The new David Thompson restaurant Aksorn is open in Bangkok’s hip historic Charoenkrung neighbourhood. I caught up with the Thailand-based Australian-born Thai chef yesterday to find out what it’s like to open a restaurant in Bangkok during a global pandemic, what he’s cooking, and how he’s enjoying clearing tables.
Thailand-based Australian chef David Thompson opened his latest restaurant Aksorn last week in historic Charoenkrung, a neighbourhood in Bangrak, one of Bangkok’s oldest neighbourhoods, which sprawls along and around one of the city’s oldest streets, Charoenkrung Road. In recent years, the area has become one of Bangkok’s hippest neighbourhoods.
Chef David Thompson’s new restaurant Aksorn follows openings in recent years that have included Long Dtai at Cape Fahn resort on the Thai island of Koh Samui, Michelin-starred Aaharn in Hong Kong, and Long Chim Sydney and Long Chim Perth in Australia, since the chef left Nahm Bangkok in 2019, now ran by Bangkok-born Thai-American chef Pim Techamuanvivit who runs Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco.
It was Nahm Bangkok, which the chef opened after closing his first Nahm in London, that established David Thompson as an uncompromising and exacting chef who, along with his team, painstakingly created everything from scratch, from the dried shrimps that were laid out on trays about the sprawling kitchen when we last visited to the fresh khanom jin rice noodles his team made every morning, which we got to observe for a story.
We first met David Thompson when we dined at his glam Sydney restaurant Darley Street Thai in the early 1990s, a pioneer that paved the way for a new breed of Thai restaurant. But it wasn’t until 2011 after we moved to Thailand that we interviewed David Thompson when we began writing about Bangkok’s new wave of restaurants and covered the dining scene there until we moved to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2013.
Pre-pandemic, Terence and I would have hopped on a plane for the one-hour flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok to try out this new David Thompson restaurant Aksorn and do a photo shoot and interview. But due to closed borders and travel restrictions, I caught up with the chef yesterday for a chat on the phone instead. Everything’s changed since COVID-19, including the days of an intimate sit-down interview with a chef in a silent in-between-service dining room.
Instead, David called me en route to the restaurant, on foot, along bustling Charoenkrung Road. Fortunately, I wasn’t recording a podcast and have spared you from a conversation that was frequently punctuated by “I can’t hear you!”, “Can you speak louder?”, “What did you say?”, “You’re speaking too softly!” and so on, and the chef telling me, “It’s not me, it’s you!” I’ll let you be the judge.
Here’s my interview with the chef and an insight into what to expect at the new David Thompson restaurant Aksorn in Bangkok. Do let us know if you get there soon and what you think of it. Tag us on Instagram at @gran_tourismo and show us what you ate.
Published 21 September 2020
New David Thompson Restaurant Aksorn Opens in Bangkok
An interview with Thailand-based Australian chef David Thompson about his new restaurant Aksorn in Bangkok.
Q David? I can’t hear you very well… where are you?
A I’m walking along Charoenkrung Road, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest and busiest streets as you know, so if I sound as if I’m walking along a street it is because I am. It’s a little bit awkward with this noise in the background… I’m putting my earphones in.
Q You’ve opened a new restaurant, Aksorn, in Bangkok… how long have you been planning Aksorn and how has it felt to be opening a Bangkok restaurant during a global pandemic?
A What am I doing opening a restaurant post-COVID? Well, I am an idiot, of course. I am a one trick pony, trotting around the centre ring, feather plume on my head, farting all the way.
Q What? I can’t hear you… hang on (pushing my earphones as far into my ears as they’ll go).
A Well, I’m on one of Bangkok’s noisiest streets.
Q I know, David… was that such a good location to pick for an interview?
A Not bad, huh?
Q So how did this new David Thompson restaurant Aksorn come about?
A Well, it was planned pre-COVID. It’s been a year or longer – no, much longer – in the making. The plan was always based upon local trade. It wasn’t for tourists. It wasn’t for farang (foreigners). It’s for Thais. And it was always about Bangkok. And it’s small. It’s a 40-seater, and it’s on the fifth floor of an old shophouse that’s been renovated. And it’s nimble. Because one of the things we’ve learnt from COVID is the importance of being nimble in a restaurant, in its margins, in its structure, and in its costs.
Q Tell me about this beautiful old building.
A It was the original store that belonged to the Central family (Ed: of Central shopping mall fame), their first store in Bangkok. They purchased it in 1949 and opened it in 1950 and it was a bookshop, with imported books and magazines, and it was what sent the Central family into their prosperity.
Q And it has a bookshop again on the ground floor?
