Not a name that you would identify as Thai but David Thompson is the first name on people’s lips when it comes to Thai food. Not some dumbed-down version, but authentic, inspired by the streets of Thailand. The Aussie started off by opening up Darley Street Thai back in 1991 before yours truly was even born.
Fast forward to a couple of decades later, Thompson is presently one of the greatest chefs in the world, running a string of restaurants, including Nahm in Bangkok.
This year, Nahm is ranked by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants as the fifth best restaurant in Asia. Apart from that, the renowned chef also runs a more laidback offering, Long Chim, which means “come and taste” in Singapore and various Australian cities.
Born and raised a Sydneysider, Thompson lives on and off in Bangkok now. We at August Man had the pleasure to speak to him about what is it about Thailand that calls to him and how he got into Thai food.
What attracted you to Thailand in the first place?
It’s the most stupid thing you’ll ever hear.
I went to Thailand over 30 years ago, I fell in love with the place. I was seduced by the people. I didn’t go back because of the food, I went there because of the chaos.
I love that because it was so irrational and dangerous. Not physically dangerous but incomprehensible.
Were you already a chef then?
I was. I was cooking western food at the time.
I finished university, did a degree in English literature. My parents were disturbed; they were distraught. They said that I’d wasted a good education by going into the kitchen.
I was cooking western food at that stage. After that I went to Thailand, I just fell in love with the place. I decided to move there.
How did you pick up Thai culinary arts?
I met this old woman, in Thai, she’s called Kun Yai, which means grandmother.
She cooked with the most exquisite skills which I found mesmerising. It gave me course to think about Thai food. Because before that I thought they were simple takeaways that offered no great challenge and no great taste.
I was terribly, terribly wrong.
I spent six months with her. Not working with her but just going to her house, because she was a domestic cook. It was outstanding. I can still see, smell and taste her cooking.
The first dish that I cooked with her was kaeng som (Thai sour curry).
And it must have been around this time of the year, because tamarind is in season now.
It was a deep-fried fish in orange curry. And it was outstanding, the definition, the clarity of taste, and it made me realise there was so much more in Thai food than I had previously thought.
So I went to her house every day, I’d do translations of all the recipes. That was 30 years ago.
When was the idea of making a living out of Thai cuisine first floated?
After living in Thailand, I moved back to Australia with my partner. I was still cooking western food.
When I first met Kun Yai, it was mainly out of interest. It was something that I was looking at. I had never intended to use it professionally at all at that time.
But then it just changed. I became more and more obsessed with Thai food. And then in Australia I opened a restaurant called Darley Street Thai 5,000 years ago (laughs).
That proved to be quite successful, and then I opened another one in Australia, and then moved to London, and eventually returned to Bangkok.
Was it really a drastic transition, going from western to Thai?
The transition, on reflection, didn’t seem that hard.
But that was looking back 20 years ago. It was a gradual step, because I never intended to cook Thai food. It just happened bit by bit.
Most of my life happens by accident, some of them good, some of them not so much. But Thai food was a happy accident, a delicious one.