When an Australian chef gave Thai cuisine its first Michelin star, the people of Siam were outraged. But the prodigiously talented David Thompson—recently named the 2016 recipient of the Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award—is all about pushing boundaries
“You and me. Outside. Right now,” he says, while holding me at gunpoint. It’s the middle of the week and life’s odds had favored me for once, throwing me into a room with one long dining table right in the center; to my left there was Margarita Forés telling Les Amis’s Raymond Lim about how polvoron is made, to my far right was Leisa Tyler of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant List, and right across me, mini mango held up like a .45 aimed square at my chest, was David Thompson, chef of Asia’s top restaurant, Nahm. “How can you like pig’s blood? Seriously!” says Thompson threateningly, after I’ve professed my love for dinuguan. Through the course of his two-day stint for Nespresso’s Off the Menu event, Thompson talks about everything from the relevance of flood bloggers to his favorite food on the streets of Thailand.
I did a quick Google search on you.
DAVID THOMPSON: As proper modern etiquette requires you to, of course. What came up?
There’s a professional basketball player named David Thompson that played for the Denver Nuggets. Second in line is a David Thompson that was a fur trader sometime in the 1800s.
DT: Two very different things from my version of a David Thompson.
You’re pretty low-key for a guy that runs the number one restaurant in Asia.
DT: I actually prefer it that way. I come from a different time—well, when I first started cooking anyway, and basing it on where I was raised. I don’t like being celebrated too much—or rather, having attention drawn to me.
You talk about coming from a different time. In this age, everyone’s wired in, and word gets around dominantly through the Internet. What do you think about food bloggers?
DT: They are both the angel and the devil. What I find is, at least locally, a lot of blogs don’t really bother to do any research. It isn’t so much that opinions should be softened, it should just be ratted out with experience, so that then, when you hold an opinion that’s really strong, and you express it rather brutally and honestly, it’s done knowingly; it’s done with some authority and some experience where it’s credible and respectable. There are some bloggers that have that, but there are a lot that don’t. You need that type of evaluation and sorting-out of where it’s going. Time should be able to stabilize that. It’s a growing generation. I’m from the last generation.
You know, I only swapped from buying newspapers and reading online a few years ago, where as you probably haven’t read a newspaper.
I’m not that young. I still read the papers.
DT: When were you born?
DT: Now you’re just making me feel bad.
Okay, let’s move on to something happy then. When Nahm was named number one in Asia, what was that like?
DT: Oh, well you know, it was affirming. It was great. I was touched because it reflects on what I do as opposed to who I am. I hate it when it starts to draw attention to myself, per se. It’s not just me. Not at all. We’ve got 60 people working there and all of them are fantastic and who work hard indeed. And without them, my job wouldn’t be what it is.
You’re an Australian chef running a Thai kitchen. Tell me about your first taste of Thai cuisine.
DT: It was in 1979, in a restaurant called the Siam, in Bondi, and I did not really like it that much. It was fish cakes—rubbery fish cakes, as they always are. And there was also a spice that I really didn’t like at all. Lemongrass. Hated it. Absolutely hated it. But looking back now it’s because it was probably dry lemongrass. I still remember the restaurant and I’m seated like I am now. I can see the white walls, I can see the table cloth, the dirt, the cheap, rather cliché grass cotton, and the blue and white plates that still are bound in time.
Where did your interest in their cuisine come in?
DT: I met this old woman through my partners [in Onsec] who cooked with such eloquent skill. She was educated in a palace, which was not uncommon for women of her age where she grew up; they were finishing schools where women learn the finer skills of Thai culture including textiles, perfumery, and cooking. The first dish I had of hers was a sour orange curry of deep-fried fish and tamarind leaves. It transformed my understanding of Thai food. It made me realize that there was much, much more to it than the simple, easy takeaway food that I had in Australia, or the agreeable food that I was having in Bangkok without really understanding. She was a great cook. I went to her place for about six months to try and get as much knowledge and information as I could and that was the genesis. I never really thought that I’d be cooking Thai food. It’s just that I was in Thailand and I had time on my hands and I thought, why not look at their interesting cuisine? It went from there.
What was the first Thai place you put up?
DT: A place called Darley Street Thai. It’s either in 1991 or ’92. It was behind a pub. I fell into a restaurant in Newtown in Sydney, which is an insalubrious suburb. This guy just said, “You operate the restaurant, it’s yours,” which was great and I was cooking western food but the reason why I gave it away was because it wasn’t a very good position and it was in the middle of a recession. So it was a struggle. We did occasional Thai nights because learning from her, from this woman, I thought, we could do a Thai restaurant in Sydney. At that stage, Sydney was starting to become a really creative cauldron of cooking. It was the first time Australia was starting to enunciate itself on the world stage when it came to food. Sydney was a little hot spot.
The occasional Thai nights turned out to be very successful indeed. From being a restaurant that wasn’t that full to every time we had Thai food, most people would line up to try to get in. We moved it to Kings Cross, an equally insalubrious suburb of Sydney, in ’93 or ’94. I kept it ’til 2000, then I moved to London.
Then when did you make the move to Thailand?
DT: There was a change in EU regulations. But at that time I was asked to set up a restaurant in Bangkok. So I did that. We had wonderful ingredients from Thailand spilling across the tables in Bangkok. But in Britain, because of the embargo, we were impoverished for ingredients. So I decided to close it and then Bangkok became the focus.
No kidding. Your focus managed to produce an entire book on Thai street food.
DT: I used to be more precious as a cook in the sense that I used to think that the best Thai food was the regal cuisine of the 19th century, cooked by elegant cooks in their Siamese arcades—cool and calm and pure. And I still think that there’s a fine aspect to Thai food but Thai food is so diverse. You have not only the upper traditional, you also have urban food, domestic food, regional food, and you have street food, all of which are slightly different that make up the delicious mosaic of Thai cooking. The street food in Bangkok is absolutely delicious. As I said, I started to drop that preciousness, where from just exquisite food, I began to cook stuff from the streets. Though less complicated, it still becomes pretty satisfying. And the thing is that the Thai actually avail themselves of the food of the streets everyday. Fewer Thais cook because they go to eat on the streets.
What Thai street food would you be able to live on?
DT: Oyster omelets are pretty good, stir-fried with basil and a deep-fried egg. There’s also chicken pilaf, and some great grilled pork can also be fantastic. There’s just such a broad repertoire. I rarely cook at home. [When I do] I’m more likely to go into French food, Italian food, or European food, that’s what I like eating as well. But really, I can just eat on the streets.
Originally published in Rogue’s May 2014 Issue, available digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access to Rogue content every month for only $1.99 per issue by subscribing to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.