Sydney Chefs

David Thompson

David Thompson

Darley Street Thai, in 1991, according to Stephen Downes, was "absolutely marvellous" but it only received 12 out of 20 from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.

"Where I really started my apprenticeship was at Pavilion on the Park, before that I worked at Bagatelle for about 8 months with a French Chef and was at Pavilion for two to three years and then finished my training at Butlers with Mogens Bay Esbensen. From there I went to Rogues where I was second chef for a while and then became chef -- too young for that. It's a big mistake, it happens a lot in Sydney that kids are promoted too quickly and they burn out -- which is a shame and I certainly was too young when I became chef at Rogues -- I was 25 or 26; that's too young -- I was in charge of three in the kitchen -- too young, not really able to take that responsibility, not being serious enough, nor have the mental ability to handle responsibility, to look after a menu; to make sure its balanced, too young -- you've got to be at least 30 to 35 to even start to be in charge of a kitchen; and truly in charge in terms of maturity and responsibility.

"About 50% of chefs in Sydney are younger than that -- at least; that's fraught with danger; because you might have someone who is hugely talented but because they are inexperienced and emotionally not mature enough to handle that responsibility; and not able to really look after things and to be able to tell people how to do things, not to do this and that in such a way that the person responds and does it properly -- that only comes with experience; in those kitchens a lot of people just burn out -- bad habits get passed on by untrained chefs.

"After Rogues I went off to Thailand for two years. I went there for a holiday and I decided I wanted to live there -- it's a most intoxicating, seductive place; so I then went back straight away and had the possibility to open up a restaurant but it didn't work out so I decided to live there in any case; came back July 1989, wanted to open a grander scale restaurant, more up market. But I'm glad we didn't because we would have been shut by now. Then my friend Peter (Bowyer), said that the owner of this pub was looking for a chef for a few weeks last January but I don't know that he thought it was going to turn into a Thai restaurant. When we first started here it was conventional western food but we had the occasional Thai night just to keep me satisfied and they would become booked out weeks and months in advance; so then in May we changed over to Thai as we had been overwhelmed by the response to our Thai nights. At that stage I was still working on the idea that this was only a temporary place and that we would open up something a little bit more upmarket in a better position -- but now it's almost a permanent situation until we get enough reputation and enough backing to make a move. But the owner here has been very good to us and I wouldn't want to move for quite a while.

"Peter worked at Beppis for 15 to 20 years in two stages and left to come here. He was maitre'd manager here and was an owner of Pavilion on the Park."

Would you go back to western food?

"I don't know I have been thinking about that I suppose I will but not in the foreseeable future because there is such a repertoire of Thai food that's still waiting to be explored. I would like to go back to Thailand for a while and get in touch with the old women who still remember and collect the old recipes before they get forgotten (there are no recipes written down in Thailand; there is no respect given to the kitchen -- it is all in the memories of the old women who cook in the homes) before the old cuisine dies because it will die because the modern generation don't care about it -- they are into fast/snack food and their whole society is changing rapidly; it's becoming capitalised, westernised and quite corrupt in many ways -- eventually it will go back to the old Thailand but at the moment they are ingesting new ideas and new concepts -- there is a big breakdown and it is fraught with danger -- rapid urbanisation and rapid wealth which is concentrated in the hands of the urban elite only with all the displays of wealth western style, etc., etc."

Is your second chef Australian?

"Yes. Interestingly enough his mother was born in Thailand. David has really managed to capture the tastes -- surprisingly so, he is better than a lot of Thais here -- and they just don't have the ability or experience to work in a disciplined kitchen, a western oriented kitchen -- in the sense of having consistency of flavour; of getting their mise en place ready on time -- precision and timing are mutually exclusive to the Thai mentality -- that's part of the charm of the Thai (the phone book comes out late by six months and by then the book is out of date -- but if you want to avoid ulcers you've got to get used to these things). I enjoyed living in Thailand very much I learnt the language and enjoyed the characteristics of the people -- it is not Western at all and it requires a lot of adjustment.

"The people that come here are mainly Western -- late 30's to early 50's and have travelled well; we are getting people from a variety of areas in Sydney.

"We are using the whole fresh coconut; we make our own curry pastes -- we do everything on the premises. We use Western suppliers for prime produce -- we use quality produce, as the Thai saying is: you can't be a stingy bastard if you want to cook.

"You have a responsibility to your customer to give them the best you can -- there is a false assumption that it is a cuisine using cheaper cuts and certainly there are things like ribs used a lot but we use fillet and good seafood.

"I don't experiment out a lot now as I'm working most of the time and don't want to be disappointed -- Thai fashion will last a long long time because the flavours are so seductive and so vigorous unless there are too many bad restaurants doing it. At the moment it is on the crest of a wave but I think it will last.

