The foreign chefs bringing Thai food to Bangkok

The foreign chefs bringing Thai food to Bangkok

As Michelin-starred chef David Thompson opens a branch of his famed Nahm restaurant in Bangkok, we explore the myth that only Thais can do Thai food
Foreign chefs in Bangkok
A bowl of Bo.Lan's gaeng ki lek, a curry dish originally from Northern Thailand.

Many enthusiastic Western cooks have tried their hand at Thai food, with varying results. Some say to get the real thing, you have to go to a real Thai.

Or do you? The only two Michelin-starred Thai restaurants in the world are headed by foreign chefs: Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, run by Henrik Yde-Andersen, and Nahm in London, the flagship venue of Australian David Thompson. Not only that, but the interlopers are confident enough to offer up their Thai fare within the belly of the beast, Bangkok itself. 

Kiin Kiin made a guest appearance at the Sukhothai Hotel late last year and Nahm alumnus Dylan Jones has opened his own restaurant, Bo.lan, off Sukhumvit, which he runs with his wife Bo. Thompson himself just opened a branch of Nahm at the Metropolitan this month.

"I’ve always made this comparison that if Thai food is like playing chess then cooking Western is like playing draughts."— David Thompson, owner of Nahm

Canberra-born Jones politely rebuts the notion that you have to have Thai genes to make Thai food. When he first got the offer to work at Nahm, he’d never set foot in Thailand, and gave himself a crash course on an extended stopover en route to London. But he used his culinary training to crack the mysteries of nahm prik and tom kha kai. 

“It’s all about the palate,” he says. “Thai food can be quite challenging for someone used to Western cooking, because of the complexity of flavours. But you don’t have to be born into it; you just need to keep an open mind. There are some tastes, like bitterness and astringency, that Western chefs tend to avoid, but they’re crucial to Thai cooking, so you need to know how to use them.”

Thompson agrees that the complexity of Thai cuisine can be off-putting, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

“I’ve always made this comparison that if Thai food is like playing chess then cooking Western is like playing draughts,” he says.

A more serious problem is the weird concoctions that can sometimes get passed off as Thai food by chefs who can’t be bothered to learn the basics.

“The latest one I saw recently was some Thai crab cakes made with commercial mayonnaise,” Thompson says, aghast. “Perhaps the only suggestion of Thai was a smattering of chilli and coriander. It's no wonder Thais are incredulous.”

Jones is similarly wary of some of the offerings that appear under the all-encompassing label of “Thai cuisine”, and has become a doughty defender of authentic cuisine which, he argues, even in Thailand itself has been debased by fast food culture and dumbed down to appease foreign palates. Bo.lan’s dishes are more authentic than those in many a Thai-run tourist trap.

So how do the locals feel about Aussies coming to town and reintroducing them to their own culinary culture? Bo.lan’s success in its first year seems to speak for itself. As far as pragmatic Thai diners are concerned, if the food tastes good, the ethnic background of the cook is of secondary importance.

Bo.lan: 42 Soi Pichaironarongsongkram, Sukhumvit Soi 26. Tel: +66 (0)2 260 2961-2; www.bolan.co.th

Nahm: Metropolitan Hotel, 27 South Sathorn Road. Tel: +662 625 3388

Tim Footman has written for The Guardian, Mojo, Prospect, Thailand Tatler and the Bangkok Post. He is the author of "The Noughties 2000-2009: A Decade that Changed the World."
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