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Interview: David Thompson, chef-restaurateur
A CONVERSATION WITH David Thompson never ends well. Not for him, but for anyone who falls prey to the raconteur who can skewer the vocabularychallenged with the simple lifting of an eyebrow and a verbal volley of witticisms that flow as freely as booze during happy hour. Now, as he hits the ripe young age of 60, the Australian-born, Bangkok-based chef is as sharp as ever, straight-shooting as usual and always on top of his game as the farang who put Thai cuisine on the global stage.
Since his early success in Sydney with Darley Street Thai and then sealing his position with Michelinstarred Nahm in London and then in Bangkok, Chef Thompson is constantly jumping from one restaurant project to another. He opened his first Long Chim in Singapore in 2015 (it has since closed) and subsequent offshoots in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne (which also shuttered recently). After parting ways with his Nahm partner Christina Ong, he linked up with the King Power group to open a Thai fine dining restaurant in its Bangkok MahaNakhon building later this year. In the meantime, he opened Aaharn in Hong Kong which was recently awarded a Michelin star, and more recently, we caught up with him in Koh Samui for the launch of his newest restaurant Long Dtai in the luxurious Cape Fahn resort.
After winging around the world to oversee your restaurants, are you happy to be opening one in Thailand?
Yes, it means I don’t have to travel as much and if I do, it’s just an hour away. Many people think that travelling as much as I do is wonderful and exotic and thrilling, but I find it irksome and tedious. I literally sometimes have a trudge in my step as I call a taxi for the airport, unwilling to leave, and I agree with my cat as he howls.
You opened Long Chim in Singapore, which closed, and then in Melbourne, which also closed. Both were in integrated resorts, namely Marina Bay Sands and Crown Casino, and were big restaurants. But you’ve also opened in Perth and Sydney, which are doing well. So what’s the deal with this brand?
Long Chim has been hard. I’m changing it around a bit now, shortening the menu from 50 items to about 20. I’m changing it more because - and this is what Australia has taught me - the cost of wages is so high that having eight or nine cooks in the kitchen is tremendously expensive. But Long Chim in Perth and Sydney are both working very well and we had a record month last December. But when (Melbourne) they say we’re not performing as well as we should and we’re doing 180 to 200 people a night - many restaurants would die for that - there’s a flaw in the original concept that’s now being addressed. So any new Long Chims will be smaller with a shorter menu. We are going to open a few more Long Chims, but outside of Asia.
You opened Aaharn in Hong Kong in late 2018 (before the protests), and it was recently awarded its first Michelin star. How do you feel about getting the star, and also how has business been affected by the situation there?
I’m relieved. It’s been shaky because of all the protests, every business is suffering. We were doing okay, it wasn’t magnificent but it’s now improved. I wait to see what happens. The tail end of the year was very good in spite of the protests and I want to see what 2020 will bring.
Like Long Dtai, which you say you jumped into on the spur of the moment because you love the view, you seem to pick your projects more by accident than financial planning. How do you juggle passion and profitability?
I believe there are three things that are important for a restaurant: they are integrity and quality of execution and delivery – ie the food and service, the menu and ingredients employed. For a business to be viable it has to be profitable. I’ve had businesses which lived on the edge, meaning you can’t reinvest in it and as it gets older it deteriorates. So you need a certain degree of profitability and it’s also a sense of responsibility to investors. You don’t have to be greedy but you also have to be realistic.
Then, if you’ve got a profitable business, you have greater freedom to exercise independence of menu, service and quality because nobody interferes in a restaurant that works well. And the final one is a sense of commitment, integrity and happiness of staff so that they believe in what they do, and small disgruntlements are irrelevant in the sense that they are looked after well so that they can provide the guest with the best experience because they believe in what they do and are happy in doing it. These three are of equal importance for a happy restaurant that’s well run which you can maintain properly.
You’re a celebrity chef, and you’ve won enough awards and accolades in your career. Yet you’re strongly critical of them. What do you have against stardom?
I don’t dislike awards, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t succumb to the flattery of winning awards for two reasons – it’s dangerous to do that and secondly, I don’t win awards, it’s the whole restaurant that does. I don’t think you should be celebrated just because you do your job well. If you’ve got talent and skill, there’s something wrong if you don’t try to reach that potential. Yes, they’re great for business and it’s great to catch up with friends and wake up the next morning full of regret and vodka. But if you judge what you do on an award system, then you’re bound for heartache and disillusionment when (you fall out of favour and) that sunshine leaves.
How do you feel about turning 60?
I wish I had behaved properly and aged with some degree of gravity, rather than being everyone’s bad uncle. (But seriously) I’d rather have some spirit and zest in me than slip into a slow curtailing of willingness for adventure and taking risks. I will change this to a political thing – when I was younger I was a great socialist and am still to some extent left-wing. But I think it’s really important to protest the ravishings of our environment and I would happily take to the streets because it’s important that you choose what you do. When the fire in your belly has extinguished at a certain age, there’s something sad about that. You can see when someone’s light goes out and they lose interest. They age and their world becomes small and they become bitter and complain a bit more. Of course, that’s unavoidable but I feel I want to be slightly different. If you are alive, there should be times when you go out to battle and at the moment there’s nothing more important to battle about than the environment.
But do you worry – as some people get older – that you’re not as relevant in the world as you used to be?
I’ve reached the stage where if I can offer something, good. If I can’t, I can’t. I like to think I have some relevance, even if it’s just my repartee.
So, are you opening more restaurants in Thailand?
I have two more. One is Aksorn, which means “letter”. It’s a small 40-seater I’m doing with the Chirathivat family and it will be on the fifth floor of the first building they owned that’s now called the Legacy Project. It was a book-lending library so I’m going to bring my old books and change the menu every month based on a book that I have or books from friends, and cook faithfully from those recipes. We can also do book launches and pop-ups with other chefs which we couldn’t do before with Nahm. I also have another restaurant Charoen planned for April and the other is the restaurant at MahaNakhon.
You’re still cooking as much as you ever have, and opening restaurants. Why don’t you slow down?
Clearly, I’m an idiot. The whole thing about me opening up businesses and expanding was so that I’d have the financial security where I didn’t have to work. It hasn’t quite worked like that. But I also wanted to do that so that I could choose to work, which is different from being forced to work, and I doubt I would do anything differently. But – I might try and get that dearly held dream of a weekend off.