I went to Sunday School this week, joining fifty other disciples worshipping at the feet of David Thompson of nahm (London and Bangkok). He’s arguably the world’s greatest Thai chef, the first one with a Michelin star anyway.
Mevrouw T and I used to be regulars at David’s Darley Street Thai when it was behind an unfashionable pub at the unfashionable southern end of the unfashionable Newtown, Sydney.
It was too good to last. Darley St Thai moved to Kings Cross with prices inflated to match its well deserved popularity, and David also opened the excellent (and slightly cheaper) Sailors Thai in the Rocks area. Even south Newtown has moved upmarket since, leaving only Mevrouw T and me languishing behind.
David Thompson meanwhile moved onwards and upwards, opening his London restaurant and being voted Outstanding London Chef in 2003. Last year, nahm opened in Bangkok too.
It was great to have him back in Sydney, briefly strutting his stuff at the Sydney Seafood School.
I thought I knew Thai food quite well by now, so much so that I was a bit over it.
I’d had enough rubbery fish cakes, insipid Tom Kha Gai and standard red beef curry to last me quite a while. It was refreshing to go to a cooking class and be reminded of what made Thai food exciting when I first discovered it.
The Sydney Seafood School was established in 1989 to encourage Australians to eat more fish. Now 12,000 students a year pass through its doors. This is impressive because it wasn’t easy to find the doors, in a corner of the buzzing Sydney Fish Market.
Upstairs we found a smart wood-panelled auditorium, like the set from a TV show, with video screens overhead showing live close-ups of the chopping board action. The students had to be keen and knowledgeable. And quick. This class sold out immediately it was announced, and I was only squeezed in courtesy of the management.
Thompson’s laid-back presentation was thorough, passionate and anecdotal. He rightly assumed we already knew something about coriander and lemon grass and could move on to more interesting matters.
‘And I didn’t expect him to be so entertaining,’ whispered my neighbour. My pen was kept busy writing down the tips and also the jokes. ‘These are very hot chillis, used not so much for culinary purposes as for punishment.’ ‘You may have seen those carved Thai carrots. I think life’s too short to carve a vegetable.’ ‘Use the back of the cleaver to split your coconut, not the blade…unless you’re making red curry.’
No corners were cut when it came to constructing the flavours however. Everything was made from scratch. ‘Fresh coconut milk turns sour after 4-5 hours. What crap do they add to that can to make it last 2-3 years?’ I now know that curry paste in a packet is rubbish, most fish sauce is crap, and I’ll be attempting to make my own chilli powder and looking for good shrimp paste in future.
Thanks to the school for arming me not only with recipe sheets, but also with a list of Sydney Asian shops which sell the ingredients.
After we’d queued with teaspoons to taste David’s fabulous results, the side door of the auditorium opened and we were led through to the kitchen to try to put our new knowledge into practice. On the menu was Southern Coconut Curry of Snapper, Hot and Sour Soup of Mussels with Tumeric, and Cucumber and Prawn Salad.
We were organised into teams of 5-6, with unfamiliar equipment and half an hour to do everything. I was shocked to find my hands trembling with nerves. Or was that just the shuddering caused by a few minutes working the coconut grater? Fortunately Mike, Mike, Alan and Caroline seemed to know their way around a kitchen and the results were dahm near nahm stahndard. Thanks, people!
The day finished as we shared our meal and the complimentary glass of wine, then cleared the table, said our goodbyes and left the serious cleaning-up to the seafood school staff.
‘Cooking is about exploitation,’ was one of David’s lessons. ‘Never do the hard work if you can find someone else to do it for you.’
Classes at the Sydney Seafood School are usually held in the evenings and weekends, and normally cost $85, $120 and $155 for 2-,3- and 4-hour classes respectively.
The writer was the guest of the Sydney Seafood School. Thanks for having me – it’s nice there are some perks for being a dedicated blogger!