translated, transported, and transformed the crew’s experience. “He made the trip. He picked us up at the Bangkok airport and was with us the entire time. He made the jam-packed 10-day itinerary manageable–it is such brutal travel. He ordered all our meals and provided all the transportation. It would not have been the same experience if I had to do it myself. The language, the decisions, and the transportation would have made it too stressful,” Rachael says. Rachael also marveled at how Pat was able to hold the attention span of teenagers and anticipate their needs. “He never gave them time to be bored. He gave them 15-minute tours of famous historical sites–just enough to get the basics and move on.”
Over the course of 10 days, the crew experienced the floating outdoor market Dam Neon Saduak where vendors fry up fresh spring rolls in their boats. They fed and bathed elephants at Baanchang Elephant Park. They saw countless palaces, temples, battlefields, caves, markets, and monkeys–one of which stormed their tour bus, ransacked their luggage, and stole a bag of chocolate pretzels that he later threw at them from the road. They traveled to a beach, swam in the Gulf of Thailand, took a dinner cruise, traversed snakey mountainside roads via tour bus, navigated through the bustling cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai…and bought a lot of elephant pants.
Aside from the culinary memories, Rachael’s favorite was a very rainy day when the group drove vans up the serpentine, narrow mountain roads to a village called Kued Chang. There, they learned about ecological restoration and participated in a service learning project where the students and staff planted saplings and collected mango seeds.
At the end of the damp and dirty day, Rachael says, “We hiked up the mountain where the villagers prepared the most amazing Thai farm-to-table lunch using repurposed items like banana leaves and bamboo as containers for coconut curry stew, rice wrapped in banana leaves, bok choy, Thai omelet with spicy peanut sauce, fresh pineapple and watermelon. This was definitely the highlight of the trip,” Rachael says of the feast prepared on giant trays served from the ground of the village structures.
“For our snack that day, we had butterfly pea juice and coconut sticky rice with banana and black bean wrapped in a banana leaf. They had these bamboo mugs for us with our names carved into them. After that, we went on a relaxing bamboo raft ride to Mae Taeng Bamboo Raft Camp, and we got to take turns paddling while surrounded by elephants and water buffalo in the land around us.”
By Megan Seckman | Photos submitted