A Yes, it does. Because the family have decided that it’s their legacy, acknowledging the past of the building, and so it’s been renovated over the last two years, and we were asked to join, and so we did. We are on the top of this building, and there are four flights of stairs or four storeys between us and the store, and there’s a function centre, and a gallery, and a bar, a secret bar, and a café.
Q How did the concept for Aksorn come about?
A Well, I pondered what to do, because I didn’t want it to infringe on my other new operation, which will be opening eventually in some form or another during my life, I hope. So, I thought what can I do, and obviously it had to be based upon books because that was the essence of the building, and its foundation. (Ed: David Thompson has an enormous collection of antique Thai cookbooks and memorial books with recipes, which you can read about our in story, Everything New is Old Again.) One thing I hadn’t looked at before were the recipes from the cookbooks from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I’ve never looked at them. I’ve always sort of disdained them as being somewhat impure, somewhat compromised, and not as interesting as those cool, wonderful, old regal recipes from the absolute monarchy period.
Q So what are your plans for the books and their recipes?
A What I’ll be doing is every two months or so I will be looking at the books in my collection, select a book, and cook from it.
Q You once told me you had a dream to digitise your cookbook collection and establish a library to make that available to Thai chefs for research purposes. Will you do that there?
A No, but I do hope to get a foundation happening eventually, but COVID events have certainly made things like that more difficult to do than usual.
Q So what kind of dishes can we expect to see on the menu then?
A Well, there’s a really interesting red curry with beef, which sounds rather prosaic, I grant you. But in fact it’s a stunning dish. It’s really interesting, it’s with som saa (Ed: Asian citron, bitter orange, santol; kraton in Thai), with som saa leaves, som saa zest and som saa fruit. It looked very prosaic, but it’s very interesting.
There’s another really interesting dish and I’ve never seen it before and it’s a really creepy dish. It’s a pork head that’s been boiled and it’s just shredded to form some kind of crazy brawn and it’s simmered in five-spice, oyster sauce, and a few other things, and it’s set in a terrine, like a jelly. I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Q Where do these recipes come from?
A From a woman called Thanphuying Kleeb Mahidhorn, from one of my 1950s books, in fact a book of her recipes from 1949 – mostly Thai recipes, but also Chinese and Laotian. What I think is interesting about her is that she crossed the transition – and this first one menu is about transition in my mind, about old Bangkok – or Old Siam – turning into modern Thailand. And she saw that transition from regal Siam – she was born in a palace as all these great cooks were – to modern Thailand.
Q So what was Lady Kleeb Mahidhorn’s background?
A She was descended from generals who were sent to the far north to regain control of the Lao. As was the custom, they returned with concubines for King Rama I. She was born in the palace, raised by her aunties, and then she married outside the palace. She married La-or Krairiksh, a family of Chinese origin, who later became Siamese courtiers. Her husband rose to be one of the most important officials, the secretary to Kings Rama VI and VII. He was one of the last of the Chao Phrayas of Siam, who were the chief bureaucrats of Siam. He was the private secretary to the Kings, Rama VI and King Rama VII.
She was born in 1876 and died in 1961, so she saw the transition and you can see it in her food. You can see the distinct and disparate elements and influences in her food, whether it’s the braised Chinese-style terrine, with the five-spice pork, or a dish with cassia and smoked flower… the cuisine is a mixture of influences and I always thought it would be impure, and in some ways, I suppose that it is, because it’s someone’s hybridised cuisine. But in this instance, it’s not compromised, it’s actually enriched, and there are some delicious dishes that have surprised me. I’ve only just started exploring.
I’ll be with Kleeb Mahidhorn, the woman whose book I am using for the next two months, and then I’ll select another book. In fact, I’ve actually selected another person, a woman who is still alive who was a magnificent cook in the 1960s and I thought it would be a good thing to get some of her food idea in as well because it’s quite distinct and what we’re trying to do is to cook like them as much as possible, not like me at all. That’s the distinct difference. We’re not trying to be chameleons nor are we trying to take the soul of these erstwhile cooks, but we are trying to emulate their style.
Q So the whole menu is based on one cook?
A There’s only one set menu. Because it’s a very small operation. I’ve got only two people in the kitchen, three or four people on the floor. It’s a very tight operation and there’s not much space here, only 40 seats, and it’s a small restaurant that relies on people turning up and paying. We can’t afford to do a la carte here because if somebody comes in and orders one dish because they’re not hungry then that seat is taken up all night.
These are the consequences of COVID, the welcomed bridge of confidence of the unspoken problems in restaurants, where costs overwhelmed restaurants and the margins of profitability were so slender-thin and so brittle that it’s caused the collapse of the restaurant industry. I’ve drawn lessons from it and I don’t wish to be egregious or greedy. But I need to run a business as well, and that doesn’t mean the eradication of generosity and hospitality, it just means charging a fair price, fair both to the business and to the customer.
