Come and Taste – in Singapore
[UPDATE: David Thompson has been awarded the Diners Club Lifetime Achievement 2016 as part of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.]
Spend a morning with chef David Thompson and it becomes apparent that his knowledge of and passion for Thailand is not just about the food for which he has become celebrated. It also extends to the Thai people, their culture and history.
I learnt this as he whizzed me around, on foot and by long tail boat, the backstreets and klongs, the food markets and stalls of Bangkok, imparting facts and stories as we went along. Not just about the bountiful vegetables on sale and the oyster omelettes we were tucking into but about the buildings and the history and daily life of the streets and waterways themselves.
This all encompassing enthusiasm is probably why the native Australian has become feted for Thai cuisine. “It feels like I’m obtaining some of the recipes and gaining some sense of understanding of them when I try to learn about the history and sociology of Thailand,” says Thompson in his sing song Aussie Thai hybrid accent. “Also, personally, I’m just fascinated by history in general.”
Thompson first visited Bangkok in 1986. “I’ve been in love with it ever since and now it is home to me,” he says. Restaurant openings in Sydney (Darley Street Thai and Sailors Thai) took him back to Australia in the mid Nineties. From there he was approached to open Nahm, a high end Thai restaurant in London, in 2001. It became the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star – in just six months of opening. He has been based permanently in Bangkok since 2010 when he opened a second branch of Nahm which has proved even more successful than the original.
Thompson has also written two acclaimed books: Thai Food and Thai Street Food both large tomes that cover just about everything you need to know about Thailand’s cuisine and culture. When I compliment him on the books he replies, “I wish I could have spent more time on them.”
Last year Nahm in Bangkok scooped Asia’s Best Restaurant award sponsored by San Pellegrino. Despite this, Thompson remains modest about his achievements. “It was an absolute surprise,” he says. “I think there are so many other very good restaurants in Asia. It was really the hard work of other people – the award belongs to all the guys in the kitchen and front of house. I have the good fortune of working with a lot of very skillful people who I think have made Nahm a success, rather than me.”
He similarly plays down his cooking skills: “After living in Bangkok for a while I thought maybe I could play around and try to recreate all these dishes. Somehow I managed to make a career out of it. Now I look back and I realise I had no idea what I was doing!” “Of course I experienced obstacles when I started. The Thais taught me great lessons,” he continues. “I have to say when I meet Westerners who say that they cook Thai food very well, I’m a little wary about it because sweet chilli sauce and a bunch of coriander does not equate to a Thai dish. But after 25 years, if I’m not a little bit adept at what I’m doing then there’s something wrong with me.”
Now you’ll be able to experience Thompson’s cuisine in Singapore with the opening of Long Chim (for dinner only for the time being) in Marina Bay Sands. The restaurant will be a different concept to that of Nahm though. “Nahm is unique and really can only be done in Bangkok,” says Thompson (Nahm London closed in 2012). “Long Chim means ‘come and taste’ and that is exactly the sort of menu and experience we’re going to create at Marina Bay Sands. “It’s a broad, happy invitation for people to have authentic Thai food as it is served on the streets of Thailand. It will be simple, accessible and affordable.”
Long Chim will be casual and easy going, unlike the more formal dining experience offered at Nahm. Opening Nahm in Bangkok made me realise that it’s the only place where I can operate a restaurant of that nature. Street food however is by definition easier to ‘hybridise’ and more transportable making it a logical choice for an overseas venture.”
As such, more Long Chim outlets are planned around the world. “Hong Kong is definitely on the cards,” says Thompson. “If we can make it in Singapore with its discerning diners, we can make it anywhere.” The menu will include familiar favourites like green curry and papaya salad covered.
“We don’t disdain or discard dishes simply because they’re popular. We may have some expected design but with unexpected qualities,” says Thompson. “Of course we’ll have mango sticky rice because despite the fact that it seems common, we understand why it should be everywhere,” says Thompson. “And you know, we’ll also do coconut puddings. Whatever you see in the streets, we’ll have it here.”
There will also be grilled mussels, Thai chicken biryani, basil fried rice with pork. “We’ll make the soups and stocks, there will be lasksas and stir fried noodles.” Produce will be sourced from Singapore’s Chinatown and the Golden Mile (the Lion City’s Little Thailand) as much as possible as well as imported from Bangkok. “I’ve had this idea for several years now and it has come together very nicely with Marina Bay Sands,” says Thompson. “I’ve always loved Singapore and feel that it is a city at the height of popularity when it comes to food, even internationally. It’s the perfect place to launch a new concept.”
Neither will Thompson be an absentee proprietor. “I will be in Singapore as much as possible. I love this place!” he says. “Bangkok is a short plane shuttle away so I will make frequent trips down.” Heading up the kitchen is Thai chef Yingyod Raktham with support from Matthew Albert and Annita Potter who worked with Thompson in London and Bangkok respectively.
The team will also include a number of Singaporeans as well as Thais. “One of our priorities will be to train the local chefs the art of Thai cuisine,” says Thompson. One of his protégées, Duongporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava, now runs her own restaurant in Bangkok and was honoured as Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2013. Does he feel there any other Thai female chef of note coming though? “There are many young, up and coming Thai cooks which just fantastic,” he says. “But I have my eye of Chef Nan Bunyasaranand who runs Little Beast in Bangkok.”
So which is his favourite region of Thailand for food? “That is a tough one. Thailand is a lucky country when it comes to food and it’s almost impossible to eat very badly there. It’s great in the provinces, sometimes you can find unexpected dishes of exceptional quality in the most unlikely of places.”