Interview with David Thompson
David Thompson is, to put it quite simply, prolific. His Thai fine-dining restaurant in Bangkok, Nahm, has just trumped all others across Asia to secure the title of San Pellegrino Asia’s Best Restaurant 2014 and San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in Thailand. He has written two encyclopedic tomes – Thai Food and Thai Street Food – on the kaleidoscopic variety of his adopted cuisine. A 13-episode television series, wherein Thompson explores Thailand’s culinary culture and history, is wrapping up production. And finally, Long Chim, the casual street food concept that Thompson has been working on for years, looks set to open its first branch in Marina Bay Sands in the third quarter of this year. We caught up with Thompson to hear his thoughts on Nahm securing top honours at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 awards, his upcoming restaurant in Singapore, and eating placenta in Thailand.
First up, congratulations on Nahm’s well-deserved achievement! What do you make of Nahm’s newly minted title?
The thing about these awards is that it’s a snapshot of what people think of the restaurant at that time. It does not indicate the ongoing, everyday pursuit of trying for the best. Everyone should strive for excellence regardless of their position. It doesn’t matter if you’re number one or number 50. I believe the difference between one and 50 isn’t that much. It’s all a matter of luck. All of these cooks and restaurants put in the same arduous hard work day in, day out, and will continue to do so.
Tell us more about your upcoming restaurant in Singapore – Long Chim.
“Long Chim” translates into Thai as “come and taste”, and it’s here we’ll fling together some Thai street food for diners. Stir-fried noodles, pad thai, satay — these are dishes that are perhaps too popular for the likes of Nahm, but still delicious nonetheless, and I think there’s a place for that. As I become older, I become less precious and less pretentious about the things I cook. Long Chim also reflects what modern diners want – food that is less formal, less tricky, less expensive.
One defining aspect of street food is its very accessibility and 'street-ness'. It's cheap, casual, and very rooted in local culture. Why did you decide to translate it to a restaurant setting?
It will be a lot more casual, affordable, and accessible than Nahm. It is accessible because the food most people eat in Bangkok would be the food in the markets – and that’s the type of food that we’ll be doing. We’ll be serving what we call “arh-arn-jaan-dtiao” in Thai, which refers to single-plate food. It’s unlike normal Thai food where you have several dishes eaten with rice, shared family or banquet style.
Where will you be sourcing your ingredients from?
We will largely be using local produce, but there will be some things we’ll need to ship down from Bangkok such as curry paste, palm sugar, tamarind, and fish sauce — all of which are a crucial part of ensuring you achieve proper Thai flavours.
Have you started developing your menu for Long Chim?
We are playing around with about a hundred dishes but we won’t be serving all of them. We’ll probably decide on 30 to 40 dishes. With the final shortlist, we’ll cook it again and again till we get it right. We’ll also have to tune it to the local market, and by that I don’t mean that the individual dishes will be changed, but that we’ll select the dishes that work best for the local market.
What do you like most about Thai cuisine?
The use of vegetables and fruits and the quality that is available in Thailand. It’s outstanding. The remarkable thing about this cuisine is the way that they play with their vegetables and their herbs. They are the best in the world.
What’s your go-to stall for street food in Bangkok?
It’s an oyster omelette place called Nai Mong Hoi Nang Tort (539 Thanon Phlapplaachai) just outside Chinatown. They’ve been cooking for the last 60 or 70 years and I’m sure they’ve got the same griddle they used when they first opened and it probably hasn’t been washed. That’s not to say it’s dirty – but it’s just so wonderfully seasoned. They cook with pork fat instead of oil, good duck eggs, and oysters from a great oyster area. They also own the building they have been cooking in, which means they don’t have to pay rent and therefore don’t face the same pressures that many street food operators have in having to shave off the quality of their ingredients in order to balance their books. It shows because it is the most delicious oyster omelette in the world.
Where do you mine your culinary inspiration?
I’m such a traditionalist. I harken back to the past because there’s where I find my culinary inspiration. For many Thais, Thai food from a hundred years ago was better than it is now. The ingredients were more organic, it had more flavor, and the cuisine of a certain (upper) class invested plented of time and labour into the kitchen. That’s quite the opposite now. Today’s streamlining of efficiency has whittled away the ornate sophistication of traditional Thai food.
Many chefs have been talking about looking back to go forward. Where do you stand?
When food is so traditionally rooted, it makes sense to look back into the past. There are some avant-garde chefs who have complete disregard for the past and that’s their own bent. For me, the past has always been important and it’s something I have done weather it is fashionable or not. That’s how I began to understand the food of a culture very different from mine.
What’s your opinion on the cult of the celebrity chef?
It bores me. It does not represent the most irksome yet crucial part of the job: cooking in the kitchen. It is a very difficult thing to do; it’s grubby and smelly. The glamour attached to celebrity does not equate people with the hard work required to achieve any degree of success. To be honest, a successful cook isn’t necessarily a well-known cook. A successful cook is one who knows his craft well.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten during your travels?
Placenta up in the north of Thailand. It was served cold and tastes as you would expect—congealed fat and blood.
If you could only eat one thing in your life, what would it be?
I couldn’t limit it to just one. I adore chocolate; I will get out of my grave for durian; crusty bread warms my soul; and I love the smelliest French blue cheeses. We have 66 varieties of durian available at the moment in Bangkok, which to me translates into 66 levels of heaven. I love durian. I adore it. I like it when it is sloppy, when it is ripe, and when it’s almost too smelly for words. Durian is the foie gras of food. It’s rich, sumptuous, and simply delicious as it is.