Many Thais might be accused of feeling envious of famous Australian chef David Thompson, and for good reason. His restaurant nahm (lowercase “n”, somehow) at The Halkin in London was the first Thai place to earn a Michelin star — an indicator of big-time international acclaim, if you are a chef — and he is the author of one of the most well-regarded cookbooks of all time, Thai Food. Calling him an “expert” on Thai cuisine is no big stretch.
Unless, of course, you are Thai. If you are Thai you are supposed to exclaim at the arrogance of a Westerner who has the temerity to come to the motherland with an outpost of the well-regarded Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in London (at The Metropolitan, 02-625-3388). Because cooking Thai food for ignorant foreigners is one thing, but cooking it for Thais is another.
Or that’s what the media would have you believe. A “New York Times” story purporting to chronicle Thais’ feelings about Thompson and his characterization of modern Thai food as “decaying” and less complex than before caused a big splash a few weeks ago and, to me at least, seemed like a load of BS. Who cares? Another restaurateur comes to Thailand. Oh, he cooks Thai food? OMG! More manufactured controversy.
But a few days later, it seemed I was proven wrong. It seemed like people really did care. Or maybe I should just quote the Nation opinion piece, penned by ML Saksiri Kridakorn: “…it makes me hotter than biting into a hot chili hidden in a larb dish. It was a slap in the face to all Thai chefs in Thailand: don’t they know how to cook their own cuisine? It was also a slap in the face to all those who go to Thai restaurants. That makes all of us. What have we been eating?”
I wasn’t sure I understood what ML Saksiri was saying (do you say “khun”? Do you say “mom”? I don’t know!) Was he saying foreigners can’t cook Thai food? Because that makes absolutely no sense to a person who went to cooking school in France and somehow got a CAP in French cuisine (an achievement which really is a slap in the face to the French people). Or is he saying Westerners can’t criticize Thai food? Because I criticize Western food all the time, and if I couldn’t, what would be my reason for living?
I think — and this took a little digging — that he was saying David Thompson couldn’t possibly come to Thailand and purport to save “decaying” Thai cuisine, when it is not decaying, and doesn’t need his help. Well, all that stuff is arguable (the “decaying” part). But it did drum up some pretty publicity for nahm! Naturally, I went there to try it out.
An amuse-bouche of “candied” pork on a sliver of pineapple (called ma hor) started the meal; then, a succession of canapes including a lovely mieng featuring pomelo, tiny bite-sized mee krob rolls (what is this thing with mee krob? Argh) and skewers of grilled mussels, slathered in peanut sauce and accompanied by cucumber slivers.
After that, a quick succession of dishes (so wise, keeping it family-style!): stir-fried pak waan (sweet greens), fiery nuea kem (sun-dried beef), a bright, buoyant cucumber yum, a pounded tamarind chili dip, a lohn-like pla rah song krueang, and a lovely-looking massaman chicken curry that I got nowhere near to even tasting (one thing that bugged me: it says it’s “bresse” chicken on the menu? Does this mean that “poulet de bresse” is being raised locally? How do I get some? Stop telling me I’m misreading “bresse” for “breast” on the menu!)
However … and I hate saying this, because this means I am a xenophobic, foreigner-hating Thai: there were some misfires. Like a vegetable yum that wasn’t as yum-like as I’d want it to be: my American palate only tasted sweet. The bitter melon, while still delicious, was a little more along the “bitter” end of the taste spectrum than I’d like my maraa to be (read: stewed to oblivion). In general, the food seemed to play more along the upper end of the registers, and I’m a girl who loves the deep, dark bass notes represented by gapi (shrimp paste). In that way, it reminded me a bit of Chote Chitr (where the chef, incidentally, is Thai).
And, strangely, I was disappointed to not get to see Chef Thompson himself, although we did get to meet his partner, Tanongsak Yordwai. I think meeting the chef himself would be the one thing that would tip unsure and/or conflicted locals still mentally processing their meal at nahm into “I’m a David Thompson fan” territory.
Or maybe I’m just disappointed I didn’t get to take a picture with the man himself, slapping mah face.