Q&A: David Thompson
The Australian chef reveals why he closed his Michelin-starred London restaurant and how taking the Nahm brand to Bangkok has changed him
Would you say you are as much an anthropologist as a chef when it comes to Thai culture? "There is that aspect, having the keenness of an outsider, which makes me try to understand things more completely than someone born into a culture, who may take it for granted. But I am more relaxed now. Ten years ago there was this urgent, demanding and scrambling persistence to find the Holy Grail of authenticity. But [that] is a nebulous chalice and sometimes a poisonous one because my sense of authenticity was somebody else's complete and utter culinary apostasy."
Is there a wide diversity of regional ideas and tastes, or is Thai a homogenous cuisine? "Thai culture is not static, stable or ossified. It's a confusing medley of contrast-ing opinions that jostle for attention and dominance. Thailand is such an anarchic country, there would never be just one way. That's why authenticity is [an] almost impossible thing to obtain."
Have you explored the region's cuisine to see how it all fits in and influences Thailand? "Of course; no country stands alone in culinary development. Stir-fry, woks, salty duck eggs, soy sauce, soya beans and soups all came from China. The same with pork, duck and chicken, with Chinese immigrants in the 18th century. Thais were mainly vegetarians and fish eaters. Chinese ingredients and habits integrated with Siamese society.
"I like strong flavours. Thai cuisine is very strong, with spicy, sour, salty and sweet [notes]. There's a complexity, subtlety and refinement to Thai food. But I do enjoy a lot of Chinese cuisine, such as the strong flavours of Sichuan."
Are you enjoying living in Bangkok again after having spent so much time in London? "It was only when I moved back to Thailand [three years ago] that I became more relaxed about issues of authenticity. To be there all the time and in that culture, you tend to be as relaxed as the Thais are. I can also do more experimentation, exploration, sourcing ingredients and having things grown for me."
Do Thai cuisine and fine dining go together? Or is that an oxymoron? "It's not even an oxymoron but a bloody impossibility because good Thai food is about cooking everything you have at once and not dividing it into courses and individual portions. Trying to put that into a restaurant syntax at the beginning was just a nightmare."
You closed Nahm in London in December. Why? "We just couldn't get any ingredients, nothing we wanted. The first two or three years were fine; we could bring in anything. Then new EU import regulations came in and nothing could go through. The new forms and regulations were so stringent, and with the Thais being the way they are it was impossible to meet the labelling requirements. No distributor wanted to risk importing anything that might break the rules because the fines were huge. We lost about 60 per cent of our produce. After two years of struggling and not having what we wanted, it was a pleasure to let the restaurant go. London is still not that knowledgeable - for most people [there], Thai food is still just pad thai and green curry with rice. I don't serve pad thai. It's a fine and valid dish for lunch or eating by yourself; but no Thai would eat it in a dinner setting because it's just not appropriate. You eat rice with proper meals. It's like you wouldn't eat risotto and pasta together."