Written by Mika Apichatsakol
Photos by Chaiwat Kangsamrith
“The Plant Issue”, October-November 2023
Mexican-American on her mother’s side and Swiss on her father’s, Samantha Häberli has made her home in Thailand, the country she has spent the most time living in her 34 years on Earth. Speaking about her calling in life as a plant-based chef and founder of the new Earth House in Sukhumvit 53, Samantha, or Sam, tells me that growing up and watching her mum cook meals for her and her brother, she was always interested in cooking but that veganism also seemed to be in the cards for her. Having never been particularly enthusiastic about meat in cuisine, Sam stopped eating it nine years ago after having a conversation with a friend about the Yulin Dog Meat Festival and dog meat trade in general. Many are vehemently against the notion of eating man’s best friend and yet will have no qualms about eating other types of meat, like chicken or pork. Once the hypocrisy was pointed out so blankly, Sam would never be the same.
“It seemed meant to happen to me that day as, on the way home from that meet- up, I got stuck in traffic near Khlong Toey Market, next to trucks that were transporting baby pigs. It was raining; they were all smushed together; and their faces looked so sad. One of them was bleeding, and that was it. That’s my vegan origin story,” says Sam.
Going plant-based only spurred her interest in cooking, as vegan options weren’t as robust in Thailand a decade ago as they are now, leaving a gap that needed to be filled. As she began her deep dive into plant-based cooking, Sam became more interested in holistic health and nutrition. Her passion eventually landed her a job as a plant-based chef at IconSiam. After a year and a half there, an opportunity to work with Soneva came, and she was hired to design the famed luxury resort chain’s the plant-based menus as well as train staff on plant-based cooking and nutrition. Then six months in, Soneva asked Sam to reinvigorate Colours of the Garden, a wholly vegan dining outlet located in the middle of an organic garden in Koh Kood’s Soneva Kiri resort.
“I was terrified but also super excited. We basically had to rebuild and redesign the whole thing, so it was a very fun but challenging experience,” says Sam. Despite the intimidating task, Sam successfully reopened Colours of the Garden in 2020 and spent the next two years building up the courage for her next big step: starting her own plant-based restaurant.
In 2022, Sam opened The Earthling Cafe, which served healthy but hearty vegan dishes and drinks out of a small space in Ekkamai. A great first experience in owning a restaurant in Bangkok, Sam and her big ideas quickly outgrew the cafe’s tiny kitchen, and she started looking for a space for her Earth House. But unfortunately, this story comes with its fair share of heartbreak.
Initially, Sam had found the house of her dreams on Sukhumvit 39, but then the landlord changed his mind and leased the property to someone else. “My heart broke into a million pieces. It was very hard to accept,” Sam admits. Shopping for alternatives, Sam says she looked at 30 other houses but couldn’t find anything reasonable and decided revisit a house she had turned away in Thonglor due to its poor condition. She went to see it again and this time was sold on the place after discovering a big mango tree out at the back. However, everyone around her cautioned her against taking up the project, seeing just the decrepit mess in front of them. The only person who seemed to be cheering Sam on about pursuing the renovations was a contractor, who would shortly ghost her… along with her exceptionally large downpayment.
“I was completely devasted at that point. I thought I had lost the whole business and that there was no way to come back from that,” Sam recalls. “I was very close to walking away from it completely, and I think that if I hadn’t done Earthling Cafe before and this was my first restaurant, we would probably not be sitting here having this interview.”
To say that things picked up easily after Sam was deadset on continuing would be a lie. She struggled to find a new contractor, and renovations for such a property required miracle work. “Everything that you thought could possibly go wrong, did go wrong,” Sam confirms, mentioning issues like flooding, poor drainage, and rot. “I thought maybe it was all a sign to stop, but then there was a tiny voice inside of me that said, ‘Persevere, persevere, and it will be worth it.’ Somehow, I listened to that voice and 11 months later—eight months behind schedule—here we are.”
