With hundreds of chefs, restaurateurs, gourmands, and food media converging upon the Thai capital for Monday’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, we thought we’d share a list of the restaurants where David Thompson eats in Bangkok so they don’t go hungry.
Just before the 2015 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, Conde Nast Traveller China asked us to do a story on where David Thompson eats in Bangkok and to spend the day eating with him. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
We’d spent time with the Australian chef for stories before and it was generally a delight, and when it wasn’t it was entertaining. Naturally we accepted, however, as we were documenting the event and it’s a tad difficult to scribble notes and set up lights with knives and forks in hand, we asked the chefs whose restaurants David chose to eat with him. They did it with gusto. And a clear sense of pride.
Chef Thompson is tremendously respected in the food world, especially in Thailand, and that was demonstrated when he won the 2016 Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award for his 30-year contribution to Thai food. (The 2015 winner was Chef Tetsuya Wakuda, another Australian chef whom we greatly admire.)
It therefore made sense to share the restaurant tips of a chef for whom Bangkok is the world’s greatest eating city.
Where David Thompson Eats in Bangkok
David Thompson is an ardent man. He is passionate about history and stories but most of all he is passionate about Thailand, Thai food and the people who cook it.
One of the world’s best chefs — his restaurant Nahm in Bangkok was voted number seven in the prestigious World’s Best Restaurants 2015 awards — Thompson is a chef’s chef and a guy who doesn’t waste a meal in his adopted home when he has a night off from the woks.
When we invite Thompson to select four or five of his favourite Bangkok restaurants to dine at, the Chef wants to choose six or seven and every selection is justified by admiration for the chef and his cuisine, such as: “Oh, I adore Ian and his food!”
For an Australian chef such as Thompson, the respect he receives in return from Thai-born chefs such as Ian Kittichai is partly due to his dedication in documenting the country’s complex cuisine. His heady and heavy tome, the seminal Thai Food, is considered the bible for any chef wading into the deep waters of Thai gastronomy.
Thompson’s impressive knowledge has been accumulated over several decades, more than two of them spent living on and off in Thailand, his current home. Thompson also reads, writes and speaks fluent Thai. And his partner in life and love is a classical Thai dancer who introduced him to the seductive flavours of the cuisine and is responsible for the restaurant’s desserts.
We first sampled Thompson’s food at his second restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in Sydney in the 1990s. The dining room was flamboyant (we recall a lot of pink) and the food, Royal Thai Cuisine, was exquisite — as you’d expect from a man who learnt to cook Thai food from an aristocratic old lady who had cooked at the royal palace.
Those were the days in Sydney where Thai food was considered nothing more than a quick take-away curry on a Sunday night and Thompson’s food was a million miles removed from that. In recent years, however, Thompson has been digging even deeper into Thailand’s culinary past at Nahm, where he has been cooking old recipes from funeral memorial books.
When we approached the chef about this story, we weren’t sure how much time he spent away from the kitchen at Nahm and his funky new restaurants, Long Chim, based on authentic Thai street food, which seem to be springing up all over Asia and Australia. However, it was obvious that Thompson does find time to eat out. And it’s not always Thai food he’s eating.
Here’s where David Thompson eats in Bangkok.
Our first stop on David’s Bangkok restaurant tour is Lady Brett, a stylish, modern New York-style tavern. Located in the hip Bangkok neighbourhood of Sathorn, on a street that is sprinkled with busy cafés, cool restaurants and secret speakeasy-style bars, Lady Brett is popular with everyone from fashionable young Thais to daggy old expats.
“I’d do anything for chorizo,” Thompson says as he tucks into Chef Patrick Martens’ version of gambas al ajillo (prawns in garlic), a classic Spanish dish — referencing the fact that at Lady Brett they add spicy chorizo.
Cooked with garlic and olive oil in the charcoal oven, the dish has a smokiness that Thompson says he adores.
“I love it here. It’s easy, local and delicious, and it’s a pleasant respite from Thai food. Especially given the elegant simplicity of those prawns with chorizo,” the Chef says as he devours the hearty dish — for breakfast.
“I love having food that is fresh and simple after the complexity of Thai food. I also like Lady Brett because it’s dark at night and people don’t recognise you!”
A short walk away in the adjoining neighbourhood of Silom, also an increasingly cool little district, Le Du is an intimate bistro ran by its 30-something Thai owner-chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn (above). Thompson believes Ton is an emerging culinary talent in Southeast Asia and has the makings to be one of Thailand’s best chefs. (He’s also one of its most ambitious, having opened three restaurants since we researched this story).
Chef Ton opened Le Du (which means ‘the season’ in Thai) a couple of years ago, after returning from New York where he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and trained in some of the world’s finest restaurants including Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges.
“This is crazy Thai food,” Thompson exclaims as he demolishes what was an elegant dish of lamb with shrimp paste, eggs, and pumpkin – a very contemporary take on a very traditional Thai dish.
“Here Ton’s playing with a dish called nam prik gappi,” the chef explains. “You have all the traditional components incorporated into the dish — he’s got his deep fried vegetables, fresh vegetables, his relish, and his meat. But he’s presented the relish as a sauce and the vegetables as sides and the meat at the centre, so it’s in a Western context.”
