8 Minutes with Chef David Thompson of Nahm, Raymond Lim of Les Amis, and Leisa Tyler of Asia’s 50 Best RestaurantsMay 9, 2019
Last March 25, the Philippine Food Services Company’s Off the Menu initiative hosted its first forum entitled, “The Next Big Thing: Crafting a World-Class Restaurant.” Among the attendees were three of Asia’s most influential figures in the restaurant industry, Michelin Star Chef David Thompson of Nahm (2014 San Pellegrino Asia’s Best Restaurant), Raymond Lim, the Managing Director of Les Amis (14th Best Restaurant in Asia for 2014) and Leisa Tyler, the Regional Chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants . I had the opportunity to spend eight minutes with all three and used the opportunity to pick their brains and find out what they envision for our local food industry.
Chef David Thompson’s Namh is the first Thai restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin Star.
An Australian man is perhaps the unlikeliest world authority on Thai food, but Chef David Thompson defeated all odds to earn the first Michelin star for a Thai cuisine kitchen through his restaurant Nahm. “My life is a little bit of an accident,” share David. “And one happy accident was going to Thailand. I fell in love with the place when I went there in 1986. It was thrilling. Exciting. Dangerous. New. Incomprehensible. Illogical. Wonderful.”
Upon moving to Thailand permanently, he became more and more interested in Thai cooking. “I met an old woman there who cooked with almost inherited skill. I still remember that dish of hers that made me realize their food was more than an easy, simple, takeaway type of cooking, a sour orange curry with deep fried fish and tamarind leaves. It was just all poise and elegance with its seasoning and taste. That dish transformed my understanding, or at least made me see there was much, much more to Thai food.”
“I started to collect some old recipe books that date back to the 19th century.”
Due to his epiphany on Thai cuisine, David began to research about his new love in earnest. He used his new knowledge to create Nahm’s menu. “After having met that woman,” he explained, “I started to collect some old recipe books that date back to the 19th century. They had very good recipes, so I just started collecting them. The recipes there were very different from modern Thai food. We use the old recipes as guidelines, as the starting point to give us a firm taste. But we may modernize and alter them.”
Although his approach to Nahm’s menu in London was more controlled, he admitted to being more relaxed in the original Bangkok restaurant. “I’m far more liberal since I’m working with a bunch of very good Thai cooks, so it would be a folly for me to ignore opinions. There are two or three (of them) in particular; we play with the dishes, converse, and negotiate our way through a dish to get the best result. So it’s not just my opinion but it’s far more consensual between two or three cooks.”
Given his commitment to Thai cuisine, David felt conflicted when asked for his favorite dish. “It depends! Sometimes I like stir fried noodles or noodle soup. Sometimes curries—it really depends.” His difficulty in choosing probably also stems from the country’s diverse and distinct culinary styles that change from region to region. “Some of the curries down south I like very much. I also like the salads and relishes of the central banks. There’s also the sharp textures of the northeast.”
“I can’t do a restaurant like Nahm outside of Thailand.”
Nahm’s London restaurant may have closed nearly two years ago, but David looks forward to opening a street food restaurant. “I can’t do a restaurant like Nahm outside of Thailand,” he admitted. “I’m too ensconced and too spoiled there. But from Singapore, we can do a street food restaurant almost anywhere.” But don’t worry, Thai cuisine will still be part of his future. “We’re also starting a library as a research center on Thai food. It will be accessible to all Thais and whoever might be interested. It will host a collection of old recipes that will be digitalized online for everyone. But it will all be in Thai, I’m afraid. I might translate some of the recipes, though.”
“Les Amis has been open for 20 years… being around is one thing, but to be high up on the radar is another”
As the Managing Director of Singapore’s most prominent French restaurant, Les Amis, Raymond Lim was invited by Off the Menu to talk about what it takes to create and sustain a good, world-class restaurant. “Les Amis has been open for 20 years, we just celebrated our 20th anniversary last week,” he said. “When it comes to keeping a restaurant going for 20 years, being around is one thing, but to be high up on the radar is another,” he emphasized.
