I met chef David Thompson for the first time at Mesamérica in Mexico City just a few days ago. When it comes to Thai cuisine his name is invariably at the top of the list of chefs cooking and creating this cuisine. After hearing his impassioned and scholarly conversation on stage with his friend Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame about Thai street food, culture, and the history of Thai cuisine, I felt like hopping on a plane to Bangkok right away in order to enjoy his cuisine. Thompson is an Australian – Thai chef whose Nahm restaurant at the Halkin Hotel in London earned the first Michelin star ever awarded to a Thai establishment. Unfortunately that location closed before I was able to make my way there, only to be replaced by Ametsa, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak’s Spanish enterprise which also earned a Michelin star in their first year. Evidently it is a fortunate location, but the reality is that these accolades are the result of the focused work of these chefs and their teams.
Last year Nahm, in the ritzy Metropolitan Hotel in Bagkok, was listed as the top restaurant in Asia on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list released by Restaurant Magazine. It was conjectured that he moved his location to Bangkok specifically for that purpose, and during our conversation I did ask him about the real reason for his move. Probably the most amazing thing is that this Australian was named the best in Thai food and earned this accolade on Thai soil itself, a truly creditable acknowledgement of his mastery of the cuisine. Thompson is a very knowledgeable, informed man with a sometimes colorful language whose ideas seem very well thought out, and you come away with the notion that he knows what he is taking about and indeed lives his personal philosophy through his food. Listening to and conversing with him was one of the highlights of the Mesamérica conference this year for me. Thompson has an aura of sincerity, empathy, and a kind of spiritual peace. He very deftly spun a tale on stage in what seemed like an ad-libbed conversation with Andy Ricker about the history of Thai cuisine, leaving no doubt in the minds of the audience that this self-assured chef was the genuine article who knew his subject intimately.
Thompson stated that Thai culture is really food culture, from morning till nightfall, and food is essentially the soul of this nation. In all social obligations in that culture there is a meal involved and food is shared as a social function of maintaining relationships. Thompson said that you can chart the history of a nation by following the food on the streets, and that the globalization of economies has further transformed Thai food and brought in influences from China, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere in the region. This conversation was peppered with talk of “rat shit chillies” and his journey into the heart of Thai culture that began in the 80’s. The presentation was focused on street food, a far cry from his own high-end restaurant in Bangkok, but he adeptly carried the audience along in his narrative with the help of Ricker.
Later, while answering my questions, he was honest and spoke from his heart; no rehearsed diplomatic answers, no entourage in sight and a forthright candor that is most likely evident in his food as well. I came away having learned something and introspecting about how real cooking comes from the heart and from a real passion. There was a point in our conversation when we were informed that our time was up by the Mesamérica facilitator and Thompson said “Absolutely not! We have just started and I intend to continue this conversation as I am truly enjoying this conversation!” and he meant it genuinely! Needless to say, I was flattered.This conversation is not over and I look forward to continuing it in Bangkok or any other part of the world when our paths cross again.
Why did you leave London for Bangkok?
We had great problems in getting supplies and ingredients that we needed because of EU regulations etc. We were constantly scurrying around to see what we could get and even then we couldn’t get most of our vegetables that we required and there was no way to bypass the hurdle and keep our food authentic. It was too much of a struggle in the way we had to scout all over London all night not because there was not a huge bounty available, but because we were desperately trying to locate what ever we could get our hands on for the next day in our Thai kitchen.
Eventually it became so hard and so very disagreeable to work this way. At the same time we were opening up Nahm in Bangkok where there was a cornucopia of produce and compared to Britain the prices were a steal in the recessionary market.I was at a stage in my life where this effort was not enjoyable any more. I don’t mind struggling but at a certain point it became disenchanting in fact dangerously so. People who came in to dine may not have known the difference in authenticity but I knew and the staff knew and it’s not the right way to operate a restaurant
So now I understand why you are where you are because of this philosophy about your food and how you actually live it?
Well, I believe in what I do and I think one should maintain some integrity in work. Whether people acknowledge it or not and whether they know it or not or appreciate it or not. What is important is that I know that I have done my work .
You have this long association with the Thai culture, has it changed you as a person?
Absolutely! I think initially it changed me by softening me as at one time I was an arrogant, bombastic, bloody cook and while living in Thailand I slowly changed. I became far more consensual, far more tolerant. My contact with the culture and operating a restaurant in Thailand made me more considerate, collaborative and patient. I am not sure if I am going through menopause (he has a wicked sense of humor), whatever it is that I am a much softer and patient man in getting things done. Not for one second surrendering but by under going a process by which a person can really change. It has changed me to the extent that I don’t scream and shout, not that I was prone to doing that earlier but I am calmer and more forgiving. Being in hospitality you have to ensure that it is a consistent hospitality. All the people, whether it is the customer paying the bill or the man washing dishes, all much be treated the same way with the same regard and respect.
I know Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi, Spain who recently opened a restaurant in Phuket, Thailand, he is known for his organic, sustainable sensibilities and seasonal style of cooking. Is it possible to be able to operate that way in the culture and political and economic climate of Thailand?
It is fascinating how the approach to food is changing towards eco buddhism in Thailand and now Thai farmers are now beginning to operate under these practices because they do not wish to pollute the soil or in any way harm, mark, stain, or exploit nature. It’s the power of Thai approach to sustainability. So it’s happening there and its quite similar to the slow food idea and I can say that it is possible to work with such produce which is available in the market. Eneko is next to a great farm that is already established and working in this way. We are developing a similar farm for our needs at Nahm. What is interesting about Bangkok is that it has always been a great city to eat and I am not talking about street food. There are a growing number of restaurants in Bangkok along with world class attitude and bang on approach to provenance, to cooking responsibly and to provide good service. In fact I can say its becoming a thrilling place for all that. New restaurants with big names are constantly opening as Joël Robuchon is opening a L’Atelier in Bangkok this year.
Does it add to the emerging international food scene in the city?
New restaurants with big names are constantly opening as Joël Robuchon is opening a L’Atelier in Bangkok this year. There are many other great restaurants coming and getting attention, for example Gaggan which is progressive Indian.
Isn’t Gaggan following the molecular gastronomy path of El Bulli?
Yes, but at the same time they are doing Indian classic dishes too. There is Goa fish curry that is just mesmerizing there and delicious. I love spices like cumin, cardamom, turmeric etc. I don’t care for spherifications, foams, and stuff like that, just proper good food with outstanding taste.
What are your plans for tonight, seeing as you are done with your presentation?
I am certainly going out to imbibe a lot of Tequila! Then I am going to be cooking at a culinary college outside of town tomorrow with culinary students and I am quite excited about it.
There is growing controversy about the 50 Best Restaurants list what is your opinion about it?
50 Best is just a snapshot of popularity and I do not believe we are the best restaurant for one second. I am rather embarrassed by it and I actually bet against myself. I do think there are better restaurants and some of them are not even in the list, and it’s just a happy accident and it is great and good for us.
Where is home now for you? You have spent time in Australia where you are from, London, and now Thailand?
Definitely Bangkok, Thailand.