“Ton has deconstructed and reconstructed this in a way that I could never do, because I’m not Thai,” Thompson admits. “I find that Thais have a greater ease with which to reinterpret their own food.”
“I’m in a straight jacket because I’m an outsider,” the chef elaborates. “Whereas Thais will reinterpret it with a much greater freedom because they are able to break rules with an ease and legitimacy that an outsider can’t.”
“It’s also because Ton is young,” Thompson adds, with a sidelong glance at the chef sitting next to him. “There’s a greater fluency to make those changes because of his youth and his experience overseas.”
Issaya Siamese Club
Our next destination is Issaya Siamese Club, owned by Thai chef Ian Kittichai, who trained in Australia at Claude’s and worked at Thompson’s restaurant Sailor’s Thai in Sydney in the 1990s before moving back to Bangkok to become the first Thai-born five-star hotel executive chef. Kittichai would later open a Thai fine diner in New York, and other restaurants around the world, from Mumbai to Barcelona.
Now, spending most of his time in Thailand, Kittichai has a handful of restaurants, fronts television shows, produces cookbooks, and is famous for being Thailand’s Iron Chef. If Thailand has a celebrity chef then it’s Ian Kittichai. Fans interrupt dinner with his wife to ask for autographs, and barge into his cooking studio classes to pose for photos, while even truck drivers have been known to lean out of their windows to wave and shout excitedly to the Iron Chef.
And yet Kittichai, born into humble circumstances to a mother who made curries that he helped her sell from a cart on the streets of his childhood neighbourhood, is a modest man. After inhaling the fresh herbs growing in the kitchen garden at Issaya, the two chefs sit down to the second lunch for Thompson: Kittichai’s famous spare ribs and a fresh vegetable salad.
“There’s a happy ease of eating freshly picked vegetables, some of which have come from this garden, and there’s something pleasing about that,” Thompson says. “And the ribs are absolutely delicious. They’re smoked, they come with red curry, and they have absolutely everything that I love. They’re relatively familiar Thai dishes, but they are done very well.”
“This food is more identifiably Thai than Ton’s stuff,” Thompson explains. “But then Ian’s older of course and as he’s shown with his many restaurants and projects, Ian has a capacity to deal with Thai food and Western food with equal ease, just as he switches languages.”
“This fluency is what modern Thais are about,” Thompson adds. “No longer do Thais feel held in one country or one culture. They’re global people with global aspirations and the success that they make here in Bangkok could be done anywhere in the world — just as Ian has done himself.”
For our next stop, Thompson has chosen a casual, contemporary Italian pizzeria called Peppina, in the Japanese enclave of yet another increasingly chic neighbourhood, Thonglor.
Owned by Italian expat chef Paolo Vitaletti and former American food writer turned restaurateur Jarrett Wrisley, who also own Roman trattoria Appia (which Thompson says he also adores), Peppina specialises in authentic Neapolitan pizza. The inviting space is filled with Thai families and Japanese ladies lingering over late lunches.
“I have a pizza named after me — the 417!” Thompson announces as he slumps down at his favourite table, perhaps a little exhausted from all the eating. ‘417’ is his address. “Pizza is my secret vice because it has salt — and I have a salty palate. But I liked the pizza so much that they named it after me!”
“I like Peppina because they do proper pizzas like you find in Italy, which aren’t always easy to get in Bangkok,” Thompson explains.
“It’s also casual and fun. It’s what modern restaurants should be — it wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London or Sydney and it’s indicative of what’s happening in the restaurant scene in Bangkok,” he elaborates. “The city is no longer behind. And you see that here — and at Opposite Mess Hall.”
Opposite Mess Hall*
We hop into a taxi and head to Opposite Mess Hall, where owner-chef, Australian Jess Barnes is waiting at his casual eatery. He warmly welcome Thompson to a table of small tapas-sized, sharing plates.
“What I love about Opposite is that the food is casual and unpretentious,” Thompson says, clinking shot glasses with the chef.
“It’s all about the taste. It’s a very relaxed place where the focus is on the food, not on expensive plates and other accoutrements, which mean the customer pays more. Instead, here it’s paired down, and the only area where they’re uncompromising is their food.”
“Opposite is bang on trend and it’s a wonderful example of what’s happening in Bangkok right now,” Thompson explains as he digs into one of the half dozen dishes that Jess has set down.
“Previously, Bangkok was ten years behind what was happening elsewhere in Europe, the USA and Australia, but now it’s exactly on time with what’s happening in Hoxton, Brooklyn or Surry Hills. And Bangkok is often on par and can excel.”
As we leave Opposite an hour later, Thompson stops us and says with a cheeky smile and a glint in his eye: “Bangkok is a wonderful bubbling cauldron that is being stirred and what will come out of it will be something very delectable indeed.”
A version of this story was published in Mandarin in Conde Nast Traveller China in November 2015.
* Opposite Mess Hall closed, however, Chef Jess Barnes will be opening a new Opposite Mess Hall in 2017.
Lady Brett (Thonglor)
55, 72 Sukhumvit, Thonglor
Lady Brett (Sathorn)
149, Soi Sathon 12, Sathorn
399/3 Silom Soi 7, Silom
Issaya Siamese Club
4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Road, Sathorn
27/1 Sukhumvit 33, Bangkok