A week is a long time in the restaurant business. Ask chef David Thompson. Just seven days ago, his Nahm restaurant was named the best in Asia, and he was at the centre of a media maelstrom, as Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna awards concluded in Singapore. But now the dust has settled, he’s back in the kitchen in Bangkok, he’s had time to reflect. And he still sounds shellshocked: “I’ve got tinnitus from straining to hear every phone call. I’ve got repetitive strain injury from texting and emailing from my iPhone. I’ve lost money, because I bet against myself. And finally - and perhaps more sadly - I’m sick of myself.”
It’s just as well his sense of humour remains intact. The Australian-born chef’s natural inclination towards self-deprecation probably helps keep him sane at times like these. It also helps him keep things in perspective. “It’s the luck of the draw,” he says, philosophically. “There are so many other restaurants that could have won, and in my mind probably deserved to win more than we did, because they’ve strived so hard too.”
But win he did. And for many, it came as no surprise. Thompson’s Nahm has become a shining beacon of Thai cuisine, celebrated for its faithful renditions of traditional recipes, excavated from ancient family cookbooks. Its near-fanatical attention to high-quality Thai ingredients and complex flavour profiles has won over Thai food aficionados in Bangkok - which is no mean feat for an Australian chef.
In typical self-effacing style, Thompson is quick to deflect such high praise. “No so-called ‘front cook’ does it by themselves,” he says. “We’ve got a team of 28 cooks behind the scenes, and 26 people in front, all of whom are working vey hard indeed, and without whom there’s no way I could have got anywhere near this result. In fact it’s their hard work rather than my mad ramblings that has made it work.”
Mad ramblings or inspired leadership? Either way, to get to where he is today it’s been a long and eventful journey. Thompson won plaudits in Sydney before launching Nahm in London in 2001. Within six months of opening, it gained a Michelin star - the first Thai restaurant to do so. But there were problems with bureaucracy. EU regulations restricted the flow of exceptional Thai ingredients to London, and Nahm, Thompson and his customers all suffered. “We lost 70 percent of our ingredients, which were unusual ingredients: Asian citron, snakeskin pears, marian plums, jackfruit from the south of Thailand, jasmine flowers, wild gingers of various types - shampoo ginger, Thai wild ginger, young galangal, old galangal... It’s not the way a restaurant should work, when you’re uncertain of the price, uncertain of the quality, and uncertain of supply. It just doesn’t make sense. It was unsatisfactory for me and the cooks, and it was unfair on the customers.”
Nahm’s London iteration closed, but London’s loss was Bangkok’s gain. There “the cornucopia spilt across the table - delicious, vibrant, in all of its array, in all of its beauty,” and the latest incarnation of Nahm flourished. But when Thompson is asked if he feels vindicated by his most recent success, he is adamant. “No, not at all. It’s a culmination rather than a vindication,” he says. “They were all fantastic experiences, and they were experiences that made me grow in ways that I could not have done here from the start. They have given me a set of tools by which I’ve managed to establish myself here and flourish somewhat. If I hadn’t gone through those stages, it would probably be a very different restaurant indeed.”
In Bangkok, Thompson feels settled. “I’ve developed a Thai taste, so I think it’s the best eating city in Asia,” he says. But it’s not just a great place to eat, it’s the only place for Thompson to continue his work. “What I want to do is set up some kind of library or repository of some of the old cookbooks that I have. Set up some kind of library, digitise it and make it available to Thais, so they have access to their remarkable culinary heritage, should they wish.”
Meanwhile, the rest of Asia can look forward to a new string of Thai street food restaurants, all with Thompson’s trademark attention to authenticity. “I’m working on street food projects, because a restaurant like Nahm can never be anywhere else but in Bangkok, or in Thailand at least. And so that’s where Nahm will stay, and hopefully flourish. Whereas street food is a far more transportable cuisine, and that’s what we’ll be doing in Singapore and Hong Kong and a few other cities.”