Taking it home

Only now he has a successful restaurant in Bangkok does David Thompson finally feel he understands Thai food. He tells Maida Pineda about his journey and next project

Asia’s number one restaurant is Nahm. Interestingly, the man behind this Thai restaurant is David Thompson, an Australian chef. In Thailand, locals would refer to him as a farang, the Thai term for a caucasian. But this farang chef has become synonymous with Thai cuisine. Thanks to his best selling books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, he is regarded as an expert in Thai cuisine. Few people know Thai food as Thompson does. His London restaurant, Nahm, was the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. This year, his second Nahm, located at the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, was named Asia’s Best Restaurant and ranked 13 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Bringing history to life

Thompson’s knack for scouring century-old cookbooks and bringing to life recipes not seen for years gained him acclaim at Nahm Bangkok. Thompson confesses, “I’ve always been an avid reader of history, because I’m fascinated by it. It makes one aware of where one has come from. As an outsider in Thailand, it was important for me to be able to at least understand, the complex culture and the past in order to give some validity to the food.” Thompson found the best Thai food comes from the late 19th century. Thompson explains: “Every culture goes through the vicissitudes, the waves of great heights, and then goes flat for a while. But that was one of the high points, one of the epochs of Thai culinary history.”

Another appeal of this period is its accessibility to Thompson as a culinary researcher. He discovered the remarkable tradition of Thai people publishing books to be distributed at funeral or cremation ceremonies. These books included recipes. “This was when cookbooks were first printed,” he says. “They were often just given to family members and intimates of the deceased.”

Ask Thompson if he is cooking authentic Thai food and he spins into a complex answer defining authenticity. “Most people say authenticity is something that happens in the past, something that needs to be reproduced quite faithfully,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that people have a different interpretation of what is authentic. It depends on when people are looking back – and where they are looking back to.”

Thompson humbly admits: “I have no right to cook Thai food. I arrived in Thailand a novice, uncertain and very unfamiliar.” For Thompson, his initial understanding of Thai food was limited. He recalls, “It was fixed not only in the 19th century, and on Bangkok, but into a certain class – an affluent class. It was a rich, urbane class that had servants who could cook for them. Because that was the epitome of the food as I understood it to be. I wrote a book called Thai Food, and I wrote it in order to articulate my understanding of what I believed fine Thai food was about, placed in that time, in that city, in that class. It was a very fixed idea. And in some ways, it dismissed all other possible interpretations of what authentic was. It dismissed the food of the streets. It disregarded the cuisines of diverse regions. It ignored the possibility of satisfying cooking in a house that was not, perhaps, as affluent as the houses I tried to get into.”

Thompson identifies this understanding of authenticity as flawed, especially if you’re searching for a historical understanding of food. He says, “This definition fixes an idea of what it should be, as opposed to what in fact good cooking and good culture is about. It is changing and developing to express the essence of a dish.”

Thompson’s cooking has evolved since his first foray into Thai food at Darley Street Thai, the restaurant he opened in Sydney in 1992 after living in Thailand for several years. “I’ve cooked throughout the world. I’ve cooked in Sydney, in London, and now I’m cooking in Bangkok.” Thompson observes, “I have to say my cooking has changed quite dramatically. First of all, I used to be a novice, an uncertain novice, a rather demanding novice. Because when you are uncertain, you often fix on an idea no matter how unyielding, trying to achieve that idea. That’s how I ran my restaurant in Sydney. I look back now and regard it as a rather immature operation.

“Even if I had a decent reputation in Sydney, when I look at it now, it was quite limited,” Thompson continues. “My understanding of Thai food then was quite shallow. I had only spent three or four years getting to understand a cuisine that may take a whole lifetime to appreciate.”

Culinary checkmate

The success of Thompson’s restaurants, Darley Street Thai and Sailors Thai, prompted hotelier Christina Ong to take notice. She offered him the opportunity to open Nahm in 2001 in the Halkin Hotel in London. In the UK, Thompson had access to some ingredients that allowed him to recreate Thai recipes in some authentic way. But moving to Bangkok in 2010 dramatically changed his cooking. “Opening Nahm in Bangkok was quite traumatic as a cook,” he recalls. “All the recipes I had previously been able to use and follow quite faithfully with some degree of success simply did not work as they had done in the different cities.”

Perplexed, Thompson wondered why: “The ingredients were the same. The cook was almost the same. But there is not one single dish that was right. Basic things from stocks to dressings, to the more complicated dishes such as salads, relishes and curries, nothing could work. In the past, the ingredients we had used were grown outside Thailand. They were not as good as some of the ingredients we could get when we opened our restaurant in Bangkok.”

This baffling time became an opportunity for culinary spring cleaning. Thompson had to test assumptions he had earlier, and throw away those that did not work. “But the other thing that began to occur was the whole method with which I cooked also began to change.” Thompson says, noticing an evolution in his cooking style. He has gone from “nervously dictating how things should be, as in Australia, to constantly demanding how things should occur, as in London, to being far more collegiate and consensual when it came to developing recipes, which is how recipes now work in Thai food”.

At Nahm Bangkok, Thompson learned that bringing old recipes to life allowed for variations and interpretation. One recipe Thompson found was jungle curry, an old-fashioned rustic curry with a jungle bird, dried chilies, lemongrass, galangal and the regular shallots, garlic and shrimp paste. With the help of his Thai executive chef at Nahm and other Thai cooks, bit by bit, they moved the jungle curry from the 1920s to the 2010s: “We changed the curry paste, added more shrimp paste. We added more lemongrass to recover the oily quality of the chicken, which we used because the jungle bird is no longer common in Bangkok. Then we started to use a little bit of beef, which seemed to be an even better fit. And that necessitated a change in the curry paste.

“Cooking Thai food is like playing a chess match, where you make one move, then another and another in order to find your goal – culinary checkmate.”

Thompson adds: “My understanding of authenticity is no longer about the dictates of an old recipe combined with some ingredients. It is also an authenticity – and an authenticity that follows those set patterns has an element of genuineness about it.”

Singapore fling

Meeting Thompson in Singapore, he confides: “Singapore has become a second home, or something like that, because I’m opening a restaurant here later
this year.” Intrigued, I ask, “Are you opening Nahm?”

“No, I’m not. Nahm is a difficult, demanding beast. It is an impossible beast to manage,” he replies. After cooking Thai food abroad, he now realizes that Nahm is best suited to Bangkok. “What I will offer in Singapore is the street food I enjoy eating in Bangkok. It’s a hybridised cuisine. It has a lot of Chinese influences so you don’t have to cook either extremes of heat or of sourness, or of sweetness. It’s a simpler type of cooking as well. Street food by its very nature is far more tolerant I suppose.”

When pressed for an opening date, Thompson answers: “We are still doing a few things, so possibly the third or fourth quarter of this year. I believe any self-respecting restaurateur will always run late with their opening.”

Without the formal trappings of a traditional restaurant, Thompson’s new venture will be more accessible. “It offers a far more relaxed approach, so there will be a bar,” he says. “There will be an open kitchen, which I have always disliked, but on the streets of Bangkok you see the cooks in front of you.” To solve the labour restrictions and shortage of staff in Singapore, the cooks will be serving the food as well.

I asked what ingredients are always in his fridge. Thompson says: “I have chocolate, because I’m addicted to chocolate. But I always have palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chili.” There’s no doubt Thai cuisine runs in his veins. Don’t even get him started on durian. For Thompson, the 66 different varieties of this fruit mean 66 different manifestations of heaven.

Maida Pineda

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