Ask Vir Ask Vir

Why was an Australian taking Thai food to the world?

If you have eaten Thai food outside of Thailand, at a halfway decent restaurant (as distinct from a cheap takeaway)

then the man you have to thank for how the food is selected, organised and served is —bizarrely enough —an Australian.

The Sydney-born David Thompson is one of the food world’s legends, honoured all over the globe including a Lifetime Achievement Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016.


   None of this has to do with the cuisine of his native Australia (whatever that may be). It is his role in popularising Thai food and inventing a new kind of Thai menu which is now adopted by most good restaurants around the world that has won him acclaim and admiration.


   Thompson made his reputation in the 1990s with a restaurant called Darley Street Thai in Sydney which was renowned for the excellence of its authentic Thai cuisine. It was not that the food of Thailand was unknown till that point. But most of the Thai food you got outside of Thailand (and in tourist-friendly places in Thailand) was restricted to Pad Thai, Prawn Red Curry and Tom Yum Soup. It was the Thai equivalent of Chop Suey and Sweet and Sour Pork. With the Darley Street Thai, Thompson demonstrated to the English-speaking world that Thai was actually one of the world’s great cuisines, full of complexity and flavour but one that foreigners rarely got to eat.


   Not many global foodies went to Sydney in those days but Thompson cooked all around the world and his food always surprised people who thought they knew what Thai food was. Then in 2001, Thompson opened Nahm at the Halkin Hotel in London and created an immediate sensation. Nobody in England had any idea that serious Thai food could be so complex and a Michelin star arrived within six months. As strange as it seems now, it was the first time a Thai restaurant anywhere in the world had ever won a Michelin star.


   Which begs the obvious question: why was an Australian taking Thai food to the world?


   The answer has to do with the time Thompson spent in Thailand in the 1980s and the 1990s. He was fortunate enough, he says, to be invited to eat with food-loving Thai families and realised that the food they made at home never made it to restaurant menus. He started to research the cuisine and located old cookbooks and ancient family recipes. The Thai food he began cooking bore little resemblance to what had passed for Thai cuisine at restaurants till then.


   To see it in perspective, think of a white chef who thinks of Indian food only in terms of Chicken Tikka Masala. He then comes to India, lives with Indian families and realises that the food we really eat has damn-all to do with curry-house food abroad.


   That is the sort of journey Thompson went through.


   I met Thomson first as an enthusiastic guest at Nahm and later in Singapore at the then-famous Gourmet Summit. He was one of the featured stars and arrived a few days early only to discover that his chefs were not going to be able to make it because of flight disruptions.


   David went ahead anyway with the pop-up at Mezza 9 at the Hyatt, and cooked every single dish himself.  It was the single best Thai meal I had eaten. Thompson was stressed and exhausted but determined to honour his commitment to the organisers.


   The success of the London Nahm led the owners of the Halkin to take Nahm to Bangkok. I went a month after it had opened and found David a little bemused by the torrent of abuse he had received from Thai trolls who were offended that a white man had dared to cook their food.


 "The admiration that Thai street food now receives all over the world is almost entirely down to David."

   The trolls couldn’t keep up the attack: the food was actually very good and the more thoughtful Thai food writers all said so. Moreover the restaurant was packed out night after night with Thai guests, who were happy to eat authentic renditions of traditional and rarely-found dishes.


   Slowly but surely Bangkok fell in love with Thompson. Nahm became the number one restaurant in Asia. Another Michelin star followed and the world (including Thais) accepted that David Thompson had worked hard to get Thai cuisine the credit and global status it deserves.


   David is now a bona fide food legend, having launched many trends. First of all, no upmarket Thai restaurant menu will restrict itself to Pad Thai and Tom Yum now that David has shown that the world will accept more complicated Thai food.


   Secondly, his Michelin star encouraged more adventurous Thai chefs to open world class restaurants. David cleared the path for the Sorns and the Le Dus of the world. Thirdly, the current global trend of white-boys-cooking-Thai food has its roots in the Nahm kitchen. Many of the exemplars of this trend started out working for David.


   And fourth, the admiration that Thai street food now receives all over the world is almost entirely down to David. He wrote the definitive book on the subject and his international Long Chim restaurants (launched post-Nahm) celebrated Thai street food.


   It’s impossible, of course, to get David to accept any of this. In person, he sways between being charming and a bit of a curmudgeon (“but I can be a bit of a rapscallion” he suggests, hopefully) while refusing to talk about himself or his massive contributions to the global food scene.


   We spent several evenings together in Goa last week and each time the subject turned to him, he deftly steered the conversation away. I told him that Gaggan Aanad had taken me to Aksorn, David’s current Michelin-starred Bangkok restaurant and he spoke about Gaggan instead, (“I really admire what he has done to Indian food”). I said that when Heston Blumenthal went to Bangkok on his honeymoon earlier this year, he ate at Aksorn (with David) and raved to me about the food. David chose instead to talk about Melanie Blumenthal, Heston’s wife, (“She is the best thing to have happened to Heston”).


   The reluctance to talk about his food or himself do not distract from the passion and discipline he brings to the kitchen. Over a dozen of Rohit Khattar’s chefs have been in Bangkok training with David for over a month and they told me about the rigour he insisted on in the kitchen.


   The first of the Khattar-Thompson restaurants opens in Goa anytime now. It’s called Fireback and Rohit has kept the prices low so that, despite the surroundings (it is a stunning restaurant), and the legend of David Thompson, pretty much any foodie who goes to Goa can afford to eat there.


   The Goa Fireback is the first of many Firebacks that Rohit will open all over India. Hyderabad will be next and David and Rohit were looking at sites in Mumbai last week. I am hoping they will soon open in Delhi where we don’t have a single good Thai restaurant.


   Rohit has created the two Indian Accents, which are India’s best restaurants and he now has Hosa, an excellent modern South Indian restaurant in Goa so he knows a thing or two about running high quality establishments. While he will roll out more Hosas and Comorins (his fun Indian brand) all over the country, the one he is really enthusiastic about is Fireback.


   And David loves India. He has been here several times. He cooked at Mumbai’s Thai Pavilion in the 1990s and did a pop-up in Bangalore a couple of decades ago.


   He has always been open about his preferences so he remembers asking his Bangalore hotel if they knew of a gay bar he could go to. Of course, they said and gave him directions.


   As he approached the address, he was a little taken aback to hear loud music. And he was more surprised when he entered to find that many of the patrons had dreadlocks.


   Finally, he worked it out.


   The hotel had sent him to a reggae bar!


   Wouldn’t happen in India today, I told him.



Posted On: 22 Dec 2023 10:30 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi