We recently spent a couple of enjoyable days with Chef David Thompson at Nahm restaurant in Bangkok. Much of it passed gossiping over coffee. Some of it was spent in the kitchen tasting dishes the chef was cooking. One evening we even dined in the kitchen on cushions at a low wooden Thai divan from where Thompson’s partner Tanongsak keeps an eye on operations. In between, Terence made some of the warmest and most relaxed-looking portraits of the chef, who does not enjoy being in front of a camera, while I interviewed him for a few stories.
We’ve been fans of Thompson’s since we first ate at his restaurant Darley Street Thai in Sydney in the early 1990s. That inaugural David Thompson meal set high expectations for us from that point onward when it came to Thai food. We met the chef only briefly that evening, but like our meeting with Chef Tetsuya Wakuda at his first restaurant around the same time, it left an impression.
We’ve interviewed the chef and observed him in the kitchen, cooking, tasting and teaching, a handful of times since he opened Nahm in Bangkok, including October last year when he was in Battambang, Cambodia, where he’s an advisor to the social enterprise restaurant Jaan Bai. We’ve learn a lot from those encounters.
Watching the chef make a curry — and teach trainee cooks how to make a curry — is a participatory experience. There’s no fly on the wall research where David is involved. Spoons are also passed to the writer-photographer team to continually dip in the pots and woks to understand how a dish evolves with each sprinkle of this and smattering of that to gain the depth and complexity of flavour that great Thai food has. As a consequence, our expectations of Thai cuisine are higher than ever and appear to increase with each meal we relish at Nahm.
But we admire David for so much more than his kitchen craft and staggering knowledge of Thai food and its culinary history. No person we know has got under the skin of a place — that place being Thailand — like David has, from his fluency in the Thai language to his understanding of the country and culture. But that’s not what we were at Nahm to chat about.
In February 2014, Nahm was named Asia’s Best Restaurant at the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards by the global food industry — chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality professionals, gourmands, and food media that are organized into regional panels to vote annually for the planet’s finest eateries. We went to the event in Singapore, where Terence also did a culinary workshop with David Thompson. In May, Nahm placed at #13 on the global edition, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. We made a beeline for Bangkok.
All the restaurants at the top end of that list (a list well-regarded by industry and used as a guide by jet-setting food tourists) — Noma in Denmark, El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, and Osteria Francescana in Italy to name a few — are renowned for their never-ending tasting menus, contemporary techniques, artful plating, and the whimsical experiences they offer diners.
David Thompson’s pungent relishes, tangy salads and fiery curries, on the other hand, are served together family-style in rustic bowls on unadorned tables, and are distinguished by their authenticity, deliciousness, and, paradoxically, simplicity and complexity. There are no gastronomic fireworks or cheeky tricks, yet for those who appreciate authentic Thai food, a meal at Nahm will highly likely be their most memorable in Thailand and perhaps their most enjoyable in Asia.
That says a lot about “the cook” (as David prefers to be called over ‘chef’) and his food. I hope the interview below reveals a little more.
Lara Dunston: Q. I’m interested to know what triggered all of this — what’s your earliest food memory?
David Thompson: A. My mother was the world’s worst cook. That I survived her food is a testament to the strength of her genes. She cooked in the style of the Anglo-Celtic provincial — meat and two veg. I do remember my father growing a few vegetables in the backyard but it wasn’t a food-orientated upbringing. When I was 21 and finishing university it was as if a time bomb went off and I had to cook. There were no Masterchef, no TV chefs, no gastronomic epiphany that announced the beginnings of a career. I just became obsessed with food.
Q. So what inspired your passion for Thai food?
A. I remember eating my first Thai meal in Sydney at the Siam in Paddington. It was dreadful — fish cakes, which were rubbery, and lemongrass, which I hated at the time, but I suspect because it was 1979 it was dried lemongrass. I had no further appreciation of Thai except as a ‘lazy Sunday night I couldn’t be bothered to cook, shall I call the restaurant and get takeaway’ type of food.
Q. But there must have been something that ignited this passion, this lifelong project?
A. I came across Jennifer Brennan’s book on Thai food, just before or after I went to Thailand for a holiday. I went back to Australia and decided to move to Thailand. That was in 1986. I still wasn’t impressed with Thai food. It was more the crazy edge to this country I found intoxicating, enthralling, absorbing, and more delicious than the food. I thought it was certainly better than the Thai I’d had in Australia but I didn’t think it was great.
Q. What motivated you to open your first Thai restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in Sydney?
A. I’d been in Thailand for two to three years, during which time I’d met an old woman who’d been educated at the Thai palace and cooked with an inherited skill and you could taste the generations and experience in her food. As you can with any good cook. I met her through my partner, Tanongsak, who has been my culinary guide, and it was through him I started collecting old Thai cookbooks, which was another way I could gain access to a culinary culture I had no right to nor understanding of.
