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Back to the streets
DAVID Thompson is obsessed with a photo of Whoopi Goldberg. Lying in a tub of milk, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. For some strange reason, he wants to get a copy - signed by Whoopi herself ("we have connections") - in a Rococo frame hung over the toilet bowl of the handicapped restroom in his Singapore flagship restaurant, Long Chim, in Marina Bay Sands.
That Whoopi might not be flattered at the association does not occur to the Australian-born chef-owner of acclaimed Bangkok restaurant Nahm. He thinks his toilet is very nice and anybody should be honoured to have his or her photo hung in it.
Actually, it is. The impact hits you when he slides open a discreet black door and leads you into the largest bathroom you've ever seen - the size of a small bedroom - with the entire wall covered in a surreal mural of a fur-suited child floating in a murky bath in the exact same pose as the actress in the milk bath. Chef Thompson is delighted at the similarities and can't wait to put Goldberg in her, well, rightful place.
Drawn by famous Thai graffiti artists specially flown in from Bangkok, the murals are just part of the throbbing visual experience that greets you at his long-awaited Singapore venture - his first outside Thailand. (Check out the cool murals in the regular restrooms too.) He is still putting the final touches to the restaurant before its official opening on March 16, but when everything is in place, diners will be greeted by a wall of brightly lit images of Bangkok - setting the stage for a street food dining experience.
Anyone expecting a transplant of Nahm will not be getting the right picture as Long Chim is Chef Thompson's ode to the rough and tough, pure flavours of Thailand in its unadulterated glory. There will be no fear of hygiene issues in this interminably hip cocktail-bar-meets-street-hawker hybrid that looks like the brash younger sibling of the stylishly sedate Nahm.
That is the whole idea, says the erudite chef whose restaurant was named Number One at last year's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants - an offshoot of the Restaurant Guide's World's 50 Best. While the three main chefs who have joined him in Singapore to kick off the operations "have come from a rarified environment, I need to knock that s*** out of them and get them into the gutter where they belong because that's the concept".
For him, "It's all about the taste. It's about authenticity and robustness with the same faithfulness as Nahm but it's faithful to a different echelon - the streets rather than the palaces."
So, be prepared for a dining experience that's less than subtle because Long Chim is going to be "fast, fierce, smelly, aggressive - it'll be a bit of a shock and a bit of a jolt, but there'll be enough dishes on the menu (to cater to tamer palates). There'll be noodle soups, fairly delicious stir-fries and yes, even pad Thai". This from a chef notorious for refusing to accede to requests for the street staple in Nahm, not so much because he's a Thai food Nazi, but because it simply did not fit into the ethos of Nahm.
There are no such restrictions in Long Chim, where a bar counter sits side by side with a noodle station. "You'll have blanched noodles, noodle soups, laksa, all the noodle dishes you'll find on the streets of Bangkok or throughout Thailand," Chef Thompson explains.
A large dining area is flanked by cooking stations that give you a full view of the action. One side is the grill and roast section, where meats and seafood are cooked over wood and charcoal, while a separate wood-fired oven will be used for roasting whole ducks.
Next to this is where all the fierce cooking will take place as stir-fries and curries emerge from large heavy woks.
"One of the hardest things to do has been deciding what to put on the menu," says the perfectionist chef. "When I first came I had about 150 dishes because there was such a vast array of them that I thought could represent Thai food." He has since whittled down the list and expects to eventually build up the menu to include "10 to 15 snacks, 40 main courses and 10 to 15 desserts".
Will he tweak his dishes to suit the local palate? "I don't want to make concessions about the food. It is what it is. I'll make some slight modifications but it will get to the stage where I can no longer compromise." For the man who has spent some three decades cooking Thai food and has written cookbooks that are as as much encyclopaedias on Thai cooking history and culture as they are a repository of recipes, his knowledge is matched by his devotion to authenticity. His uncompromising nature hasn't made fans of everybody, but those who appreciate it are rewarded with a culinary history lesson each time they eat his food.
Eventually, says Chef Thompson, he aims to step further away from the kitchen. "I want all my restaurants to be Thai restaurants run by Thais." Heading the kitchen at Long Chim is Chef Ohm, a Thai chef who was previously working in Dubai and a friend of the executive chef at Nahm, whom Chef Thompson is most impressed with.
But come March 16, don't be surprised to see the man himself cooking your beef curry in the kitchen, as he plans to stick around for two to three months "to get it right".
It hasn't been easy setting up in Singapore, either, thanks to the manpower crunch. "We've had a tough time getting staff in and training them," he laments.
But challenges are par for the course for the indefatigable chef. "It's our first Long Chim venture and I know how important the Singapore market is and how critical it is to get it right. So I want to invest the time and do it properly. In everything I've struggled to do - successful or not - I've tried to invest the necessary amount of time to get it right and I want to do the same with this too."
Whoopi, are you listening?