A Quiet Beer with David Thompson

David Thompson
Australian author of Thai Food and Thai Street Food and owner of Nahm in London, 2009

David Thompson was a young, classically trained chef when he went to Thailand in the 1980s on a holiday. Back then he did not think Thai food was good for much except the odd takeaway, was deeply suspicious of fish cakes (found them rubbery) and was confused by lemongrass. It was a Thai friend's grandmother who changed his mind. Her own mother had learnt how to cook in the Thai royal court, and, in the fashion of good cooking cultures everywhere, had passed on her skills to the deft woman who was now feeding David. He had never tasted or seen anything like it - the sinus clearing smells, the fierce bite of the Thai chili, the tartness of tamarind and scores of other ingredients that defied logic to come together in an amazing, mind extending and yet improbably balanced taste of true Thai food. And all put together by someone who didn't measure anything, pounded stone on stone like a caveman, and threw in handfuls of exotics and glugs of fish sauce with nary a tablespoon or cookbook in sight.

David changed his plans and spent months in the apprenticeship of this old master. Despite his non-existent Thai language skills, and his near useless Western cooking techniques, he worked hard to tap into Thailand's past glories and learn as much as he could. It was apparent to him that Thai food was, or had been, a world class cuisine, and had a potential far beyond that of a cheap feed in the 'burbs. As Thailand was not big on cookbooks, he had to continue his education by spending time with the old women who made the best food. Famously, he also bought the books of the dead, put together for funerals, that contained the deceased's favourite recipes. Reciting these incantations in his then clumsy Thai, David would summon tastes and textures from cooks past for his sensual pleasure (although in some cases the ritual failed because of maddening vagueness of instruction that assumed a level of skill that David did not then possess).

Upon his return in Australia, David needed employment like the rest of us. It is hard to imagine a David Thompson Steak Sandwich now but he started cooking at a pub in the eclectic Sydney suburb of Newtown. Still having an interest in the dark arts, David would arrange a Thai night in the pub once a month for his own amusement. This was before Sydney fell in love with Thai food, and so it really was a treat for those Sydneysiders that dared abandon their British heritage after a few drinks. As it turns out, there were more than a few of them, and David decided to give Thai a crack full time and opened Darley Street Thai. Unlike most Aussie Thai restaurants at the time, David did everything in the traditional manner using his new found knowledge - no hisses as curry paste jars or coconut milk tins were opened for him. He spent his days and nights pounding, scraping, chopping and smoking to bring his customers and Australia Thai flavours and authenticity like they had never known it.

Fast forward more than a decade and is fair to say David had mastered his craft. He had opened Sailors Thai in the Rocks, and for many years he worked on what was pretty well the only Thai cookbook in English worth owning: Thai Food. Beautifully presented in pink Thai silk, this was David's guide to the dark arts, at least as he understood them. I bought it in 2002 when it was released, and, not being able to cook anything, attempted to learn a few things myself over a 5 year period. What a place to start! It is not an easy book to cook from. Beautifully written, it reveals itself ingredient by ingredient, process by process, until you find yourself producing food neither you nor your friends thought possible - if you have the time!

There are quick gems in the book of course. Thai fried rice, once mastered, is a friend for life. So is David's Stir Fried Rice Noodles with Chicken and Chinese Broccoli, which takes less time than a pasta dish and can be the best part of your day.

On the whole though, paradoxically, I think I cook less Thai food because of the time spent reading David's Thai Food book. This is because the primary effect of taking in David's words at an impressionable age is that he breaks your brain. You just can't cheat. It is not ok to use canned curry pastes (insipid), canned coconut milk (it should go off in a day, what have they done to it to make it last years), pre cooked deep fried shallots (stale) or chinese five spice powder (also stale). Even using lemon is frowned upon (it is not an alternative, it is a last resort). And really, if we are honest, Thai is one of the few foods in the world in which mere mortals, working alone, have to cheat. The annoying thing is that in Thailand it is ok to cheat because the cheats are correct, to use David's words. The curry pastes available on the streets have been pounded for hours using authentic ingredients. The coconut milk has been made from coconuts just that day. Presumably even the chinese five spice powder has been put together by chinese descendants that morning as they chanted Buddhist mantras. Nice and easy then, grab your milk, grab your paste, pick your favourite veges and freshly killed chook and you are away!

With a broken brain however, apart from the odd foray on a weekend, complex Thai food is just not practical. And there isn't enough simple Thai food (at least in David's books) for a varied diet. So unless you are a hard working true believer, it is not unreasonable to say that Thai Food David Thompson style can be no more than an occasional delight.

In time London called and Nahm was opened. The only Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star, Nahm has divided the critics. David uses it to present traditional Thai food in the most authentic matter - without regard to the views of the London diners. He flys produce in fresh from Thailand that wouldn't make its way past Australian customs, and delves into his dark learning to reproduce dishes from the Thai Royal courts not seen for a century. To some this confronts and confuses, to others it is a sensual delight so far removed from the traditional English stodge of their childhood it is unbelievable.

David continued to learn. Spending half his time in Bangkok, he roamed the streets and countryside, collecting traditional knowledge and recipes to reproduce back in his kitchens. His recent interest has been in 'gutter food' as he calls it, or street food, and has spent some years producing his third book, Thai Street Food, which sets out his favourite recipes from the streets. In typical Thompson fashion, many of the recipes look impenetrable, although I have no doubt that the patient and loyal cook would be rewarded with perfect renditions of the most beautiful of Thailand's offerings. Unlike his earlier books, this one is full of magnificent photos of the hussle and bussle of life in the markets. I suspect this is to make the book more attractive to buyers, even if many of them will not end up cooking much from it.

Despite this, I have every confidence it will be successful. The recipes are authentic and in time it will be considered a classic. Until then, the photos and David Thompson's enormous goodwill in Australia will see it sell well among the mums and dads.

So what of Thompson as a person? I have met him a few times over the years - at his classes and for the interview most recently. He is self depreciating in the Aussie fashion, humorous, passionate, and a little bit fatigued from a lifetime of working his arse off in the kitchen. It is something to watch him cook. At one demonstration he had the biggest pestle and mortar you have ever seen. He just pounded away enormous quantities of paste, nonchalantly throwing in handful of chilies and shovelfuls of tamarin as we would a pinch of salt. He glugged in fish sauce by the bottle, chatting as he went.

It was quite a sight as I know how long it takes to cook a meal for 4. The scale he can operate at means he can cook for 40 no sweat. And the food is still balanced!

When I spoke to him recently David said that his cooking had changed over the years. He was a lot more tolerant now of other ways of doing things (rather than his own). Like many chefs, he never cooks at home for himself or his loved ones, and he would happily never cook again if given the chance! And although his dreams of opening a Thai street food franchise have been dashed by the GFC (what a shame!), he seemed pleased that he had been asked to open a restaurant in Thailand.

One suspects his plan is to retire there and eat street food every day.

David's advice to me on setting up a little street food cart in Australia was to go with something that used a special Thai fermented noodle mentioned in his book. I asked if they were available in Australia and he said generally not, but of course, if I were running my own cart, I would make them myself. Of course I would. He then rattled off a long and involved process for me to make my own fermented noodles for my street food cart. Perhaps I'll go with the grilled green bananas!

David has also associated his name with a new fish sauce - Megachef. He used the Squid brand until he came across this one. Apparently the Megachef guy is the grandson or son of the Squid guy. David didn't used to splash his name about so it must be pretty good. I'm certainly going to give it a go should it ever hit the shelves here in Australia.

And I'm going to make the Laksa from his new book even if it takes me all weekend.