"The mixture of cuisines -- even Asian -- is not possible to do in one restaurant. If you are going to do Asian food you have to do it in an Asian manner -- you can't do it with a Western approach -- you can't say "oh, I like the flavour of ginger, so I'll put it with a bit of braised duck or I like star anise so I'll put it with some veal. You lose that consistency of thought, that philosophical idea behind it and then it can become very confused -- if you are doing a mixture it is very hard to taste consecutively; if you are tasting Italian you can't then adjust to Thai and vice versa -- your tongue can only cope with so many sensations at once. You can't appreciate the subtle differences of English herbs after chilli and garlic. It's very foolish to try unless you are drinking lots of water in between.

"It's very important to keep the idea of the cuisine you want to do firmly in your mind without question."

How well do you have to know a country's cuisine, before you can cook it?

"The old Thai lady who taught me found it very hard to intellectualise who had to show me everything and that takes a very long time -- it depends on your own knowledge and abilities. A year perhaps.

"I get frustrated with people liking things in places that are not good -- its irresponsibility and a fraud and that angers me.

"Even if you had say -- five different nationalities working in a kitchen you could not necessarily do all of those five cuisines properly -- it would stretch the resources of the kitchen impossibly. You would have your coconut machine in one corner and your grill for steaks in another -- your stock pot of rich brown sauce in another. It's fraught with danger -- you can muck around a little bit. For example, putting spices in a nage and then straining it -- but it's very dangerous. So many different stocks and so many different tastes and styles of tastes to check -- you would have a huge lump of chilli and then a delicate cream sauce. Your tongue cannot cope.

"Food writers have created a situation when the public is looking for the mixed cuisine menu -- with odd and unusual things -- they are encouraging the mucking around without responsibility to their consumers. The big problem is that there is no traditional cuisine here -- we have no cuisine base -- so people are grasping around and at times making very good balances of flavours and at other times -- catastrophes (eight out of ten, the latter). Its probably impossible for Australia to really have a cuisine of its own there are too many mixed influences. There is so much information and so many different people coming into Australia; there are so many people travelling that it can never be independent -- scraps now -- but maybe in 15 or 20 years time a marriage may emerge from it all. Ideas rule not technique -- the big problem is that chefs become stars -- it is a shame; they become less independent as a result and less willing to maintain kitchen standards.

"It's all still so new and we are going through various techniques and tasting and trying. We are still working very hard on all our dishes -- and adapting to local ingredients but not compromising to the locals' tastes. We want to show people what a broad cuisine Thai is and are not doing a lot of the standard dishes served in most restaurants here. It is a very rich cuisine. different equipment used to Chinese cuisine -- not much use of a wok but of earthenware pots -- like crocks.

"Chefs should not be "seen" in the dining room; you should always be in your kitchen -- that's your base; that's why people want to talk to you but if they drag you out of the kitchen then you've lost your raison d'etre;

"I guess the problem for chefs confronted with new ingredients -- it's like a kid in a toy shop, they want to muck around with everything and then finally you get some maturity and discretion in flavours.

How good are hotel restaurants?

"The Regent was the first to be respected in Sydney; probably Serge [Dansereau] is not as respected as he should be.

"It's a tragedy that Sydney can't support a few restaurants of the calibre of Peter Doyle's.

"One thing that living in Thailand taught me is that there has to be a balance between the sour quality and the salty quality -- you just can't douse things with vinegar -- (re transfer of tastes) -- extremely difficult to do a mixture of cuisines -- if a chef has to correct and adjust a good bordelaise sauce, for example, and just before that he has some chilli or some garlic -- the chef's palate and tongue cannot cope -- and he may well find that the sauce is lacking something even though, in reality, it is elegantly balanced, but to his palate post -- chilli, he is going to find the bordelaise lacking. I know that I am exactly the same; I've tasted some sauces when we were European (that was eight months ago) and I had just come back from Thailand and I was tasting and thinking -- oh it needs a bit of this or that, a bit of coriander or five spice -- even though I was tasting a classic western sauce which should only taste a certain way and which was totally alien to those other flavours -- but your palate becomes used to a certain zing-zap.

"In cooking another cuisine -- perhaps you should whip your tongue out and put another tongue in.

"Even if you have sound technique your palate does judge things by what it has just tasted

"Ideas about food are easier to approach than the food itself and fragrance of food is far more enjoyable than the taste of food; we're taught to use the mind more than the palate but that's so bad for cooking -- you must taste, taste, taste.

"There is a benefit in going into the kitchen later on when you are 25 or even later -- whereby you've developed an understanding of taste -- but shouldn't you develop technique at a young stage?

David closed the original Darley Street Thai and in 1993 he and co-owner Peter Bowyer opened the present Darley Street Thai at 28-30 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross. It still serves absolutely wonderful food. It remains David's culinary showpiece.

In 1995 he opened Sailor's Thai at 106 George Street in The Rocks. This large stylish restaurant is in two parts -- a large shared table with quick cheap dishes and a more formal dining area on the lower level.

Bookings can be made for Sailor's Thai on +61 2 9251 2466

In 2000 David closed Darley St Thai. He is concentrating on Sailor's Thai and a restaurant in Bancock.David

A 1999 interview (and recipes) with David Thompson and another from 1995.

Mietta O'Donnell
February 1991
Updated December 1996 and April 2001
©Mietta's 1996