David Thompson, of Sydney's Darley St Thai fame, has received the most amazing compliment. He has been asked by the Thai government to set up and run a venue showcasing Thai food in Bangkok. It will be "pretty glam," David says. "On the ground floor of an old palace, seating 70, and due to open in March 2000." The tragedy for Australian cuisine is that he will need to live in Bangkok, and so is selling his Sydney flagship restaurant, the wonderful Darley St. Thai.
He will be taking many of the staff from there with him to Bangkok. Meanwhile his second restaurant, Sailors Thai at the Rocks, will continue, managed by his partner, Peter Bowyer. The move is both sad and exciting. For David it means throwing everything up in the air and re-establishing himself in a new restaurant environment. He does, of course, have a huge start with the backing, both financial and official, of the Thai government.
It is extraordinary that an Australian chef should be needed to explain Thai food in Thailand. It is because Thai cuisine is not a restaurant cuisine, and David has devoted the last decade to making Thai food work in his Sydney restaurants. He is totally committed and passionate about the need to put Thai food properly into a restaurant context. This has meant exhaustive research into and experimentation with dishes. He has never taken the easy way out. There is, he says, much bastardisation of Thai food. It has, after all, become one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in Australia, the UK and America.
David hopes that the Bangkok project will be a way of protecting, as much as showing off, Thai cuisine, without compromising its integrity in the modern world. He has been doing just that in Australia, but using Australian staff and aimed at an Australian custom. David certainly does not see his role in Bangkok as being one of teaching locals how to cook, rather of how to present their food in a restaurant context.
The opportunity came after David had attended and spoken very vocally at a food conference in Bangkok in mid-1999. He was "shocked and appalled" by the damage fusion cooking was doing to Thai cuisine. He was confronted by some awful mixtures, such as mango risotto with olive oil, garlic, coconut cream, curry paste and lemongrass stock. He said that the Thais must stop, and try to preserve traditional teaching methods. He blamed European executive chefs in Thai hotels who read food magazines and believe they have to copy to keep up.
"I hate fusion food, hate it with a passion. In its trauma and enthusiasm it's like a gangly youth with pimples. I think it is dubious in the best of hands, but all too often it is done as an excuse to justify a poverty of imagination. Hopefully it is a fad. Although Australia went through it first, now it is going through America, and will hit England as well. God help them. Except what they will probably do is combine Indian and French food - 'pain de Pappadam'?"
Will the Thais recover from the onslaught of the passionate David Thompson? No doubt there will be readjustment on both sides. The reality of changing what you criticise is tough, as David well knows. "It will be a challenge for me, quite a difficult process as I will have to readjust my sense of taste."
In talking to David over many years, his conversation has always been about just that - taste. "You can never assume anything or take anything for granted in the cooking or tasting of Thai food". He has always said that "one of the first things we have to 'teach' cooks here is to get into the habit of tasting...you can't impose an intellectual discipline, so you bypass the mind and go straight to the tongue. Irregardless of how skilled or technically honed, how intelligent or how well reputed they are as cooks, most people don't know taste or how to analyse taste".
In the late eighties, fresh from a stint as head chef at Rogues, David travelled to Thailand and was at once "seduced by this gracious country". David then spent 18 months (and many more later) studying Thai cuisine under the guidance of an elderly matriarch who cooked for the Royal Family at the palace in Bangkok. On his return, David opened a restaurant in a Darley Street pub in the then unfashionable area Newtown. At that time he was something of an oddity - a Western chef tackling Asian food. In May 1993, David and his partner and co-owner Peter Bowyer moved to the more accessible address of Bayswater Road, Kings Cross, and two years later they opened Sailors Thai at the Rocks.
Darley St Thai had great style, the design and colours seduced even before the flavours kicked in. And they did. Because David demanded a lot of himself and of his staff. The discipline of tasting is rigorous, all his cooks are made to describe what they are tasting and the order in which they experience the different sensations of heat, sweetness and sourness. He explains that what is important, once you know what you are tasting, is to be able to correct, to adjust flavours and to reach a balance. "It is surprising how many cooks aren't able to describe what they taste. It's really rewarding when they do come to articulation and expression, and not just verbally, but by adjusting the balance of the dish."
Balance is the all important thing, particularly with Thai cuisine, which David describes as being very loose and liberal with a latitude of interpretation "as long as you achieve balance." It has taken him a long time to come to this understanding and along the way, has had to unlearn many of the fundamentals of classic cuisine which he grew up with. I remember him talking (at the original Darley St Thai) of the need "to tear out your tongue" when moving from one cuisine style to another.
David starting cooking classic French cuisine at La Goulue in Crows Nest, then had a period with Mogens Bay Esbensen at Butlers and was chef at Rogues. French cuisine is strictly codified, he says "this put me in good stead for maintaining a discipline in what is otherwise an undisciplined kind of cooking. The more that I understand it the more I realise that you can never make any judgements or sound and definite principles, because the moment you do, you find an exception."
Because for David, the crux of Thai cuisine is that it is a circumstantial one, that balance is determined by the tastes that are already there. Given that, you wonder if it is possible to achieve a precise sequence of tastes? He is currently grappling with an explanation to this as he tries to finish the definitive book on Thai cooking. He describes it as a "tortuous, onerous tome, an encyclopedia, a history of Thai food from the 14th century". Provisionally titled 'Thai Cooking', "is not about me or my recipes, but is my understanding of Thai food."
If David's story is about taste and the development of a palate it is also about a keen mind which loves to analyse and reflect on the transitory. He is fascinated, obsessed and driven by the need to perfect his dishes. He loves the craft of cooking and has set himself the challenge of bringing Thai cuisine into a framework which will allow its understanding and interpretation by others.
Now he is leaving behind his specifically Australian custom tailored refinements and brilliant applications of Thai cuisine, and going to Thailand where he will again talk and cook beautifully, albeit in a different language. His legacy should remain in Australia with some of the cooks he has taught and, hopefully, with Sailors Thai. David Thompson's culinary journey has taken him from Australia to Thailand and back many times. Each time he learns and re-learns culinary and cultural truths about Thai society. Will Australia ever need a foreign chef to do a David Thompson and showcase our cuisine here?
In 2001 David closed Darley St Thai and opened a restaurant in London. Sailors Thai and Sailors Thai Canteen both remain open at The Rock's in Sydney. See for a 1995 interview and here in 1991.
Geng mussaman bet - mussaman curry of duck
King dong - pickled ginger
Pla bon dtaeng mor - powdered fish with melon
Kai kem neung - Steamed salty duck eggs
Geng jeut gwio yort sai - green melon and pork soup
Nahm stock - chicken stock
Pla Foo - Crispy fish
Miang Gung - Miang of prawns
Geng Pet Nok Gradta - Red curry of quail
Ma Hor - Pork, Chicken and Prawns simmered in palm sugar and peanuts with mandarins and pineapple
Buat Chii Noi Naa - Custard apples simmered in coconut cream