“The two words that define Thailand are soul and stomach, and they tend to both with equal diligence and fidelity. If Thais aren't eating food they're preparing it, if they're not preparing it, they're at the market to buy it. If they're not buying, preparing or eating it, they're asleep dreaming about it.”
David Thompson has a beautiful sing-song lilt that colours his voice as he describes his admiration for the people of Thailand. Those hypnotizing, melodic tones are in direct contrast with the naughty twinkle in his eye.
“I fell under its thrall 30 years ago and I’m still in its grasp,” Thompson explains. “There’s a languid way in which people approach their life. To live first, not work. They’re sensual creatures that enjoy their life and want to enjoy it.”
It was a culture that captivated him and a fascination that led to an almost single-minded culinary determination. That creative focus appealed to him, “A regulated approach is not constricting, it’s allowed me to explore my mind, to hone and explore and excavate, to research to create a better understanding of what’s being done, the context within which it is done.” Explore, excavate and research is no exaggeration, Thompson literally wrote the book on Thai food, in 2002.
It’s a method and determination that has served him well in his kitchens too. After returning from Thailand in the early ‘90s Thompson opened his first restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in a Newtown pub to much critical acclaim. He followed this success with the pre-eminant Sailors Thai in the Rocks. These two restaurants turned the tide of Thai cooking in Australia.
For Thompson understanding their cuisine is about much more than the flavours in the dish: “It’s not just a balance of tastes, but it’s also a balance of techniques employed too – whenever you have a Thai meal, you never just have curries, or just stir-fries, or wet dishes, you have dry dishes, spicy dishes, sweet dishes, sour dishes, you have a composite array of tastes, techniques and textures that form the meal proper. Even on a plastic stool on a congested and polluted street in Bangkok, there’s still that inherent understanding that a meal must be balanced.”
Thompson was eventually lured to London where he opened Nahm – a restaurant based around the ideals of regal Thai food. Six months later it became the first Thai restaurant to receive a Michelin star.
However, it soon became apparent to Thompson that if he was to really cook the food he wanted to cook, he needed to be elsewhere. “I tried to cook as much as I could authentic food. I can’t cook that food anywhere but in Thailand alone because it’s so based upon ingredients. Rooted in the land, caught by the sea, ingredients that we get and the type of food that we cook there couldn’t be done anywhere else.”
In 2010 Thompson opened Nahm in Bangkok, where it still resides and currently sits at number 28 on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list.
“It’s like when you speak a language well, there’s an immense satisfaction in having a mind that’s trained, that’s honed, that allows you to explain exactly what you wish, it's the same with cooking too. It's the same with a sentence that's constructed well, it has the pungency, the sincerity, the immediacy that good expression is about, it slips off the tongue, whether it’s language or food.”
Over the past 18 months we have seen the prodigal son return to our shores, opening Long Chim, his ode to the street food of Thailand. He now has restaurants in Perth, Sydney and most recently Melbourne. “I was a precious cook wanting to achieve, I’m now more relaxed, it’s the food I like to eat.”
Part of this shift has been the establishment of a culinary basecamp in Thailand, where Thompson makes his own pastes and curry bases for the restaurants. Sauces and other condiments are also included: the whole Thai pantry is sent across to allow them to cook their food. “Street food is more transferable, cooked with faithfulness and with pleasure. Long Chim is about what street food is, it’s implicit in that happy invitation, whatever is available in the streets of Bangkok.”
It’s in the streets of Thailand that Thompson seeks solace when he returns to his home in Bangkok, the oyster omelettes and curries “so hot they singe your lips before the spoon touched your mouth."