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).


Such attention to detail results in curries of striking distinction and depth of flavor. Too often Thai restaurants in the U.K. serve curries with a homogenous taste drowned in coconut milk that are overtly sweetened with excessive amounts of palm sugar. Chef Prin also told me that throughout the past 50 years a similar curry trend has been happening in Thailand, which is why they are so concerned with history and tradition. Be it the Guinea fowl curry with rare shampoo ginger, or the spicy jungle curry of salted beef and fresh green peppercorns, each curry at Nahm presents a different taste sensation. And don't even get me started on the umami rich smoked fish innards curry with chicken liver, prawn, and cockles that exuded salty goodness and spice. This was one dish that was close to extinction before Thompson put it on the menu. Now, restaurants all over the world are taking inspiration from it.

While the curries at Nahm celebrate a slow and low approach, the soup station is the opposite. The soups were cooked to order in a matter of minutes to beguile diners with their freshness and fragrance. From the clear soup of tender duck, slippery young coconut, and Thai basil, to the richer coconut, chicken, green mango, and red chili, the soup chef had me tasting at every stage to see how each one appealed to the Thai tenets of sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. And when something falls into the "spicy" group at Nahm, such as the Tom Yum soup of chicken mushroom and blue prawn, they mean toilet-paper-in-the-freezer spicy. [pullquote:right]

Thompson makes no apologies for the level of spice used. To him, taming spices would be akin to asking a French winemaker to water down his Bordeaux. An evening on the salad station highlighted Thompson's generous use of spices with buckets of fresh chiles and spicy sauces coating the salads. I ate a chef-portioned sample of the Wagyu beef with cucumber mint and sour leaf that was so spicy I could feel the previous night's Chang beer instantly sweat out of my pores. There were less spicy offerings, though, which included crayfish salad with Asian pennywort, minced pork, roasted coconut and coriander root and a cured Hiramasa kingfish salad with lime, mint and ample helpings of finely sliced tender lemongrass.

With so much to learn I barely had any time to work on the stir-fried, grilled and steamed, canapé, and relish sections, but I was able to sneak into the pastry kitchen at the end of most nights. It was here I met my food hell: the Durian fruit. I don't want to say too much because I think you should all give this one a try at some stage. All I'm going to say is they have warning posters banning it from Bangkok transport due to its stench. (If you have tried it, let me know how you found it in the comments below.)

Thompson has led a renaissance of Thai cuisine, from within its homeland no less. Not only will this inspire generations of chefs (indeed, many have left the restaurant's kitchens to open successful restaurants of their own), but Nahm's place among the world's top 50 restaurants provides the perfect opportunity to spread the taste of authentic Thai food internationally.

On my last night working in the kitchen at Nahm, I stopped to read the article that had induced such dread the first moment I walked in the kitchen. The core argument suggested bloggers would do well to step inside chefs' shoes for a night to appreciate how much work goes into making a meal.

Thanks to the generosity of David, Prin, Chris, and all the rest of the team at Nahm, I was able to do just that.