Renowned Thai culinary expert, Australian-born David Thompson is best known as the owner-chef of Nahm Bangkok, voted number one restaurant in Asia in the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards and thirteen in the world in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. As of October 2014 Thompson has also held the role of executive chef of the sleek new 40-passenger Aqua Mekong, which cruises between Siem Reap and Saigon on a seven-night itinerary and Phnom Penh and Saigon over four nights. Lara Dunston caught up with Thompson last week, just after he’d completed a stint on the boat – where he’d installed a new head chef and introduced a new menu – and before he boarded a flight to Singapore, where he’s opening Long Chim, a new street food restaurant, in March.
Question: When did you first come to Cambodia?
Answer: I first visited Siem Reap to see Angkor, as one does, some five or six years ago for a holiday. So not terribly long ago. Then I visited Siem Reap again a couple of times on my way to Battambang during the lead up to the opening of Jaan Bai restaurant in October 2013. I love Cambodia increasingly, the more and more I visit, and it’s my intention to visit more over the next year while working on Aqua and Jaan Bai. I just want to get in a car and drive around the country and have more of a look around. Thailand is my home, but I don’t mind visiting my cousins.
So what are your impressions of Cambodia?
I think I’m falling in love with Cambodia. I must say, I am enamoured of Cambodia. In some ways it’s like Thailand 50 years ago in the haphazard way that people deal with things, but I don’t mind that at all. It can be infuriating when you have to work, but it’s charming when you’re on holidays. I really like Phnom Penh, too. It has that laissez-faire, happy, relaxed feeling. It feels like it’s still part of Cambodia rather than part of the modern, globalised world. Bangkok still feels like it’s part of Thailand, but you can go to some parts and feel like you could be anywhere in the world. Phnom Penh is still very much the large city of Cambodia, and I like that it’s chaotic, raw and dishevelled.
You’re an adviser to the training restaurant Jaan Bai in Battambang – how did that come about?
I was contacted by John Fink of Quay restaurant in Sydney, who was involved, and Tara Winkler, co-founder of Cambodia Children’s Trust, and they invited me to help and provide support and I thought it was a good thing to do. I think as one becomes more successful, one is obliged more than ever to give something back. In Thailand, I’m establishing a culinary library that will hold my collection of old Thai cookbooks so that Thai chefs have access to their culinary repertoire, which they currently don’t. With Jaan Bai, it was to give those poor kids greater opportunities. They are so admirable in so many ways. I don’t know if I could have been through what they have and still have the same sweet, generous nature. I was initially uncertain as to whether it could be done, but they’ve succeeded. I sent one of my chefs there last year for two months and I’m sending another soon.
And what do you think of the Cambodian people?
I adore Cambodians. I like their patience and their disarming frankness. They are far more direct than Thais and their forthrightness can be surprising after the formality and tactfulness of Thais. My guys on the boat tell me I’m fat. They’re very affectionate. And they love to dance! I’ve really developed a great affection for Cambodians, particularly the ones I’m working with. They’re fantastic. I hope to be able to send them to my restaurants to increase their experience. They have great talent, and it’s sad to know that talent may not be realised because of the restrictions Cambodians have when it comes to travelling.
How do you feel about Cambodian cuisine?
Cambodian cuisine is gentle in comparison to Thai cuisine. The degree of seasoning across the board is much slighter and much kinder than Thai food, which verges on the extreme – but it’s meant to, it’s like the Thais themselves, who do have a bit of spice and do have a bit of contentiousness. The gentler cuisine of Cambodia reflects the far more laidback approach that Cambodians have to their life and their eating. I used to think of it as a milder, blander version of Thai. But it’s not. There are enough differences in the dishes for me to now be able to perceive the differences between the cuisines.
Can you give an example?
The green curry. The Cambodian green curry is ravishingly delicious, but it has no chillies in the paste. Its development occurred before chillies arrived, and one reason that chillies aren’t employed as readily in Khmer cooking as they were in Siam was because there wasn’t the trading that was going on that allowed the chilli to spread with such ease and abandon. It has lemongrass, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves, which is quite unusual and doesn’t occur in Thai cooking. Interestingly enough, in all the old Thai cookbooks that I have there are not many green curries until the late 19th century, which I find strange, because now the green curry is regarded as a Thai classic. So I suspect the Thais would have taken that dish from the Cambodians. At the time, [the western Cambodian provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang] were part of Siam, and the Siamese married Khmer princesses, and they would have brought their food with them.
Do you eat out much when you’re here?
Yes, I love Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. Joannès’ food is beautiful and very Cambodian, yet he approaches the presentation and service as a Frenchman. And you don’t see smears or dots or molecular stuff – he really does his own thing. In Phnom Penh, I enjoyed Malis and I’d like to meet Luu Meng. I adored Romdeng – very much so. I loved the prahok k’tis with coconut cream and vegetables on the side. Their rice was beautiful. I’d like to learn more about Cambodian rice.
You’ve got a head chef on the Aqua Mekong, but you’ve still spent a fair bit of time on board. Is that correct?
I feel like I’ve spent months – four weeks at one stage. Putting a chef in place was difficult. It’s a hard job with long hours. It took a lot of work to get it ready in time. We have a small menu, but it’s not restrictive. I wanted to do family style food, because I think the cruise is not about the food but about people enjoying their time together. I’m doing some Thai food because that’s my metier, some Cambodian dishes because that’s the right thing to do, plus a touch of Vietnamese when we’re in Vietnam. And Western stuff, too, so we have a pizza night. I want to introduce a lot more Cambodian dishes, because Thai food can be quite contentious, whereas the gentler Cambodian food will not only please me but I think it will please the guests, too.
Interview by Lara Dunston