A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.

Pressure cooking

Posted date:  October 23, 2010


Boy did I miss a big fat plate of good ol’ fashioned food controversy when I was away. As mentioned previously, Australian chef David Thompson has opened a branch of his Thai restaurant nahm here in Bangkok. Not surprisingly, when one considers how dearly the Thais regard their cuisine, the opening has inspired a generous serving of heated discussion here in Bangkok. Some of this was spurred on by this piece in the New York Times. The article makes for entertaining reading (sample quote: “‘He is slapping the faces of Thai people!’ Mr. Suthon said in an interview.”), but is somewhat sensationalistic in tone and Thompson claims to have been quoted out of context. The controversy is also the topic of this BBC piece.

The local media also has its share of nahm/Thompson defenders and detractors. This rather clumsy restaurant review in The Nation seems to have been impressed with the restaurant, while this letter to the editor in the same paper is a dramatic and not entirely coherent damnation of nahm and its chef. The controversy has inspired a rather soul searching editorial in The Bangkok Post, “Which Way Thai Cuisine“, as well as editorials in the Thai-language media, including the influential paper Matichon. But perhaps the epitome of the media attention was this hilarious spoof in Not The Nation: “Army Overthrows David Thompson In Cuisine Coup” (you know you’re in the limelight when you’re being spoofed).

People have the right to voice their opinions about cuisine and authenticity. But I find it disappointing how rather quite racist and xenophobic some of the Thai reaction to nahm has been; how would the Thais react to vaguely racist French criticism of a Thai landing a high-level cheffing job at Pierre Gagnaire? When it comes down to it, it really depends on the food, and I thought the most resounding sound bite about all this came from a Thai friend, who unlike many of the people writing or talking about the restaurant, has actually eaten there: “All I know is that if Nahm was about a quarter the price it is I’d be a regular. Authentic or not.”

14 Comments for Pressure cooking

I suspect that if a Thai (or an Australian, for that matter) opened a restaurant in Paris and proclaimed that he was re-vitalizing French cuisine because it was decaying, the French would have a rather strong reaction. My take is that the Thai people are reacting to Thompson’s arrogance rather than his race.

Michael B is right. The issue here is one of arrogance. David Thompson is a hypocrite whose latest book documents Thai street food in its current form which is the very thing he declares in decline. He’s making money out of that which he says is good (his version of authentic Thai food) and that which he says is bad (Thai food as it is sold on the streets presently). Smart bloke.

I hope that Thai chef in France knows how to spell French words. Because if he ever publishes a book on French cuisine, he would want to prove that his command of the French language is greater than Thompson’s command of the Thai language. Have you noticed that the only people who praise Thompson’s ability to speak, write and read Thai are either those who don’t know the language well or Thais who clearly have never read his books?

I’d always considered you as one of the few foreigners who actually do know a lot about Thai culture, Austin. I’m disappointed. If you don’t know why some of us have doubts about Thompson’s self-proclaimed expertise, perhaps you don’t really know as much as you want people to believe you do. Consider me an ex-fan.


Consider yourself tainted, Austin. Best to stay away from the self-righteous anger of people who know not very much about how restaurants work, and think that cooking food is somehow related to proper pronunciation.

J-Dub: When a cookbook author and chef bases his authenticity largely on recipes that he’s collected from historical Thai sources (written in Thai), his knowledge of the language is an issue. My wife is Thai and currently in Thailand. None of her family or friends have heard about David Thompson or his restaurant. When she tells them what he says about decaying Thai cuisine they just laugh: their experience is different.

I doubt if many food authorities, whether Thai or non-Thai, would deny that Thai food has been considerably simplified (to put it politely) over the past century. And some of them, like Khun Nawamin at Ruen Urai or Khun Nit at Taling Pling, are also trying to do something about it. Unlike Mr. Thompson they don’t seem to have attracted much controversy. Perhaps they’ve been a bit more tactful than he’s been. I mean, there couldn’t possibly be any other reason, could there?

In any case, the proof is in the taste, and I would suggest that anyone who hasn’t been willing at least to try Mr. Thompson’s food doesn’t really have much to add to the public debate.

Michael B, Thompson has a Thai parter too, and has for 25 years. The reason most Thais probably haven’t heard of him is because he has had a restaurant in Bangkok for about three months. Food critics, chefs, cookbook writers and restaurant owners around the world do know of Thompson, however, because of his dedication to the subject matter of Thai food.

This debate is rather unsettling, and in the case of Suthon Sukphisit (who refuses to visit Thompson’s restaurant yet comments on the chef) it is unfair. It seems to me that it’s not about perceived arrogance so much as a country and a culture going through a particularly difficult period, culinarily and otherwise. But I guess I’m not allowed to make such assumptions, am I?

Chef McDang recently said the very same thing as Thompson, but nobody is going to get mad at him because he’s Thai.

“Thais don’t like to go back through our history,” he says, noting that while a few Thais actually do know the history of Thai food, “the rest of them don’t know jack sh*t.”


Consider me an ex-แฟน as well.

[…] Pressure cooking — Austin Bush on David Thompson and the kerfuffle surrounding foreigners cooking Thai food. Related… […]

Seriously, anyone who criticizes his food without having tasted it is making more a religion out of the whole thing than caring about the food itself.
I have never met Thompson and don’t know whether he is arrogant or not – and frankly, I don’t care. I’d rather it great food from an arrogant cook than mediocre food humble cook.
The only issue I have with nahm are the prices – there just is so much superyummy food in Bangkok, and in my opinion, the factor by which the prices are multiplied at nahm is higher than the factor by which the eating experience is multiplied.

Kind of confused as to why Austin is taking so much heat here… seems to me all he did was summarize the situation. I’ll probably get similarly roasted for saying this, but I’m not sure why all the controversy. Being proud of your national heritage (be it food, drink, fashion, art, whatever) is fine, but I think people are taking it too far. How come the people who decry ‘modern’ Thai food (Thompson included) don’t also decry modern Thai language? Or fashion? Or transport? Things change, evolve, dilute, etc.

At any rate, with food being such a singularly subjective experience (one person likes this dish, another finds it too spicy), I find the whole controversy largely borne out of the illusion of a blanket ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rating, which doesn’t exist.

Then again, I had a McDonald’s hamburger the other day and loved it, so take that how you may.

I thought I would not comment on this until I eat David Thompson’s food at Nahm. Living in New York for more than 10 years, I have been a fan of his cookbook for a while as I always find food that reminds me of home.

I can tell from reading recipes and introductions in his book how delicious those dishes are and how much David admires Thai food and Culture. His recipes reminded me the way Thai food was cooked when I grew up.

I travel back to Thailand every year. I have to say that in these past few years, quality of Thai food has ran down a lot. I guess it was cost of living that makes good ingredient more expensive and I can taste MSG everywhere.

At Nahm, with the luxury of high price and David’s hands, it is possible to make each dish tastes at it’s best. From his cookbook I thought I already knew how delicious his food could be. But I must say that now I have tasted his food, it was beyond I have imagined.

Hey Austin , wow , love the photos , you share my passion…photography , blogging , food and thailand , fantastic.
Ive just spent most of yesterday getting my ads together as im binning all of my canon EOS camera n lenses on ebay…not happy at all , the photos with my fuji finepix blow them away…and my pocket camera , Casio , its great , although im gonna go check out your canon recommendation next.
Check out my flickr pics on this link ,
most shot with the fuji. and as ive just started to blog ( address supplied ) is it ok to add you to my list please ?

[…] in the wake of all the controversy surrounding Thompson and nahm, much of which seems to have been forgotten by now, we’re left […]

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