A Chef's Tale: Inside Asia's Best Restaurant
As I entered the kitchen at Nahm in Bangkok, Thailand, a grubby print-out caught my eye. Twinned with a portrait of a young Marco Pierre-White, one of the most anxiety-inducing figures to chefs, the headline read “How Chefs Feel About Food Critics and Food Bloggers”. I froze in terror. Had I entered the lion’s den? Surely this was not a good omen for the week ahead.
Before I could read the accompanying article, I felt a tap on my shoulder. This was it, the moment I would be thrown to a band of angry chefs where I would suffer a tirade of abuse on behalf of my industry.
You would assume that by starting more jobs than most experience in a lifetime, I would’ve become immune to first-day nerves. I thought that nothing would compare to the terrifying moment when I first stepped inside a professional kitchen. Yet walking into Nahm, Asia’s best restaurant and recently declared thirteenth-best on the planet on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, was equally as terrifying; however, it wasn’t the intimidating prospect of cooking in a restaurant of this caliber that caused me concern.
“Welcome, chef. I brought you a coffee, one of the waiters is fetching you some fresh fruit juice. Have you had breakfast? We can make you a snack if you like.” What? Me? Was there some confusion? The chef glanced toward Marco, then to me and smiled, “Don’t worry. Look at where you are. Look at your whites. While you’re with us you’re a cook, not a blogger.”
I instantly felt at ease: I was one of them.
At my job working in the kitchen at Issaya, we reinvented “Thai classics” with modern techniques and international influences, whereas the chefs working at Nahm take the opposite approach. Chef David Thompson plays the role of culinary scholar, creating food from old world Thai recipes that serve a taste of authentic Thailand. Thompson respects traditional techniques, honors forgotten ingredients, and a gives a voice to regional and specialist cuisine. No sous vide, no fancy foams, and certainly no liquid nitrogen puddings. The menu consists of salads, soups, relishes, curries and desserts. As an Australian, Thompson must have an awful lot of confidence to preach authenticity to Thais on their home turf, but with such critical acclaim, Thompson has proven through his skill and scholarship that with great risks comes great reward.
I had anticipated that while working at Nahm I would be reacquainting myself with my favorite pastime of herb picking. But on this occasion, head chef Prin volunteered me as the saucier’s apprentice assisting with the curry station. Thai food is arguably the most complex cuisine I’ve met on my travels and with Thompson’s intricacies and fanatical attention to detail it became mind-blowingly so. Spices are roasted individually, pastes are made by hand, the meat is cooked twice prior to combining it with the sauce and the potatoes and shallots are pre-grilled over coals with aromatics. All of the ingredients are slowly combined in a methodical process, adjusting the seasoning with fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind, and sprinkling ground spices for added aroma (not flavor).