Q. Why do you feel you have no right to it?
A. Well, I’m not Thai. I understand when Thais are incredulous when Westerners cook Thai food because having tasted many Westerners’ interpretations of Thai food — apart from some exceptions — there are few who can really communicate the complexity, depth and balance of flavours. Some Thais don’t get that either but they have an inherent advantage and some cook with inherent skills. Others cook like my mother.
Q. What sort of food were you making back then, first in Sydney and later at Nahm in London? It’s often called Royal Thai.
A. Royal Thai is a spurious thing and extinct as well. It’s the food of a milieu that’s been dead for 60-70 years. I caught the tail end of some of those cooks but it’s not that they cooked in that manner because that was reserved for the princes of Siam and above, where you’d have small portions, exquisitely cooked, and very elegant. You get the veneer of it when people carve fruits and vegetables, but I find it a bit dodgy when they then go and use canned coconut cream. Royal Thai food was marked by a combination of dishes that struck with a blur of intensity, contrast and contradiction that was dark and sonorous and delicious. We have old books from that echelon but we’re cooking food from a nice avenue or nice house not a palace. Because that food, as it was prepared, has many parameters no longer available and points that must be adhered to before it can be called ‘royal’. We weren’t and aren’t doing that.
Q. So what were you cooking then?
A. We were trying to do the food that’s come to fruition at Nahm — good food that’s faithful to the cuisine. My whole career as a chef has been based upon being faithful to the food I understood at the time and it’s been with my increasing understanding that I’m still faithful to it. I’m not one who is here to please customers and that’s why we have customers complaining because we don’t conform to what people understand Thai food to be from their restaurants in Manchester, Wichita or Dubbo.
Q. How did those foreigner-friendly restaurants with the cookie-cutter menus of spring rolls and rubbery fish cakes and red and green curries come about?
A. Thais are intrinsically polite and hospitable people who worked out what it is Westerners liked to eat. The ubiquitous restaurants you’ve described developed in the 1970s and Thais don’t think the Western palate has moved on but I’d like to this it has — enormously. Some people get our jungle curries at Nahm and some don’t and are burning with scorn — as well as chillies. What most Thai restaurants do is offer a kind menu they know will please and ensure their business isn’t at risk because they’re doing something controversial. I’m not cavalier, nor dismissive — my priorities are to the cuisine. Hopefully people get that. The Thais themselves think their food can be too extreme and people won’t understand it and I get that. They also don’t think that Westerners can cook their food. But I think some people get a handle of it without question.
Q. I remember when Terence and I first ate here at Nahm, an older Thai gentleman at the next table exclaimed to his wife after a mouthful of curry: “I haven’t tasted anything like this since I was a child!”
A. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do. I’m also less dictatorial, it’s more collegial, and things are more conversational as I develop recipes with Prin (Nahm’s head chef). I guide but I don’t have to control every element. Why would I waste the talent of someone like Prin and some of the others in my kitchen? Their involvement is as important. This restaurant is often accused of being ran by Westerners but it doesn’t ring true. Those who make those accusations don’t understand how restaurants work. There is only one Westerner in the kitchen at Nahm.
Q. How has your food evolved during the life of each of your restaurants?
A. The first one represented the enunciation and beginning of an understanding and discovery through books and ingredients which I thought were fantastic at that time when they were grown in north Queensland in Australia and came down to Sydney. And that was when Sydney’s restaurant scene was in that high flying swing of success — the time of Neil Perry, Chris Mansfield, and all those chefs who built its reputation. Then in London because of the ingredients available it developed much more, along with my depth of experience, and I thought we were pretty good. But coming back to Thailand things changed completely. The recipes I had that I thought worked well didn’t anymore so everything had to be re-tested. There was a culinary spring-cleaning which as a 50 year-old cook was irksome at the time, but in retrospect was good, because it got rid of a lot of assumed recipes that had been relied upon without reconsidering.
Q. Are you still learning as a chef?
A. Oh, shit yeah. Now I’m more interested in the arcane ingredients that are entering the fray — different types of fish sauce, fermented fish, and fruits and vegetables, and that’s growing. We go to markets and we track things back to farms. For example, we found some half ripe mangosteens that are crispy and crunchy and are perfect in duck curry. There’s lots of stuff to be discovered that I wouldn’t have found in London. Plus there’s the depth of recipes that we now play with. I have so many projects going on and I’m setting up various things but I still like to spend one day a week wandering around like a lunatic with a dirty spoon and mucking around in the kitchen experimenting with new dishes. And that’s important to cooks — no matter what their age.
A shorter, edited version of this conversation appeared in the June 2014 Interview issue of Southeast Asia Globe. While interviewing and photographing Chef David Thompson we stayed as appreciative guests of the hospitable Metropolitan by Como hotel in Bangkok, which is home to Nahm.