You would assume that by starting more jobs than most experience in a lifetime, I would’ve become immune to first day nerves. Nothing can compare to the terrifying moment I first stepped inside a professional kitchen, but when I walked into Nahm, Asia’s best restaurant, the feeling certainly came close. It was not, however, the intimidating prospect of cooking in a restaurant of this calibre that caused me concern. As I entered the kitchen a grubby print-out caught my eye. Twinned with a portrait of a young Marco Pierre-White, arguably the most anxiety inducing figure 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 did not serve as 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. “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 towards 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”. Despite my heart still racing, I now felt at ease. I had a feeling this was going to be a good week.
Whereas my last kitchen Issaya reinvented ‘Thai classics’ with modern techniques and international influences, Nahm takes 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. David respects traditional techniques, honours 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 it must take an awful lot of bollocks to preach of authenticity to Thais on home turf, but with such critical acclaim, David has proven through his skill and scholarship that with great risks comes great reward.
Working in such a revered restaurant I had anticipated reacquainting myself with my favourite 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 I’ve met on my travels and with David’s intricacies and fanatical attention to detail it become mind-blowingly complex. 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 (note not flavour).
Such attention to detail results in curries of striking distinction and depth of flavour. Too often Thai restaurants in the UK serve curries with a homogenous taste drowned in coconut milk and overtly sweetened with excessive amounts of palm sugar. Chef Prin also told me that over the past 50 years a similar thing has also occurred in Thailand which is why they are so concerned with history and tradition. Whether it be 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 oozed of salty goodness and spice. Here is one dish that was close to extinction before David put it on the menu – now you have restaurants all over the world taking inspiration from it.
While the curries celebrated a slow and low approach, my time on the soup station was 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, such as the Tom Yum of chicken mushroom and blue prawn, I’m talking toilet paper in the freezer type spice.
David makes no apologies for the level of spice used. To him, taming of spices would be akin to asking a French wine maker to water down their Bordeaux. An evening on the salad station highlighted this with the buckets of fresh chilies and spicy sauces coating the salads. A chef portioned off a sample of the wagyu beef with cucumber mint and sour leaf which was so spicy I could feel the previous night’s Chang instantly sweat out of my pores. Other less spicy offerings 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.)
While writing this post Nahm was awarded 13th place on the World Top 50 Restaurant list. While such lists are not without criticism, the chart toppers certainly influence how people view and cook food. In the case of Nahm, David Thompson has led a renaissance of thai cuisine, from within the homeland in which it was born. Not only will this inspire generations of chefs (indeed many have left to open successful restaurants) but Nahm’s place in the world top 50 provides the perfect platform to spread the taste of authentic Thai food internationally.
On my last night I stopped to read the article that had induced such dread the first moment I walked in the kitchen. At the core of the argument it suggested bloggers would do well to step inside chef shoes for a minute 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 find out.