OFTEN HAILED AS today’s leading Thai chef, David Thompson emerges from the kitchen out of breath. Last night, the first of a popup series at the The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s Amber, was stressful. The restaurant’s executive chef Richard Ekkebus had spent eight months “badgering” him to visit, and tables sold out in days.
“Last night had its moments,” he says. Nothing went seriously wrong, but you get the sense he doesn’t want a curl of a noodle or a lick of relish out of place. “Tonight should be much easier. So. Tell me, tell me, tell me, what questions do you have to ask?”
It’s hard to know where to start with the chef, who says he doesn’t like interviews, would obviously prefer to be elsewhere and finds it hard to relinquish control. He flips questions around like a roti on a griddle, and chews over his answers like gristle.
He’s just warmed to a simmer when we suggest photos. He hates having his picture taken. He says he cringes, and bemoans stains across the chest of his chef’s whites. “Should I fold my arms?” he asks.
The stains signal that he remains, after years heading kitchens, very hands on. He still has a real joy of cooking, he says, but admits he likes to be in charge. “There’s a benevolent dictatorship. I’ve certainly become a lot lighter in my management of the kitchen than I used to be, say 10 years ago when I was fully hands-on – if not dictatorial then certainly with fascist tendencies. But most kitchens run like that. It’s the last fascist state, really, the kitchen.”
Thompson made that state his home to international acclaim. His first success came with Darley Street Thai in Sydney. Opened in 1991, it was named Best Thai Restaurant for eight consecutive years by the Sydney Morning Herald. By 2002, he’d won Thai cuisine’s first ever Michelin-star, for nahm London, but in 2004, he arrived in Thailand following the restaurant’s closure – falling standards in the latter, he says, were caused by an inability to source the exact ingredients required to create his authentic cuisine.
The setback didn’t thwart him. In 2004, nahm Bangkok opened, and now appears at number 32 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Not everyone thinks the Australian chef is deserving of such fanfare. One article in the New York Times accused the chef of being unable truly to replicate a Thai meal because he hadn’t grown up in a Thai kitchen, “hanging on his grandmother’s apron strings”. What does he think of such criticism? Tosh. He never reads anything about himself anyway, he says. But he’s not quite done. “There are some wonderful Thai cooks, some unknown, some unsung – it’s a country of good cooks. Maybe I’m noticed because – guess what? – I’m not Thai.”
We move on. He cracks a smile at the camera. Despite his protests, it’s an instant winner. Why, then, does he hate photos? He grimaces. “I just want to cook.”
It wasn’t always that way. Thompson grew up eating his mother’s traditionally “Anglo-Celtic” meat-and-three-veg fare that, he says, showed a clear indication she hated cooking. “My mother was the world’s worst cook. That I survived her cooking was a testament to the strength of her genes,” he jests.
He studied English literature at university and it wasn’t until he was 22 that an insatiable desire to cook overcame him. “It was unexpected. I just became compelled to cook,” he says. “Anything. I was obsessed. My parents were horrified. In those days cooking was little more than a trade.”
A short while after, in 1986, he went travelling to Thailand and fell in love. “With the country, the cuisine, the people. I just felt at ease there,” he says. By 1988, he’d moved there, and soon came the beginnings of the intricately layered dishes he’s become known for.
Thailand, until recently, had no restaurant culture to speak of, Thompson says. The best food came from home or street cooks, passed down through generations. It’s marked not by the generic pad thais and green curries that outsiders have come to associate as national dishes, but by its myriad forms and differences. Food eaten up in the hills by the Mekong river is unrecognisable to the Muslim inhabitants down south on the Malaysian border.
Capturing those nuances propels Thompson, and that scholarly love for literature hasn’t been totally lost in the process. The chef owns a vast collection of historic Thai cookbooks and recipes. Several
hundred of these are funeral books. Now diminishing in number, the books were published, from the 1880s onwards, at death, and held information about the deceased. Many of them contained cherished recipes that Thompson now uses to resurrect dishes before they’re lost forever.
Bangkok’s street stalls are inspiration for a new Asia-wide F&B concept that’s currently in the works, and which he hopes to bring to Hong Kong next year. In between his kitchen stints at Amber, the chef has been scouting locations here for the new venture, which aims to bring street snacks to the masses. The move marks a departure from fine dining and is married to a line of branded curry pastes launching in Australia and a television show on street food, planned for international broadcast. Does that mean he’s selling out?
“No! Of all Thai food, the food of the streets can transport best. It would be near impossible with nahm, but I think I can do this rather successfully.” The most famous non-Thai Thai chef is about to get bigger.
His culinary adventures have taken him the length and breadth of the country, where he’s eaten “repugnant, disgusting food”. The worst was cow’s placenta in the Mekong: “This ball of congealed fat and blood”. Warming to the topic, he recalls a dram of bile juice extracted from the stomachs of cows in the country’s north-east. How did that taste? “Distinct pungent bitterness.”
Clearly he revels in the exotic. As he heads back to the kitchen, eager to get on, he says he’d get out of his grave for durian. “The richer, the riper, the sloppier, the smellier it is, the better,” he says.
Not many Aussies could say that.