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Thai Chef, David Thompson

Started by Taman Tun, June 21, 2020, 09:54:17 AM

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Taman Tun

This is article by Restaurant reviewer Marina O'Loughlin in today's Sunday Times:

Wow, David Thompson is bossy.  In the course of our long conversation/cook along, he hectors me merrily.  When I worry I'm burning the roasted rice: "Hurry up Marina.  Cooking is taking a risk.  Boldness is what is wanted."  He accuses me of having a "Scottish hand" for Thai food, not, I fear, a compliment. When I'm sad about the unperkiness of my herbs compared with his, he eye-rolls: "Stop apologizing and get on with it. It's like wearing a bad dress- If you worry about it, it'll show.  Aplomb goes a long way.

Thompson is all about the aplomb, an extraordinary character. An expat to Bangkok from Australia, the result of a Withnailish holiday in 1986 — "I first went to Thailand by mistake" is the opening line in his book Thai Food. He fell in love with a Thai, Tanongsak Yordwai, his partner to this day. And, barring the odd sojourn in London (for his Michelin-starred, now-closed restaurant Nahm) has been there ever since.

The multi-award-winning chef and restaurateur is speaking to me from his palatial apartment in central Bangkok. How did a farang come to write what's widely regarded as the definitive book on Thai cookery? "It's an ancient, essential cuisine," he says, "based upon senses. Recipes are regarded as guidelines not gospel — most early cooks were illiterate. They didn't have timers in old Siam, they didn't have recipes, just their senses." After meeting Sombat Janphetchara, an elderly woman rich in the lore of Thai royal palace cuisine, he threw himself into learning all she had to teach while researching everything he could lay his hands on. His work is equal parts scholarly, demanding and insanely delicious.

Although I know Thompson, I've been nervous about our meeting. He's notoriously uncompromising; "rigorous", he calls it. "I guess I'm precious, that's what my business partner calls me, but I don't care."

Now in his sixties, this former "wayward boy" could quite reasonably be allowed to slow down. Far from it: his "enthusiasm has been rekindled" recently, lockdown acting as incubator. At least two new restaurants are imminent; I love the sound of Aksorn ("letter" in Thai), set in a historic building, formerly a kind of ancient book exchange. "I now have thousands of recipe books and old tracts, so I plan to change the menu completely every month or so, like a lending library, create a menu based on a particular book. People are such slaves to trends, so it's a way of keeping their interest and us nimble." Is he concerned about opening now? "When the landlord said we were opening in August I was f****** terrified."

The ideas keep coming: a range of upmarket desserts to be delivered by liveried drivers in jewel-box packaging. A website portal for the country's best small producers: "My friend Melissa and I cooked it up. We provide an ordering system for obscure items — fermented bean curd, pickled vegetables, shrimp paste — from remote provinces. We'll share the profits so they'll end up making more than they would at the local market." And there's his range of curry pastes, something that took him for ever to perfect. "Now they're so good it's like witchcraft, like Satan himself helped."

Today we're making one of my favourite dishes in the whole Thai/Laotian canon, actually, scratch that, one of my favourite dishes full stop: larp (aka laab or larb), a hectically spiced minced-meat-based salad. I'm glad it's something I know, since we talk for more than an hour before even going near the ingredients: everything from Cummingsgate to the massacre of the English language. Of course we talk about his restaurants past and present in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Sydney. These days he's keeping things fairly small and tight. I continue to worry that the only businesses to survive the pandemic will be the Starbucks and Wetherspoons. Won't his "preciousness" be counterproductive? Do punters care enough about the minutiae?

"I have," he says firmly, "never considered the punter in any way." When I hoot with laughter, he clarifies: "I give my very best to my customers, but my first obligation is to the cuisine. I used to think I needed $20m in the bank to survive comfortably for the rest of my life. But this period has made me think, do I really need paintings, antique furniture? I'm coming out of this a better person. More reasonable. I'm in a state of reasonable happiness."

Ironically, it's at this point he gets quite tetchy with me again. Mincing the duck — a technique akin to making proper steak tartare — is beyond my knives. "Hand chop just before cooking so it doesn't get a chance to oxidise, and you don't get a bloody messy mix." This, friends, is harder than it sounds. Then, when I try and grind my toasted rice in a mortar and pestle, the puny thing isn't up to the job. Roasted chillies ditto. I end up bellowing for my daughter to rescue the situation as the only one with meaningful knowledge of the Nutribullet. Meanwhile I've scorched a trayful of shallots. "What the f*** are you doing?" he sighs. "Use your senses!"

Then he relents. "Here's the thing I learnt about Thai cooking: outside a professional kitchen, it's not about who wins. It's about the fun you can have, the pleasure it gives to you and other people." I'm not having a whole lot of fun right now, but he goes on: "There's an implicit versatility and liberality to the cuisine. If you have the ingredients right, you really can use them 'to taste'. It's simple."

All very well for him, I say querulously, it's only simple if you know what you're doing. "Yeah," he concedes. "It's one of the reasons I don't do cooking classes any more. I'm banned from doing them. You are talking to the only man banned from live radio on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I always did incredibly complicated recipes. And said, well, if you try doing this at home, you'll end up coming to my restaurants."

What would he have been if he hadn't been a chef? "I think I would have made a good diplomat. Or prostitute." That's not likely to net him $20m, is it? He fixes me beadily: "You don't know the qualities I have, lady."

My final dish is, simply, gorgeous: explosive flavours underpinned with subtle touches, the toasted rice, the squelch of the almost incinerated shallots, the knife-tip of fried garlic, the hectic bouquet of even my less luxuriant herbs. Is it as good as his? "That's not the point," he says. "It's not only the mastery of it. You know what mastery is? It's about willingness to try and willingness to fail. It's taking it to your heart and making it yours."

So what if he's bossy? He's entitled to be. It's the authority gained from years of being The Authority. He's also engaged, erudite, activist, irreverent, wildly creative and bloody funny; wide-eyed in his curiosity, broad-minded in his enthusiasms and clued-up on the world scene. He has inspired a generation of young chefs in Thailand and worldwide. I'm happy to let him lambast me from here to eternity.
If the old only could, if the young only knew.

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