Archive for November, 2009

DT 1

David Thompson inspects the produce in Springvale

‘Please, please have him back by 2pm.”

Martin Boetz, executive chef at Longrain, sounds exactly like a troubled father. He looks at me like I’m a bikie about to take his wayward 16-year-old out on a date.

Not a problem, I assure him. We’ll be back by two.

“He has a tendency to wander,” says Boetz, unconvinced and with genuine fear in his eyes. I wonder exactly how much wandering havoc a chef with a Michelin star can wreak.

A couple of years back, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, David Thompson presented a series of dinners at Boetz’s Longrain restaurant. For devotees of Thai cuisine, it was an obligatory event.

Thompson is acclaimed as an authority on Thai culinary technique. His book on the subject, Thai Food, is regarded as a Bible by cooks eager to dish up something more genuine than a tepid green curry.

Since leaving Australia and opening Nahm at London’s Halkin Hotel in July 2001, he has become the world’s sole purveyor of Thai food to win a Michelin star.

I was slavering at the thought of Thompson’s salted chicken wafers with longans and Thai basil, Murray cod with apple eggplants and, most of all, his taste for authenticity.

First, though, I was taking David Thompson shopping.

After an elaborate exchange of emails and promises, I had a tentative “yes”. Chef would join me for an afternoon of shopping and eating in Melbourne’s little Thailand, Springvale.

Thompson darts around Springvale’s produce markets like a fastidious bee. Amid the glorious hodgepodge, he never settles on one ingredient for long and he covers every inch. He’s full of culinary counsel and I’m paying careful attention. “Lemongrass must be thin and young,” Thompson says, hovering near some thick, dried-out stalks. “Galangal must be pink and vibrant.” I’m taking it all down. I nod.

“Fish sauce isn’t simply fish sauce,” he says, before launching into a sermon on the lesser brands.

“Bad fish sauce tastes like a decomposed cat has fallen into a vat,” he says. While my palate has never detected anything cat-like, I have often felt disappointed by the quality of this salty elixir. Thompson recommends Squid brand as a dependable and widely available cat-less stand-by.

I nod. I buy some Squid.

Thompson, as his protege Boetz will affirm, is an eager teacher. Ask a question and he will respond with warm, encyclopedic force. Ask him about fusion cuisine, however, and he turns hotter than a habanero.

“I hate fusion food. Hate it with a passion,” he has been quoted as saying. For Thompson, the marriage of, for example, teriyaki with chilli shows a poverty of skill and imagination.

This chef is not a fusionista. Nor is he inclined to tag along with food trends. The popularity of molecular gastronomy among young chefs has him a little concerned. “It was interesting, and the understanding of chemistry was helpful, but I fear it’s gone too far,” he says of kitchens conjuring airs and foams.

Thompson prefers authenticity to fusion and fashion. This was evident in the presentation and flavours of his astonishing food at Longrain. I’d never devoured his creations before and had, perhaps, expected gravity-defying stacks of Thai by way of France, by way of a science lab.

Instead, each dish was an accomplished but earthy conversation of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Served in communal bowls, harmonising dishes are eaten together for the full score to emerge.

Although critics of Nahm have been aghast at this style, Thompson is resolute in maintaining the presentation. He is also a determined student of traditional Thai techniques.

Trained as a chef in Sydney, Thompson went to Thailand in 1986 and fell immediately in love. “I went for a holiday and was seduced by the place,” he says. Some years later, he emerged from his lemongrass haze, returning to Sydney to open his first restaurant, the acclaimed Darley Street Thai “in the back of a bloodbath of a hotel” in St Peters.

It was in Thailand that he encountered “an old woman who cooked the most delectable of foods. A depth of palate, seasoning, and textures that was just fantastic. Her cooking transformed my understanding of what Thai food was, from being quite pleasant, photographically delightful street food into something else”.

With partner Tanongsak Yordwai, whom he met on that first trip to Thailand, Thompson has collected and translated a substantial assortment of Thai “memorial books”. It is the custom in Thailand to publish a booklet when someone dies. It documents the deceased’s life; their habits, hobbies and often their favourite recipes. Some in Thompson’s collection are more than a century old. He calls this collection of about 600 books “a delicious treasure trove” and uses many of the recipes on his menu at Nahm.

