David Thompson, The Australian Maestro of Thai CuisineWritten by Prasheena S
From Australia to London, Bangkok and now Hong Kong, world-renowned chef David Thompson has taken his twist on Thai cuisine around the world. He told Hive Life about how a visit to Thailand changed his life.
It was 1986 when a young, Australian-born-and-bred David Thompson travelled to Thailand where he instantaneously fell in the thrall of the culture and people. However, not so much the food. “I had no intention of cooking Thai food,” he says. “Then, my partner introduced me to a friend’s grandmother who cooked with inherited skills. I went to her house every day for six months where she gave me the groundwork of some extraordinary tastes. I thought Thai food was pad thai and green chicken curry. God, I was wrong!” That discovery led him to a stellar career – one that has taken in immense recognition as one of the world’s most renowned chefs cooking Thai food today. From his first solo venture, Darley Street Thai, back home in Sydney to his London opening Nahm, the first Thai restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star, and then his Bangkok restaurant of the same name which was named Best Restaurant in Asia in 2014, his string of successes have been significant and global. David’s latest project is Aaharn, an acclaimed, authentic Thai restaurant in the heart of Hong Kong. He sat down to talk Hive Life through a lifetime dedicated to his passion.
For David, it’s been a series of the most unforeseen twists of fate that have led him a particular way. “I moved back to Australia after spending time in Thailand and started cooking Western food. At the restaurant, I decided that, once a month, we would do a Thai night and people actually lined out the door. We used to reject a big number of bookings, and so I thought to myself, maybe I should try and do this.” That led to the opening of his first Thai venture in Sydney, Darley Street Thai which ran successfully for about 10 years. Next, the young chef graced Sydney with Sailors Thai, which quickly became known as “Australia’s Iconic Thai.” And, shortly after, he was offered the chance to open a restaurant in London’s luxury Como Hotel. “We had access to a whole range of new ingredients that were flown in from Thailand to London. No matter how talented a cook might be or how good the recipes might be, if you do not have the right ingredients, it’s like having a sentence without words. These ingredients allowed us to make Nahm.” Within six months, the restaurant had won a Michelin star. Riding on the back of his success, David soon opened a second Nahm at the Como Hotel in Bangkok, which rocketed to Asia’s Best Restaurant in 2014, scoring a place in the World’s 50 Best.
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David’s Hong Kong outpost in the city’s newly revamped hotspot of Tai Kwun is something a little different. For the past few years, he has taken his street food-inspired concept Long Chim to Singapore, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. “I had intended to open Long Chim in Hong Kong, but the unique site of Tai Kwun just didn’t work with street food. The building itself has a little bit of substance and standard which deserves so much more than just street food. Hence, Aaharn was born where we do great and pure Thai food,” he explains.
Situated right next to the distinctive mango tree that dominates Tai Kwun’s huge courtyard, Aaharn presents itself as an authentic Thai restaurant in the compound’s historic Armoury building. From its grand room, featuring high ceilings and contemporary artwork-adorned walls, David, along with Aaharn’s head chef, Chef Boonyapat Pariyasakul, dishes up delicacies such as Ma hor (a traditional Thai snack), crab meat with pickled garlic, crunchy rice & peanuts and stir-fried wild mushrooms with water bamboo. “Aaharn has a smaller menu, which requires a lot more attention and diligence. I have changed no recipe. However, I have selected recipes I think suit Hong Kong best. All the dishes I choose are as faithful as possible to how it should be cooked in Thailand. I want to bring the Thai food I fell in love with to Hong Kong,” he says.
Motivated by that simple idea, the chef has seen his career blossom with his restaurants opening all over the world – though, today, he’s insistent that was never intentional. “When I look back, I often blush with embarrassment. Running restaurants is very different from running a menu and a kitchen. I had the best intentions and aspirations, but I look back at think, shit!” And, as for his advice for others hoping to emulate his success? “Don’t do it! It’s demanding, grungy and tough!”