“The restaurant’s quality is another given,” he continued. “You must have good food and great service. Yet the other most important thing is that the restaurant must be in good company.”
What exactly does he mean by good company? “You must know chefs and media from other countries,” he explained.The benefit of such a network is invaluable, chefs from London or Japan can tell English or Japanese VIPs who visit Singapore that Les Amis is a must-eat place while in the country. “Your restaurant is now on the radar. Good company must be a component of restaurants around the world, allowing the restaurants to reinforce each other.”
“You need a poster boy. Nowadays in the age of media, personality is so important; it also helps to be good looking.”
Raymond also observed that several components are still missing from our local restaurant industry. “I went to Vask two nights ago, but it’s not really Filipino food. It’s more Spanish.” For Philippine cuisine to truly emerge in the country and the rest of the world, Raymond advised two main factors: “The first building block must be a chef or restaurateur with the guts and the vision to build the best Filipino restaurant in the Philippines. Then, you need a poster boy. Nowadays in the age of media, personality is so important; it also helps to be good looking. Philippine cuisine needs that poster boy or that first face; right now there’s no one.”
Another essential and missing component, he points out, is support from the government. “The Department of Tourism needs to fly in the right type of media to see what the Philippines has to offer. You need the right ecosystem for those two components to work.”
“There’s a huge amount of energy in this country and it’s time for something to happen,” food and travel writer Leisa Tyler said in enthusiasm. With the promising projects Off the Menu hopes to initiate and sustain for the local restaurant industry, Leisa is looking forward to bringing in some international chefs to hold dinners and maybe even mentoring workshops or camps in the future.
“I find that a lot of the restaurants here are restrained…I haven’t seen real cooking from the heart.”
All these plans have one main goal, to bring Filipino cuisine to the fore in the international arena, as we’ve seen happen for Thai and Vietnamese food. “People are cooking to please audiences rather than cooking to please themselves—rather than doing it from the heart. I find that a lot of the restaurants here are restrained. They’re all fun and places to have a good time, but I haven’t seen real cooking from the heart.” She compared the local scene to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, where chefs “are doing stuff that they want to do rather than what they are expected to do.”
Another missing component is Philippine cuisine’s presence in other countries. “I live in Penang, Malaysia,” she shared. “We have a local hawker market with a Filipino stand, but they serve fried chicken and chips and that’s what they call Philippine cuisine.” Malaysia isn’t the only other country lacking in Filipino cuisine representation. “I’m Australian and we don’t have Philippine restaurants there,” Leisa added.
“With the Philippines located near China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, it makes sense to get the same sort of themes.”
Lisa admits to not being very familiar with Filipino food, but she does observe its proximity to Peranakan cuisine. “It’s the food of the Chinese who went to Penang and Singapore,” she explained. “Peranakan food has the belachan, a fermented shrimp paste. I think you guys call it something else? They use this in Malaysia and Singapore. You get a lot of that fermented taste and smell of shrimp, and you get a lot of that here as well. It makes sense because of what Peranakan food is, it came from the Chinese or the Hawken regions. They took their cooking styles and were forced to use local ingredients. With the Philippines located near China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, it makes sense to get the same sort of themes.”
Despite the diversity and rich character of Philippine cuisine, Leisa admits the country has a “long and winding road to go.” “We’ve pretty much just gotten in the car,” she said. “It could go anywhere.”
What Leisa also looks forward to is selling the country’s best produce to the world. “There’s a tremendous amount of produce in the country that no one knows about. It’s just a matter of facing the challenges, solving the problem or finding that solution, or tweaking the model to accommodate a solution.” The government, she couldn’t help but emphasize, is missing in this process. She recalled visiting the Singapore-owned international supermarket in Penang, where there was an entire aisle of Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese products. The Philippines was only represented by dried mango from Cebu. “Not even (mangoes from) Guimaras,” she stressed. “I’ve been to Guimaras, bought three kilograms of mangoes, and ate them all at once. So why aren’t they (the government) helping? Maybe it won’t come down to them; maybe it will come down to the private sector pushing this themselves. It comes down to a helping hand, I suppose.”