David Thompson first arrived in Thailand nearly three decades ago. After serendipitously meeting and then collaborating with Khun Sombat Janphetchara, a female cook educated in one of the many Bangkok palaces, he began researching the roots and traditions of Thai cuisine, many of which were documented poorly, if at all.RESTORING THE DIVERSITY OF THAI COOKING
”Thai food is so diverse. The repertoire is, in fact, broad and varied, changing from location to location. It is as regional as Italian. Many Thai restaurants today cater to what people like, and delicious though it might be, it doesn’not convey the true diversity of Thai cooking.”
David Thompson, the global champion of Thai food, arrived in Thailand almost by accident nearly three decades ago. The young Australian chef enjoyed the experience so much he moved there shortly after.
“I arrived in Bangkok in the 1980s, and it was wonderfully unpredictable,” he recalls. “Foreign and strange indeed, but also exotic and alluring. It was, and is, such a nebulous city and inspires so many different feelings.”
A serendipitous meeting with Khun Sombat Janphetchara—the grandmother of a friend of his partner, Tanongsak—introduced him to the complex variety of Thai cooking. Ever since meeting Khun Sombat, affectionately called Khun Yai (grandma), David has been at the vanguard of Thai cooking—its promotion and preservation—and his name has become synonymous with Thai cuisine. He has opened award-winning restaurants in London, Sydney and Bangkok, penned cookbooks, collected and restored ancient recipes and trained an entire brigade of young chefs, many of whom have gone on to achieve great success themselves.
“My introduction to Khun Sombat changed everything,” says David. “She cooked with such deft skill, such poise, such elegance of seasoning. Her cooking indicated to me that there was something more to Thai food than the take-outs, green curries and the dishes one associated with Thai food back then.”
After learning the fundamentals of Thai cooking from Khun Sombat, whom David describes as “so tough she’d make Gordon Ramsay look like a pussycat,” he continued to read and research, furthering his understanding of this vast and varying cuisine. He consumed cookbooks and historical documents with a scholarly dedication, immersing himself in a foreign culture that had seemingly cast a spell on him.
Cooking in Thailand during the time of David’s arrival was never about entertaining, career progression or building restaurant brands and reputation. Thailand didn’t have restaurants until very recently, and even in homes people employed cooks and didn’t go out to eat. If people couldn’t afford servants, then the women of the house would cook.
“It was a sign of a poorly-run household if you ate out too often,” says David. “Women would learn to cook in one of the many palaces, preparing food for people of higher rank. Maybe they’d cook for their husbands or for monks but it was never a profession.”
David went about researching and documenting traditional and royal household recipes and strived to learn the culinary techniques handed down from generation to generation. Very few recipes were ever written down. However, dating back to King Rama V 1881, it’s been customary to create memorial books to honor the deceased and they often included a wealth of recipes. David acquired as many of these books as he could get his hands on, gradually gaining a solid understanding of Thailand’s rich culinary tradition. Today, he has the most extensive collection of Thai ”cookbooks” and recipes in the world, including more than 600 rare and ancient recipe books.
“Two or three generations ago, there was far more variety. Thai food is, in fact, broad and varied, changing from location to location; as regional as Italian. Many Thai restaurants today cater to what people like, and delicious though it might be, it doesn’t convey the true diversity of Thai cooking.”
David furthered his study by examining street food and royal recipes and traveled extensively across the country to understand how the regions varied and how this affected the ingredients and techniques used. In the food markets and street stalls, David tasted and tested a wide spectrum of Thai cooking, noting the diverse flavor palate and the subtleties in recipes; how dishes dance effortlessly from sweet and sour to spicy, salty and bitter.
“When I’m eating street food, my choices are rather prosaic. I like fried rice, crab and noodle soup, especially with fish dumplings. A dish I love is minced beef with holy basil, plus a stupefying amount of chillies with a fried egg and a bowl of rice—this to me is the quintessence of Bangkok food.”
In 1991, David returned to Sydney and opened his first restaurant, Darley Street Thai, an instant success, and a destination for in-the-know gastro-travelers, thanks to its authentic approach to Thai food. Ten years later, David moved to London to open Nahm—“Water” in Thai—at COMO Halkin Hotel in Belgravia. It became the first Thai restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin star, cementing David’s reputation as an international ambassador for Thai cuisine.
His first cookbook, Thai Food, was published in 2002. A magnum opus, it featured hundreds of lesser-known but equally authentic and delicious dishes, accompanied by photography by Earl Carter: a celebration of the Thai culture. The book won the 2003 James Beard Award.
