How Aaharn's David Thompson Keeps His Faith In Thai Cuisine
The day David Thompson was in town to check on the progress of Aaharn, his new Thai restaurant at Tai Kwun, the Armoury bar was packed with thirsty guests, while the Aussie chef shared his story with us over coffee on the first-floor restaurant terrace. “ We are setting up our restaurant in a space where we know exactly how much it costs us, with little worry on the landlord’s rapacious demands. If you get a closer look at this space, a bridging stage between the swing and sway of parties at Soho and Central. What’s not to like?” Thompson exclaimed.
Unlike his more famous establishments such as Long Chim in Australia and Bangkok’s Nahm— which he departed early 2018—Aaharn takes on a different route. “Aaharn is not meant to be something really forward or rigid sticking to the original Thai cuisine repertoire,” he explained. “We are stripping down every bit of description to the core. In one simple sentence: Aaharn is about serving some really good Thai food. It is not going to be as complicated as Nahm.
“We will find curries in the menu of Aaharn, with a more season-driven collection of dishes that will be served on rotation throughout the year. We would like to change a bit of the menu every month.” There is a consensus that pad Thai and green curry tend to be highlighted in most Thai eateries, and Thompson is no stranger to such culinary clichés. “I don’t reject culinary favourites, but sometimes I shake my head thinking why people would think that the only Thai dessert is mango and sticky rice, or that you must have a green curry with chicken to call yourself a good Thai restaurant. In my view, there is more than one type of green curry, and certainly more than one way to create Thai curries.”
Aaharn is not meant to be something really forward or rigid sticking to the original Thai cuisine repertoire. We are stripping down every bit of description to the core.
According to Thompson, curry is one of the most vibrant sections of the Thai culinary repertoire to master. “A curry is essentially a spicily seasoned wet dish. You can have one with less than a handful of herbs, or a Massaman curry that can be as complex in construction as a Mexican mole,” says the chef. “Curry roots from the most basic of types to elaborate of complexity and anywhere in between. There is no rule to them. I want to be honest with my food and not cover up the real identity of the food I serve, even if it looks like a mud puddle. All it needs is the taste is beautiful, balanced in construction.”
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While Thompson’s Nahm displayed the vibrancy and range of Thai cuisine’s complex flavours, Aaharn remains simple to its core, beginning with the design of its menu. “Call me old-fashioned, but taste always comes first, and then it is presentation. I admit I have a soft spot to plates and crockery because I curate the right vessels to hold the food I’m creating to maintain a balance of taste, texture, supported by aesthetics,” Thompson explained. “I admit I have always been a selfish cook myself, as I only like to cook things I want to eat—in other words, items that please myself and hope that these are the same items that please my palate the same way it pleases others’. When I serve you something I would like to think that this is the best way I think the dish should be made, for me and for you.”
Naturally, the concept of authenticity comes to mind next and Thompson, who has dabbled in the Thai kitchen for more than three decades, is not immune to criticism that the Australian native is not creating an ‘authentic’ version of Thai cuisine. Thompson, however, has his own theory about the A-word. “Authenticity is fundamental and rudimentary. I consider this word associated with danger and problems, which is why I always prefer to use the word ‘faithfulness’ instead. The way I prepare Thai food is to stay true to my understanding of the cuisine, faithful to its traditions and practises as much as possible. That is my bread and butter, my rice, cheese, and the way I am.”
Thompson never shies away from his opinions on lists and accolades, including his previous honours with Nahm topping the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014—but he has his own perspective on success. “For the business these awards and accolades are very good, but mind you, chefs should never lose sight on the reason of why they are in the business in the first place. Once you believe these awards are what you are after, you start to alter your work and down the spiral of prostituting yourself for the approval. You lose sight of why you enjoy what you do in the first place because you are too busy feeling warm and gratified. The real accomplishment should lie within yourself, as do I, that we wake up every day enjoying what we do and how much we want to do what we are good at doing.” Thompson explained.
While the world of gastronomy has taken on showcasing their creations on and for social media, Thompson takes a stab at the growing trend. “I may seem anti-social to most, but I am sure social media is useful as a bridge between the chefs and his or her customers, but it’s not for me. I am not becoming a cook so I can be a photographer, and certainly did not to it to be famous either. My job is to provide food, not entertainment, especially not to become a celebrity. I have always disdained, shunned, and laughed at attempts to cook for fame. I enjoy being in an industry that fosters cooking for passion, as I am lucky enough to still feel passionate about it. “
Authenticity is fundamental and rudimentary. I consider this word associated with danger and problems, which is why I always prefer to use the word ‘faithfulness’ instead.
Between travelling to different restaurants and taking part in culinary collaborations around the world, Thompson has, so far, showed no signs of stopping. He spent three months since Aaharn’s birth in Hong Kong training his staff seven days a week. “People ask me all the time what I really want in my life. The answer may be shocking,” he says. “All I want is a regular weekend. I have never had one ever in my life.“
See also: Why Aren’t More People Talking About Aaharn By David Thompson?
Guests may feel lucky spotting Thompson strolling through the dining room at Aaharn, as the Aussie chef usually stays hidden in the kitchen. “Like all of my other restaurants, when I’m there, I will be inside the kitchen a lot.” He jokingly shared a special tip for guests looking to lure him out beyond the pass. “I love sweets, and increasingly so. I’m not just preferential to the sugar and coconut cream in Thai desserts. Sometimes a bar of chocolate is enough to bribe me over. If you show up with a bar of chocolate for me, I can be bribed too." And now, the secret is out, all the chef desires is a sweet deal with something as simple as a chocolate bar. Simplicity, as it turns out, is all over Aaharn and embodied by the visionary behind it.
- Photography Michaela Giles/ Hong Kong Tatler