As someone who seems to have a lot of natural draw towards wellness and wellbeing, I asked Sam about her own stress management throughout the process. “This is the funniest part,” she says. “I love helping other people reduce their stress and relax, but it’s more difficult to follow my own advice. But I do try to make time for myself and remember to breath, eat well, and disconnect.”
Prioritising wellbeing for the entire Earth House team, Sam shares that she and her staff like to have small meditation sessions together, including mantra chanting. “I think they all thought I was a little crazy at the beginning, but now they’re all in love with doing little things like palo santo and blessing our house together.” Sam also makes sure that each of them works five days out of the week, instead of the industry standard of six days, and that they are strictly unbothered by work on their days off. All the special activities and workshops hosted at Earth House are also made accessible to the team so that they can enjoy the space as much as guests.
“I love my team so much,” says Sam. “They mean so much to me, and we are like a family. I know it sounds cliché, but we really like each other and do things together. We often open up a bottle of wine together at the end of the day and discuss what went wrong, what went right, and what we can work on, but in a really relaxed setting. I want everyone to be heard and for everyone to have a part in building the menu and the space. This is very important to me: to make your team feel like they’re part of the business and not just working for it.”
In its soft opening period at the time of writing, Earth House is planning to have its glorious grand opening in October, celebrating one year of overcoming trials and tribulations and hopefully manifesting good things from here on out. After getting to know Sam and her story, I simply can’t unsee how Earth House is like her home, into which she is welcoming us all. The two-storey house sits on a spacious property, giving its Bangkokian visitors plenty of parking space in the front and plenty of al fresco sitting space in the back. Tucked away from the main hustle and bustle of its Thonglor address, the grand mango tree, long wispy vines, and plenty of other types of plants add to the fantasy of being elsewhere.
Inside, Earth House is charmingly decked out in natural materials, antiques, and pieces from Sam’s personal art collection. Beautiful plants continue to be present indoors, so that diners there don’t miss out, and floor-to-ceiling glass on every side of the house lets in the property’s green views as well as natural light. With dining nooks available all over the first floor of Earth House, the second floor is reserved for Sam’s office and the yoga studio where different types of wellness activities are held, including sound healing and guided meditation.
“I wanted to create a fun place to hang out, which coincidentally happens to be vegan. I was asking myself where all of my favourite restaurants in Bangkok to go on a date or with friends were, and they weren’t really any of the vegan restaurants. Don’t get me wrong! There are great vegan restaurants in Bangkok, which I go to a lot for lunch and stuff, but most of them aren’t places where I would open two bottles of wine and sit for four hours.”
As for Earth House’s menu, you’ll see no mention of “vegan” or “plant-based”, despite everything being so. This is them trying to normalise the concept of not eating animal products. “If you don’t tell anybody they’re coming to eat at a vegan restaurant, they might not realise they’re not eating animal products and just enjoy the great food in front of them. That’s how it should be,” says Sam. There’s no “fake meat” on the menu either, as Sam wants to show you how delicious, beautiful, and satisfying vegetables are. Everything is homemade purely from plants—including a Camembert that Sam is very proud of. As for the ingredients themselves, Earth House isn’t just sourcing their vegetables locally from small producers but growing exactly what they need in a special collaboration with the Mercy Centre that will also provide internship and training opportunities to the shelter’s youths.
In addition, as a wine lover, Sam has big plans for her wine offerings. “We currently have an amazing list of natural, biodynamic wines by female winemakers. I’m in the process of converting the shed in the backyard into an art studio by day and a wine bar night,” she explains.
With everything starting to fall in place for Samantha and Earth House, this nature’s child tells me she’s looking to finally take a trip to somewhere where she can be barefoot or just close to nature for some recharge. Reflecting on the past year, she says, “I’ve never really been a planner. Sometimes, I still can’t even believe I have a restaurant, to be honest. I feel like everything that’s happened in my life has just kind of happened organically or by accident. I don’t want to sound ridiculous, but I believe that there’s something out there guiding us and once we’re aligned with ourselves and our truths, things will just have a way of working out. Not that any of this has been easy, of course, but I feel like this was just supposed to happen. It just feels right.”
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