Having earned a worldwide following for his ground-breaking Sydney and London restaurants, as well as for his encyclopedic tomes on Thai food, David decided to return to Bangkok. He opened his second Nahm restaurant at The Metropolitan hotel, offering an elegant and accessible menu that celebrated Thai cuisine’s many regional flavors. It ranked No.1 on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants listing in 2014.
David’s second book, Thai Street Food: Authentic Recipes, Vibrant Traditions, takes readers straight into the bustling heart of Thailand’s colorful street stalls and markets, it features almost 100 authentic Thai dishes. The book was described by The New York Times Book Review as, “Bigger than a motorbike and just as transporting, Thompson’s book is a love letter to the street food of Bangkok.”
Translating this knowledge to a restaurant offering, David established Long Chim—“Come and Taste” in Thai—at Marina Bay Sands Singapore in 2015, evoking the mouthwatering roadside eateries and vibrant street markets of Bangkok. Long Chim has now opened its doors in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and more outposts are underway.
Earlier this year, David ended his 18-year relationship with Como Hotels and Nahm, leaving the much-acclaimed restaurant at its zenith. Although everyone is waiting for a new major restaurant venture to be announced, his focus for now is more academic, working behind the scenes instead of fronting kitchens. One vehicle for protecting the legacy of Thai food is through his group, Aylmer Aaharn, which he co-founded in 2014. It aims to preserve and promote Thai culinary traditions, from farming and sourcing authentic Thai ingredients, to processing and distributing genuine food products.
Mexican food is a universe in itself, spanning a vast diversity of regional produce, ingredients and traditions, some pre-Columbian. Yet, sophistication is not what first comes to mind when imaging Mexican food, but rather frozen Margaritas, nachos and guacamole, which may be more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican.
Enrique Olvera is about to change all that. He successively redefines and elevates this ancient and rustic cooking into contemporary gastronomy, with full respect for its roots and unique qualities. With a little tweaking from the inspired hands of Chef Olvera the legacy of Mexican cooking plays out in new and sometimes unexpected ways at his restaurants, especially at Pujol in Mexico City. Based on his stock of native ingredients like heirloom corn, wild herbs and greens, rare endemic seeds, nuts, chillies, and indeed insects like maguey worms and flying chicatana ants, he is not only moving Mexican cuisine forward, but expanding our notion of food itself.
A hallmark of his cooking is recognizing street food as a major culinary asset. By analysing its flavours in-depth he unceasingly works on enhancing these rustic dishes, sometimes to higher clarity, sometimes to deeper complexity. Inspiration is right around the corner. Nowhere is the varied abundance of regional Mexican food more evident than in the streets of Mexico City, today the home of more than 22 million people from all over the country, all of them bringing the flavours of their regions to their pots.
At Pujol, his new restaurant in Mexico City’s elegant Polanco district – which is strikingly modern in a Zen way and more casual than its predecessor by 16 years – the signature dishes demonstrate Olvera’s longstanding commitment to unlocking the secrets of regional Mexican “grandma cooking”. The tasting menu opens up with some glorious street snacks, including smoked baby corn served on sticks in a hollowed out gourd with a chilli mayonnaise, remarkably deep in umami from ant powder.
The iconic highlight is the mole madre, essentially a mole negro that has been cooking on Olvera’s stoves for more than 3 years – and still is, and which continues to deepen in complexity. A triumph of flavour, it is presented in a dark aromatic ring with a freshly made mole in the middle, both of which one wipes up in hot hoja santa (“sacred leaf”) tortillas, and eats as tacos. In Mexico a taco is not a dish, it’s a way of eating.
Chef Olvera has described his mole madre as an organism: old, but alive and still kicking. This is the perfect metaphor for Mexican cuisine itself.
Pujol. Tennyson 133. Polanco 11550, Mexico City, Mexico. Tel: +52 (55) 5545 4111. www.pujol.com.mx
Click here to see previous Global Gastronomy Award laureates.
The Global Gastronomy Award was initially intended to be just an addition to the many yearly awards that White Guide bestows on talented chefs in the Swedish community, our own international prize, recognising someone who has influenced the evolution of gastronomy in our part of the world. Sweden is known for always being open to the outside world, that applies to everything from lifestyle trends to granting asylum to refugees from war-torn countries – and yes, we occasionally kick off trends of our own.