Q What’s the price of the menu and what can diners expect?
A Well, it’s 2,800 baht at the moment and I’ll decide whether I want to go up or not once I start to analyse my margins. That’s for 13 dishes. I’m being generous, but not overwhelmingly so, as I don’t want guests to say “Oh, I don’t want a set menu as I can’t eat it all and therefore avoid the place. I want to get the right balance. And if people want more, I am always happy to give them more. We have a select wine list, but it’s not a bad wine list, I must tell you, and cocktails of course.
Q When we chatted last night you said you had just been clearing tables….
A I’m front of house. Alas, that’s my fate… my downward spiral… ever downwards.
Q But seriously, is that a consequence of having an open kitchen, that guests have an expectation that you will deliver a plate or two and there’ll be more interactivity and chefs? And do you enjoy that?
A Oh, I hate it. No, I don’t hate it. It just goes against all my principles. I’ve always tried to avoid talking to guests because my responsibility ends on the plate and I have these principles to maintain. But I’m quite a weak restaurateur when I think about it, because I have these stern principles based upon keeping away from the guests, and then I find myself talking to them, and, goddam it, some of them are quite agreeable.
Q You do enjoy it, don’t you? I think you’re mellowing.
A Oh, I am… it’s part of my downward spiral.
Q I think they call it COVID brain.
A Noooo, it’s not COVID brain, it’s a 60-year-old white man’s brain. It’s just a bit of dementia.
Q So why the name Aksorn? It means ‘letter’?
A It does and it’s the first letter of the alphabet.
Q Can you be as painstaking as you were at Nahm – making khanom jeen (fresh rice noodles) every morning and drying shrimps and so on – I can’t imagine you being any other way, but with such a small space…
A Well, I am changing aspects of my cooking. I’ve gone all organic so instead of sourcing ingredients for my recipes, I am now having people tell me what I need to use.
Q So it’s produce and ingredient-driven rather than recipe-driven?
A Yes, as it should be. I’m now being far more aware of the environment, as one should be. Because some of the world’s governments, particularly the American government, are completely ignoring our environment, and consequently our future. If we’re going to blow up, burst into flames, drown in rising sea water, at least I know I’ve been doing the best that I can to not add to the woes.
Q Are you therefore choosing recipes from these books based on what’s available and what’s in season next month or whenever and then adjusting the menu?
A Yep, and I have a very comprehensive range of recipes to draw from within each book, so within those two months I won’t be sticking to the one menu, it’s an incuration of the book and what the cooks have done. And it’s a learning process for me.
Q Will you be communicating the story of the books and the cooks to the diners?
A Yes, that’s why I’m talking to the guests, that’s why I must, to convey the story, and often complicated story to the diners. We only opened last week and it’s busy already, much to my grievance. I thought I’d have a nice little relaxed opening, and not have to do that much, but already the customers are pouring in.
Q Oh that’s great!
A You sound like my business partner!
Q And the diners are all Thais, as you expected? A mix of young and old Thais?
A Yes, mostly. The whole range. And now I’ve changed my brief. I’m also a bus boy. And I’m training guests how to respond to waiters. I had one guest the other night – a restaurateur and I knew him quite well – and he said “I never thought I would see you clear a table”. I thought about it. I put the plate down, and I said “you are right!” and I walked off.
1266 Charoenkrung Road
Bangrak, Bangkok, Thailand
This menu was accurate as at 21 September 2020, however, as the chef explains above, the menu will evolve as the chef explores the recipes of each cookbook, so use this menu as a guide only.
อาหารว่าง HOR D’OEUVRES
ม้าห้อ – Ma Hor
หมูจ้าง – Spiced Pork Galantine
เมี่ยงใบเมี่ยง – Smoked Catfish Wrapped in Wild Tea Leaves
Seasoned River Prawns with Pickled Garlic, Kaffir Lime and Peanuts
ข้าวสวย – Steamed Jasmine Rice
ยำมะเขือเทศเผา – Grilled Tomato Salad
Red Curry of Beef with Peanuts, Asian Citron and Pickled Shallots
หลนเต้าหู้ยี้ ใบมะตูมแขก ใบมะกอก
Fermented Bean Curd Relish with Minced Pork and Prawns
ปลาบู่ต้มกระชาย – Braised Marble Goby with Wild Ginger
ผัดปูทะเลกับแตงกวา – Stir-fried Crabmeat with Cucumber
สาเกเชื่อม – Glacéd Breadfruit
ขนมใส่ไส้ – Coconut Candies
จานสุดท้าย TO FINISH
ขนมกง – Sweet Thai Pretzels
ข้าวเม่าบด – Ancestor Biscuits
Do let us know if you get to the new David Thompson restaurant Aksorn in Bangkok. We’d love to know what you think, and most importantly what you ate.