“I have no right to cook Thai food,” Australian chef David Thompson said in his opening remarks of a session on authenticity in cooking at The Future of Food forum, an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants event, held last week here in Singapore.
“Bullshit!” would be the honest Aussie response of any sane person with a palate who has tasted this chef’s cuisine over the last few years of his Thai culinary journey, now spanning more than 25 years.
Today, Thompson is in an enviable place as a chef, his Nahm restaurant in Bangkok earning number one spot on the Asia’s 50 Best list above other regional chefs, many of whom are enamored with cooking in bags, saucing with foams, plating with tweezers, and wowing with smoke.
Chef Thompson’s culinary fireworks are what lands on the plate — often from a ladle. The self-effacing Thompson calls himself a ‘cook’ and a ‘pot-scrubber’. His food is a knockout, and not just from its heat, but from the texture and depth. It invokes a feeling that whatever Thai cuisine you’ve eaten before, this is on a higher plane.
This isn’t to say that Thompson hasn’t had his detractors since opening in the Thai capital a few years ago. The Chef endured some misguided backlash from misquoted stories by Bangkok food writers and critics, most probably coming from a sense of embarrassment that it took a toiling Aussie faring (foreigner) cook to reignite the love of complexity, depth and history in Thai cuisine in a restaurant setting.
After years of cookie-cutter menus of same-same satays, rubber fish cakes, bland pad Thai, and anodyne curries, Thompson’s cuisine (as well, it has to be said, as the cuisine of his protégés ‘Bo’ and Dylan of Bo.Lan) announced that Thai cuisine would not die a death by excessive palm sugar and coconut cream.
While this criticism hurt Thompson in the past, to note that chef Thompson has the respect of his peers is an understatement. To listen to chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne (currently No.21 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) name David as one of his key mentors from the stage of The Future of Food Forum was endearing.
Privately, hearing all the high profile chefs we met and interviewed over the past two weeks in Singapore say they always go to Nahm when they visit Bangkok was something else again.
To do a culinary workshop with chef Thompson, as I did recently as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants programme, is also on another plane. He is late to prep for the class and his head chef from Bangkok has had a night on the tiles so bad that he’s slept through alarms, phone calls, and three hours of door knocking before being roused.
Chef Thompson, however, is looking better than expected considering that these are a few days when the chefs really let off some steam from their pressure-cooking kitchens and catch up with old friends and swap war stories of broken sauces, kitchens, dreams, and relationships.
Chef Thompson begins the culinary class with an explanation of the history of the main dish he’s going to show us how to cook today. It might be the first time a chef has told me that a recipe is “120 years old and written by a courtesan, who apparently, was a famous musician.”
It’s a delightful backstory in an age where chefs will inform you that the dish placed in front of you is “one we’ve been working on in our high-tech research kitchen over winter break.”
This recipe for Geng Gari Gai, an aromatic Chiang Mai chicken curry, came from one of the first ever published books in Thailand, around 1895, and Thompson believes it could be a much older recipe, given the consistency of culture in Thailand at the time.
“This one has a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” he says, warming to his dish as his chefs start preparing it alongside him.
“I do like using those older recipes because they have a dimension and a difference and a distinction that late 20th century or early 21st century stuff does not have,” he explains, while discussing the unusual mix of techniques used in the dish.
Chef Thompson’s dry sense of Aussie humour is present throughout the workshop when he jokingly asks a participant to leave after he has suggested that parsley might be a substitute for coriander, tells another to move to a more civilised country where he can get decent coconut cream, and just flat out recommends to another not to make a dish at all and make another that they can get the ingredients for, instead of trying to make a Thai curry without the correct Thai ingredients.
As the workshop and questions continue, the aromas of the curry develops as Chef Thompson seasons at several stages, asking the class to taste it along the way. By the time the two hours of the workshop are up, this 120 year old recipe is alive and very well, tempting students at the cooking school where Thompson is cooking to push their faces against the glass windows of the room, tempted by the fragrant smells wafting down the hallway.
The finished chicken curry is almost indescribably rich, with layers of spices and a heat that comes not only from the chillies, but just the sheer complexity of the spices, tempting the class like a courtesan to take another hit from the pot. For some in the room who have never tasted Thompson’s food, it’s a revelation.
However, the chefs, food professionals, food writers, and critics already know that Thompson’s This flavour profiles are unmatched. Last year, at a dinner in Bangkok to celebrate the chefs of the city who had made the first edition of Asia’s 50 Best list, Thompson presented a similar curry. Served in an unadorned bowl for two with some aromatic Jasmine rice, it blew people’s minds.
Today, as the class winds up, students shyly wander in to the room. They clearly know who chef Thompson is and are torn between taking advantage of a photo-op or tasting a couple of spoonfuls of the curry on offer. Most do both.
Later than night after winning the top slot in Asia, chef Thompson faced many cameras much larger than an iPhone to sate the Asian media. After the traditional press have their photos and sound bites, it’s the other chefs from Asia and around the world who want to pose with him — his peers know that chef Thompson has earned every right to be cooking Thai food.
While even Thompson probably hopes that one of his Thai chefs in the kitchen at Nahm will one day receive the same accolades, right now nobody comes close.