With the spectre of 2pm looming, I whisk Thompson and Yordwai into Pa Wan for lunch. They pore over the menu, which offers arresting departures from the standard Australian neighbourhood Thai joint, and point out that many of the dishes are Cambodian or Laotian.

Thai restaurants in the West are commonly a mishmash, they tell me. Natives of neighbouring countries frequently man the stoves at your local takeaway.

It’s something of a modern miracle that Thailand remains almost singularly unconquered, its cuisine untempered by foreign influence and its citizens blase about defection to the West.

“There are no Thai refugees,” says Yordwai. Consequently, an undiluted version of Thai cuisine can be hard to find.

At Pa Wan, we select sai oung, a northern Thai pork sausage made with curry paste, coriander and lime leaves; nam kra khoa phod, pork ribs deep fried then cured in garlic and sticky rice; yum nhun plar grob, a crisp fish-skin salad; larb gai, the minced chicken salad popular on Australian Thai menus; and gang pa moo, a “jungle-style” curry of pork, baby eggplants, and bamboo.

Each dish inspired a lesson from the master of Thai cuisine. Each market stop was an education.

It was easy to lose my way in this afternoon of higher learning. I may have been a little lost in the extraordinary world of David Thompson but he didn’t go missing for a moment.

In fact, I had him back to Longrain and a grateful Martin Boetz by 10 minutes after two.


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Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Potato Stall, Union Square Market, New York

Of the great passions to which I’ll publicly admit, two are gambling and food.  Every Monday night, I combine both.  At a shady poker league, I make the rules.  One of the unbreakable ones demands that last week’s pot winner provides next week’s snacks.

Usually, the blokes just lay down a lazy fifty for some average pizza.  One memorable night, however, a fella made baked potatoes. The pizzas arrived as usual, but the sizable Irish contingent in our league looked as though they’d just seen the Pope.  Through a misty vale of tears, six young men from County Wicklow landed on the spuds in preference to pizza with a passion.

Carb count aside; if you’ve a little Irish in you, there’s no point in denying your love for this humble root vegetable.

Although, my mother did do her best to ruin the potato for all time.  Thanks to the foul alchemy of over-boiling, she turned them into grey, chalky flavourless little pellets.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Now is a decent time to go on the hunt for out-of-the-ordinary potatoes. There’s an excellent spud seller at South Melbourne Markets and some upright purveyors at Prahran and Queen Vic. Here, you’ll almost certainly be able to find the new staple of posh kitchens, the Dutch cream.  This waxy, rich cream-coloured veg is a genuine indulgence au gratin. It’s of such sterling quality, though, that you can just enjoy it gently boiled in its skin with a little sea salt.

You’ll need your ready reference guide to match a tuber with its purpose.  If it’s mash you’re after, add butter, double cream and waist-band inches to Nicolas, Desirees, Bintjes, or King Edwards. For fries, select low sugar varieties such as Sebago, Russet Burbanks, and Bintje. For potato salads, favour waxy varieties like Pink Fir, Patrone or Pink Eyes. If you’re preparing the classic Nicoise or any of its wonderful springtime variations, you may not use anything but Kipfler. I also like to use chats in a salad. And Malaysian curry powder, crushed peanuts, coriander and good mayonnaise to the little boiled bullets.

My favourite way with potatoes, perhaps a Sebago, is to slice thinly and layer the discs in a baking pan with olive oil and a goodly amount of minced garlic between the spud sheets. The taters turn out equally soft and crispy in all the right places after about 40 minutes at 190°. As winter does not seem to be done with us, this could be served in the next few weeks with quality kransky or wurst and some sauerkraut.  What cold afternoon is not improved, after all, by a good continental sausage?

Potato in an even simpler form is the buzzing gastronomic dish right now in Melbourne.

Ripponlea’s Attica is serving “A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown” to scores of die-hard foodies. I adore all this swooning over Ben Shewry’s $20 spud. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m on the root-vegetable waiting list.

You have to respect the sort of simplicity that requires eight hours to achieve.  Just as much as you have to respect carbed-up Irishmen at the poker table.



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