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Q&A: David Thompson on preserving the integrity of Thai cuisine at Aaharn, his debut Hong Kong restaurant

It doesn’t need to be said that Bangkok harbours some of the finest Thai food in the world, from alleyway street vendors to hawker stalls and brick-and-mortar shops. Many are locally owned and operated, but one of the restaurants that has piled on the most accolades over the years is, oddly enough, a fine dining restaurant opened by a white, Australian chef. It may sound strange and the fact alone has raised a few eyebrows over the years — yet background, ethnicity and race are hardly consequential when it comes to serving up delicious food, and chef David Thompson has proved over the years why he’s considered the world’s foremost authority on Thai cuisine.

Since it opened in 2010 (nine years after the original London flagship), Nahm inside the COMO Metropolitan Bangkok has become one of the crown jewels of the city’s dining scene. Reaching the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014, the restaurant shatters prejudices and preconceptions through the sheer force of its vibrant and delicious cuisine — a mouthwatering tribute to the fiery, sweet and spicy flavours of authentic Thai food.

Chef David Thompson is considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on Thai cuisine.

Earlier this year, Thompson announced that he would be leaving the iconic restaurant to move on to another venture in Bangkok, serving his last dinner service on 30 April. While the food world waits in eager anticipation for the big project debuting next year, the good news for Hong Kongers is that a variation of David Thompson’s Nahm will live on closer to home. His debut Hong Kong restaurant, Aaharn is weeks away from opening in the reopened Tai Kwun compound, and may even be serving up a few signature dishes from the Nahm menu.

Aaharn, which translates simply to “food” in Thai, has potential to be one of the most exciting openings of the year (in a giant year moored by a handful of celebrity chef openings including Virgilio Martinez’ ICHU Peru) — not just for its star power, but for Thompson’s manifesto to adhere 100% to the authentic local Thai flavours and ingredients he’s known for (“It’s in my DNA,” says Thompson). That means no dumbing down of recipes, adjusting seasonings for the Hong Kong palate, and nary a pad Thai in sight. Recently in Hong Kong to start putting together the nuts and bolts, we took the opportunity to sit down with the seasoned chef in the Aaharn dining room — still very much a work in progress — to chat about the menu, what defines integrity in the kitchen, and what first attracted Thompson to the city in which he’s lived for more than 30 years now.

Your restaurants including Nahm and Long Chim stretch from Singapore to Sydney. What brought you to Hong Kong as the next destination for your growing restaurant enterprise?

How could anyone resist Hong Kong? I’ve always liked Hong Kong because it’s a town that’s got soul. It’s dirty, it’s grubby, it’s disregardful. If you get in its way it’s going to run you over like a Chinese merchant with his trolley. It’s got character, it’s a real city — not like other cities that don’t have soul or substance but are just manufactured. Hong Kong is as grubby and as attractive as Bangkok is.

The opportunity arose here — and who could resist a space like this, with that pavilion ground outside? It’s a rarity in Hong Kong. From a business point of view, so many restaurants fall into problems because of the rapacious landlord who increases the rent annually, doubling it at times. That completely cripples a business. Well, we know our rent. We’ve got a multi-year lease, so we’re really, really fortunate to be in the position to know what we’re doing, that the rent won’t be gazumped, or crucified, or destroyed. 

Tell us a bit about the concept behind Aaharn.

We had intended to do another Long Chim, which is the restaurants we have outside of Thailand, focusing on rough ‘n’ ready street food that you would find in Bangkok. But you’ve got a few of those places already here, and when we looked at this, we thought no it’s not going to work. For one thing, the firepower down in the kitchen didn’t allow us to have a full menu. And a whole raft of other reasons that caused us to reconsider what we do here. While moving out of Nahm into another venture in Bangkok next year, I thought well, why don’t we do just some proper, traditional, regular Thai food — food that’s based on rice. That’s my bread and butter. 

This place, the building, and the city demanded something else, something new. And so that’s when Aaharn was born — it’s kind of like food that’s very similar to Nahm, but less complicated, more streamlined, and more honed.

What constitutes Thai food "based on rice"?

Kub Khao [“with rice”] is what they call it in Thailand, essentially means dishes meant to be eaten with rice — this can include salads, soups, relishes, curries, etc. It’s the very thing that Nahm is based on. Whereas street food is based upon noodles and rice, and a whole range of snacks, etc. Here, at least upstairs in the restaurant it’ll be a bit more formal — structured and traditional and correct. Food that would be recognised easily by Thais as traditional thai food. Whereas downstairs we’ll have more snacks — also Thai but a little bit more relaxed.

The sweet, spicy and sour Thai dishes encompassing salads, soups and curries are meant to be eating “with rice”, called “Kub Khao” in Thai.
So you'll be sticking to the authentic recipes?