If any contemporary chef represents what the Global Gastronomy Award aims to be, it is Dan Barber, our 2016 laureate. As much a food philosopher and researcher as a chef, he is championing a reboot of our entire food chain, not only to achieve a sustainable sourcing system but also to capture flavours, both long lost and new. His cuisine and thinking are equally radical – the very definition of gastronomy beyond.
Almost instantly it took on a life of its own. The Global Gastronomy Award was initially intended to be just an addition to the many yearly awards that White Guide bestows on talented chefs in the Swedish community, our own international prize, recognising someone who has influenced the evolution of gastronomy in our part of the world. Sweden is known for always being open to the outside world, that applies to everything from lifestyle trends to granting asylum to refugees from war-torn countries – and yes, we occasionally kick off trends of our own.
But being a genius in the kitchen is not enough to receive this award. There must be a philosophy and relevant applications outside of what is being served on the plate. Beyond gastronomy. Perhaps this is the secret of the award’s success. Again, Ferran Adrià set the example – an example that would prove difficult to follow. His kitchen evolved into a laboratory for food-related particle physics whose results often seemed to defy conventional physical laws. In fact, in wintertime, when the restaurant was closed, Ferran Adrià joined his brother Albert and key members of his team in El Taller, a workshop entirely focused on experiments
that has now evolved into the ElBulliLab, an ambitious endeavour indeed. ElBulli itself has morphed into the ElBulli Foundation, no longer a restaurant but a think-tank with ambitions to all but change the world for the better.
Charlie Trotter was one of America’s most prominent chefs. While most famous perhaps for towering dishes vertically, his approach to giving veggies the lead in his cooking was more significant. He pioneered the use of heirloom vegetables, in doing so he opened the eyes and palates of many epicureans and kicked off the search back in time for the true roots of flavour. Charlie Trotter is no longer with us, the only Global Gastronomy laureate to have irrevocably left the scene.
There is an underlying theme of sustainability in almost all the achievements honoured by the Global Gastronomy Award. For Fergus Henderson, the chef-philosopher of the legendary St. John in London, sustainability is a major consideration. His much-acclaimed “The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating” argues that we should focus on the lesser parts of the animals we kill to eat, not only because they impart more flavour when cooked right, but also out of respect for the animals and concern over the environmental impacts of livestock over-production.
Few chefs today match René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma when it comes to influencing colleagues and savvy eaters all over the world. As one of the signatories of the original New Nordic Manifesto in 2004, he became its foremost interpreter, arguing that we don’t have to transport standardised foodstuffs across the earth, as there are plenty of seasonal, flavour-packed ingredients at closer proximity. Foraging became a household word and Redzepi made the cover of TIME Magazine in 2012, recognised as one of the world’s most influential people. Noma dethroned ElBulli, taking the top spot in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking in 2010, ElBulli subsequently closed. Noma itself has now been deposed and is shutting down to re-open as an urban farm in the middle of Copenhagen. Noma’s reincarnation as a farm is just as logical a step as ElBulli becoming a full-fledged research foundation. Gastronomy forward, gastronomy beyond.
France as a nation has not spearheaded evolution in gastronomy for almost three decades, but some of its brightest star chefs have. Alain Passard of L’Arpège in Paris is one of them. A pioneer in abandoning red meat altogether at his establishment, he turned to cultivating his own gardens, bringing the flavours of their terroir along with carefully pruned and selected cultivars to the plate – adding a winemaker’s approach to sourcing and cooking.
David Chang of the Momofuko restaurants in New York is also a cultivator, though on a microscopic level full of spores and enzymes. In Korea mould and fermentation are basic household techniques for preserving and preparing food, and Chang – being of Korean descent – has worked extensively on understanding the role of microbiology in flavour creation, both in his restaurants and in the food laboratory where he collaborates with Harvard University. The ever-evolving result is “New York umami”, building on the multi-ethnic microcosm of the New York trottoir-terroir, it is as alive and kicking as a neon-fueled Saturday night on the town.
Gastón Acurio, the Peruvian chef-entrepreneur is mostly celebrated for his top establishment Astrid y Gastón in Lima, though he also runs a growing restaurant empire with 30+ establishments all over the world. He is a mega-celebrity in his home country. And rightly so. Few have contributed so widely to the global fame of Peru’s abundantly rich gastronomy, or taken so many local initiatives, helping farmers and fishermen, schooling underprivileged children and turning gastronomy into a national sport equivalent to soccer in Brazil. In national polls the Peruvians have repeatedly expressed their wish to make Acurio President, a man who has proven he can create change for the better. Gastronomy forward, gastronomy beyond.
Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is today ranked #1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, has been many chefs most beloved chef for years. This is not only because he is a lovely, fascinating person, but also because he is continuously reinventing Italian food - the world’s favourite, and one of the most conservative cuisines. To promote Italian gastronomy, Bottura fights fiercely to save the unique Italian habitats that provide its many delicacies, the river Po and its threatened fragile delta system as well as parts of Northern Italy, for instance.
Farther north on our globe, in the Swedish “alps”, at Fäviken Magasinet, Magnus Nilsson builds his stunning gastronomy on an historical fight to survive on the meagre yields of poor soil, a condition intensified by long winters and a short season of light that has forced people to rely on their own ingenuity and what nature provides from forests and lakes. Nilsson has turned the old necessity of self-sustenance into culinary science and art, suggesting that a new Little Ice Age may well be preferable to a global +4° scenario, whichever strikes first.
Its ten-year history has covered critical achievements in the evolution of global gastronomy, which would simply not be where it is today without the work of these brilliant chefs. The jury’s justifications for awarding the laureates read:
“By exploring, recording and restoring the rich and partly lost treasures of traditional Thai cooking – from royal cuisine to street food – David Thompson has identified the key building blocks and original paths of an integrated Thai gastronomy that bridges the past and the future.”
“For having elevated Mexican classics and beloved street food to new heights, bridging modesty and sophistication, hindsight and modernity – and for bringing the rich spectrum of regional fare into the limelight, including indigenous and ancient delicacies, whose secrets he has successfully unlocked.”
For sharing his deep insights into the challenges we face regarding
food sustainability and for his many initiatives to retrieve lost flavor
treasures and conceive of new ones. Long celebrated as the father
of the farm-to-table movement, he has realized that the current
approach to local ecological sourcing is not enough to secure health
and wellbeing – for us or our habitats. We need to rethink our entire
approach to food, based on nature’s own laws and cycles. It is not
about nostalgia – but strict science.
For having developed a unique and personal gastronomy, as glorious as the Northern lights, and extracting the innermost secrets of his local woods, fields and waters, with the deepest understanding of terroir, the potential for and the margins of sustainability, leaving the doorway ajar to the parallel universe of microbiology.
For continuously reinventing Italian food – one of the world’s most beloved cuisines, through a constant dialogue with a rich but conservative tradition, from which he extracts a dazzling culinary artistry, covering a range of expressions from the decep- tively simple to the intellectually complex – bridging history with the future.
For having articulated an expressive and forward-looking local gastronomy, la Cocina Novoandina, which marries traditional and unexpected ingredients from the depths of the Pacific, the heights of the Andes, and the jungles of the Amazon, many of them with the potential to help solve our health and food provi- sion issues – as well as for his many initiatives to provide educa- tion for young people in South America.
For having created an inspiring, delicious and entertaining synergy between the here and there, the down-to-earth and the upscale, and the present and the past, with a research-based, neo-fusion cuisine that has its roots in the rich ethnic diversity of the contemporary world city – and for beginning to map the urban terroir.
For having created a brilliant synthesis between his kitchen and his garden, between the treasures of the “terroir” and the adventures of the table. And for having trained and inspired young chefs from all over the world – not least from the Nordics – to humbly listen to the music from the soil.
For having inspired, educated and fostered young chefs in the Nordics – and from all over the world – to explore their own surroundings for flavourful edibles that were forgotten, ignored or overlooked and thus trigger the unlocking of the many locavore treasure chests that can be found all over the world.
For having inspired chefs and amateurs all over the world to source and cook responsibly based on common sense, thrift and respect for the animals we eat: to have the decency to eat all of them once we slaughter them, and for demonstrating how the richest flavour can be distilled from the simplest and oddest cuts.
For having created a contemporary ‘green gastronomy’ and having demonstrated that vegetables alone can create culinary experiences of great depth and complexity and, in addition, for his work with organically grown heirloom vegetables, which has helped us all to reclaim a lost kingdom of sensory abundance.
For having totally revolutionised the gastronomy of the 21nd century and redefined what a top restaurant experience can be all about, by rethinking everything from what to cook, how to cook – or not – how to present, and how to eat, based on a unique combination of research and artistry in the kitchen, and matched by an equally re-engineered dining room experience.