To move from cooking one country's cuisine to another requires the cook to "tear out his tongue" each time he tries to taste, according to David Thompson.
David has worked through many styles since first starting to cook in French-based restaurants in Sydney of the late 70s and 80s. But it was a visit to Thailand, and 18 months spent studying Thai cuisine under the guidance of an elderly matriarch who cooked for the Royal Family at the palace at Bangkok, that "seduced" him completely.
"Thailand offers one of the world's greatest cuisines, but it is still largely unrecognised," he says. "It is the antitheses of traditional Western food because it courts complexity, and you have to find the balance between 10 or 15 robust flavours."
On his return from Thailand, David opened his own restaurant in Darley Street in Sydney's Newtown, and was then very much an oddity - a western chef tackling Asian food. But David remains quite apart from what he calls the "fusion fad. . .the East meets West bandwagon". His food is pure Thai, and he makes no attempt to juggle flavours and ideas; he makes no compromises in trying to reproduce the fine Thai dishes he had discovered in Bangkok. His is not a blend, he does not take an idea and mix it with other ideas. Rather, he works to re-create a flavour, a taste sensation, and he pursues authenticity rigorously.
In his determination to find the correct ingredients, David has worked with farmers in the Northern Territory and far North Queensland, encouraging them to plant crops of Kaffir limes, water lilies and wild ginger to fuel his cooking pots. His kitchen uses painstaking traditional techniques.
"When we're making coconut cream for our desserts, it takes us three days. The first night we smoke the water using a Thai jasmine candle, and let it infuse overnight with jasmine blossoms grown in a tiny alcove behind the restaurant and plucked at sunset when they're at their most fragrant. We use that water to squeeze the coconut flesh, so you've got this underlying base flavour," he says.
For his dinner at Mietta's, David arrived with most of his ingredients prepared, packed neatly in dozens of containers. Ansett baggage controllers will never recover. Our kitchen was then issued with instructions from David for yet more painstaking slicing, chopping, and scaling. But the final flavours? They are David's own real magic, and emerge from the blending and tasting he does as he cooks.
In a masterley understatement he admitted: "I'm quite chaotic in the way I cook and change things around. I make spontaneous judgements. But that requires a considerable amount of discipline because it is necessary to have the techniques, the tools, and the repertoire of flavours on which to call before you can execute many of my dishes." With many of the older recipes that David uncovered through his research in Thailand, the ingredients are listed, but not the quantities required.
"There is always that assumption, always that expectation of the interpretative role of the cook," he says. "For a mastery of Thai cooking, you must allow your tastebuds to be your guide."
These are David Thompson's great strengths - his palate and his uncompromising belief in achieving the taste of Thai. American food writer and gourmet Fred Ferretti wrote: "What sets Thompson apart from the many farceurs who scrabble willy-nilly the taste and techniques of Asia and the West is his rigid honesty, his knowledge and his skill, and the perfect balance of tastes that he achieves with his food."
A 1999 interview (and recipes) with David Thompson and another from 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