I can’t help but do that. It’s not only in my DNA, it’s in my manifesto, it’s in every claim, it’s in every pore, it’s in every execution and in every expression. Everytime I cook I try and be as faithful as possible to a cuisine that I love. 

However it’ll be a more limited menu than at Nahm. There we had up to 45 items on the menu, we had 30 people in the kitchen for God’s sake and 30 people on the floor! So we had a lot of possibilities. Here its quite different, there’s only 8 or 9 people in the kitchen, and it’ll be a more streamlined menu, with less selection — that sounds rather strange, but in fact there will be about 25 items on the menu which is consistent with most restaurants. I want to make sure the food is authentic, faithful and correct — but also accessible.

Will we see any of the dishes from Nahm?

Perhaps. There will be some dishes we have had at Nahm, but Aaharn will be developing its own character and its own repertoire, and its own connection. And that why I’m going to up here for quite some time, when I come back from Mexico City I’m here probably another two months working with the cooks downstairs to achieve something. I need to pay the city its dues, the customers the respect, and the staff the support of me being here.

Can you tell us about any specific dishes?

We’re still developing it, but everything will be fresh. We’re making our own curry paste, flown up from Bangkok from our factory — that sounds formal, but in fact it’s really good curry paste! The coconut cream is fresh. Everything that we do will be as best as we can. We’re playing with curries today so there will be a minced curry with lots of ginger, we’re looking at a massaman curry. They’re curries that most people will be familiar with, but because they’re made by hand I’m hoping that it will sing in such a way that people that understand Thai food will enjoy it and those who have not yet had proper Thai food based upon fresh ingredients will hopefully find it just as enthralling, delicious and surprising as I still do. 

Thai curries similar to those at Nahm will feature on the menu at Aaharn.
You've lived in Bangkok for over 30 years. Do you still find the food as surprising as you did when you first moved to the city?

Absolutely, I still love being there. When I first moved to Bangkok, I was enthralled by the cuisine, the culture, the people and all aspects of that happy place called Thailand. It actually wasn’t the food that first seduced me. It was just the insouciance of the people, I liked the languid way in which they lived, where they marched to a different rhythm. Their priorities are quite different from the stupid, rationalistic, western way — particularly Australian way — that I was used to. It was just so different, it was exciting, thrilling and unpredictable and I loved it.

It was only after 6 to 8 months of living there that I started to become more interested in the food. I was a cook before then, but I never really thought that I’d match with Thai food. That was back in the 1980s. My understanding of Thai food was like most people then: of green curry chicken, fish sticks, and pad Thai. And they weren’t that impressive. I used to think the most impressive, the most important cooking in the world was from France or Italy — how wrong was I? I’ve come to specialise in Thai food but of course there’s Chinese food, there’s Indian food, there’s Persian food. There’s so many rare cuisines that are far beyond the essential understanding of an Australian cook in the 1980s or indeed what the world had in the 1980s too.

My particular province is Thailand and it’s one of the world’s great cuisines. The more I explore it, the more I understand it, the more I see of it — the more convinced I am that it is just a remarkable cuisine that’s an expression of universal culture and of creativity. I just love it.

You've gained countless accolades and awards throughout your career, including reaching the top spot on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. Is making lists such as 50 Best or Michelin one of your goals for Aaharn?

I find the pursuit of awards and accolades a little bit specious and a bit dangerous actually. You should be cooking for its own sake and most of the good cooks I know, certainly those whom I respect, cook for its own sake. Of course it would be disingenuous not to feel warm and gratified to receive some type of acknowledgement. Everybody wants a pat on the head once or twice. But to do it for the accolade is a false approach, it’s a specious and hollow approach, and its a dangerous one because fame and recognition changes all the time. And if you do it because of the desire to be recognised, when the highlight is the recognition — when the focus of people moves on to something else, what’re you left with? Just rejection. So it’s a dangerous thing to pursue a career based upon the desire to be recognised or to be famous. It can only lead to disappointment.

I’ve been cooking now for 35 years and I’ve gone through several times where people focused on me, and then they moved on. Focused on me, and then moved on. It hasn’t changed what I’ve been doing, nor should it. You enjoy it whilst it’s there but you don’t rely upon it, and you know it’s something that’s transitory. 

Do you think there's parts of Thai cuisine you have left to discover, and dishes left to learn?

Absolutely! Whether it’s eating on the streets of Bangkok, or in old recipe books and so on. The more I know, the less I know. And also I’m reaching the fortunate age where I don’t care if I don’t know that much, and I have no shame in saying I don’t know that much because I never fully will. I don’t have the bombast or the bravado or the pretence of younger cooks that need to say ‘I know everything’. I now am at ease with saying that but I like the discovery of it.

Q&A: David Thompson on preserving the integrity of Thai cuisine at Aaharn, his debut Hong Kong restaurant

Leslie Yeh

Editor in Chief

Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.

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