Return to the motherland and finding Thailand in London Fields

It seems that once again I’ve neglected the upkeep of this blog over the past few months and for those regular readers (if there are any of you) then you may have now given up all hope of hearing from me again. Apologies, but I do assure you my lack of updates have not been without reason. Where do I start… since my last update I completed the third and final level (Superior Level) of my studies at Le Cordon Bleu and graduated top student from the Diplôme de Cuisine programme. A proud moment and at the graduation ceremony I was presented with a fancy certificate, medal and one of those traditional pointy French chef hats that I swear no one actually wears anymore. Still nice all the same and officially a member of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary family.

Diplome de Cuisine

Immediately following my graduating from Le Cordon Bleu I landed a chef role in the kitchen at Nahm (World Top 50 ranking #13, Asia Top 50 ranking #1) under instruction of the great chef David Thompson and his highly skilled and professional kitchen brigade. Looking back on it now I can say that the time spent working within the Nahm team was easily the most rewarding of all my experiences during the year living in Bangkok. I learnt an unprecedented amount about the fundamentals and ingredients of Thai cuisine, as well as about Thailand’s food history and culture. Not to mention a plethora of new techniques with all array of Asian kitchen equipment, from the pok pokin’ of toasted chillies prior to service, to mastering (or attempting to master) the art of wok’ing and the aromatic frying-out of curry pastes until fragrant.

Nahm

Nahm was a really eye opening and belly tickling experience. I always knew it would be a wonderful kitchen tenure but wasn’t prepared to be blown away by the array of flavours, ingredients and techniques that shape Thai cookery. In many ways I found the fundamentals to be more complex and diverse, yet delicate and subtle than those I had recently studied at Le Cordon Bleu with the classical French cuisine program. If possible, I believe I would have stayed for longer, maybe even indefinitely at Nahm to continue my learning and growing as a chef. Sadly due to various personal reasons I made the decision to return to the UK in September and continue my chef career back on native soil.

Nahm

After returning I took a much needed break to see family, attend friend’s weddings and generally spend a little time sleeping on a real mattress and not living out a travel bag. Those first nights sleep were some of the best I’ve had in years! With my batteries refuelled and a burning desire to continue learning as a chef I made steps to get back in the kitchen back on English soil. After a few emails and tweets via social media I landed a stagiare (or for those not with the lingo – a chef who works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen) at the one Michelin star Casamia in Westbury-on-Trym, just outside Bristol. I’d been interested in Casamia since seeing chef/co-owner Peter Sanchez-Iglesius on the Great British Menu a few years ago. Pete wowed his fellow chefs, the GBM judges and British public with his use of the best British produce, modern cooking techniques and nostalgic food memories – imagine your granny’s best apple pie taken to Michelin star level.

Casamia

Pete co-owns Casamia with his older brother and fellow chef Jonray, and together they serve a single tasting menu that rotates four times a year in keeping with the seasons. I joined the kitchen as the brothers were rolling out their Autumn tasting menu, using the very best seasonal British produce from the Somerset area. Dishes included crispy cavolo nero cabbage with raw row dear and horseradish fluid gel, butternut squash with caramel, pumpkin granola and nitrous ice cream, and pears with bay leaves. Each dish was masterfully conceived before being trialled and taste tested in the Casamia test kitchen (not a bad job) and if good enough, included in the final tasting menu for that season. This was the first time I worked in a kitchen where vacuum packing, sous-vide cooking, thermomixes, dehydrators and nitrous oxide featured on a daily basis. Casamia is the sort of kitchen that takes everyday humble British vegetables and transforms them into a veritable array of textures and flavours using a combination of established classic technique coupled with modern science. It was like being a kid in a candy store and I learnt so much each and every day with the Casamia team. Just describing the petit four selection served at the end of the Autumn dinner with coffee and teas will give the best insight into the minds of these young brother chefs – sea buckthorn turkish delights, fruit and nut dark chocolate lollipops, porcini mushroom fudge and vanilla marshmallows, and rosemary cupcakes.

IMG_5327Immediately following my time at Casamia I found myself packing my suitcase (again) and jumping on a coach back to London to embark on a very special project indeed. To backtrack slightly, on my return from Bangkok I had made contact with chef Andy Oliver, a fellow West Country lad with a passion for Thai cuisine. Andy has honed his palate and skills both at Nahm (when in London) and Bo.lan in Bangkok during his years of experience cooking Thai cuisine. He has also worked on various Thai related project in the UK, spent many a service at The Begging Bowl in Peckham (arguably one of London’s best Thai restaurants) and even managed to start a small company growing kaffir limes in Spain for distribution, sale and use in Europe. I was fortunate to hear about Andy while working in the kitchen at Nahm so made an effort to reach out to him and express my love of Thai cuisine, and to see if there was a possibility of working together. As luck would have it Andy was on the verge of finding a semi-permanent residence spot for his Thai restaurant, Som Saa, and even more fortunately it would seem I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the opportunity for work arose. So back to London with a bag of clothes, set of knives and a copy of David Thompson’s ‘Thai Food’ slung under my arm. I really had no idea what I was getting myself in to, but I was excited!

som-saa-022 (1)

That was back in October and I haven’t looked back since. The restaurant has taken residency in a little corner of London Fields, Hackney at Climpson’s Arch, owned by Climpson’s and Sons Coffee Roaster. By day the arch is a busy hive of coffee related activity and by night the space is transformed into an urban restaurant not too dissimilar in look and charm to that found in many corners of Thailand. At Som Saa the focus is on bringing regional Thai cuisine, mainly from the Northern and Isaan regions of Thailand, to London. At the restaurant we cook an array of little known Thai dishes over wood and charcoal, utilising the double wood fire ovens and huge adjustable grill sections that are found at Climpson’s. It’s not always ideal, things break and every day a new set of issues seem to arise. The kitchen is partially outside and mostly alfresco. To be more exact it’s built inside of an old shipping freight container which as you can imagine comes with its own set of unique problems, but we get by and we persist and we cook some truly authentic Thai food. Example dishes include; jan naem moo (grilled fermented pork served with peanuts, raw vegetables and herbs), gai yang (marinated and charcoal grilled chicken leg served with jaew dipping sauce), som tam (green papaya salad), geng hung lay (Northern-style pork belly curry with pickled garlic and ginger), dtom sap (hot and spicy soup) and nam dtok pla thort (deep-fried whole sea bass with Isaan herbs and roasted rice).

Pla thort

So far it’s been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. The reaction from London has been incredible and we’re all having a great time, enjoying as we grow from strength to strength. Fay Maschler of The London Evening Standard even listed Som Saa in her 10 best new restaurants for 2014 which is nothing short of fantastic for everyone involved and shows just how much London is ready and willing to embrace a truly authentic taste of Thailand.

What next? Well to start we’re having a New Years Eve celebration at Som Saa where we’ll be seeing in 2015 with Thai food, Thai drinks and Thai funk. We’ve also just announced that Som Saa will be continuing its residency into the New Year with some additions to the menu and a few other surprises up our sleeves. So it looks like I’ll be staying and putting some roots down once again in London and I’ll admit I’m very much looking forward to it. And with that in mind I say to you all, if you’re ever in London and have a hankering for a taste of Thailand then get yourself over to Som Saa and come say hello at the hatch. We’ll be more than happy to welcome you – looking forward to serving y’all some food!

Som Saa – Climpson’s Arch, 374 Hemsley Place, Hackney, London E8 3SB (dinner served Thursday-Sunday 6pm-10:30pm, brunch served weekends 11am-4pm)

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2 comments

  1. Hi john,
    I stumbled upon your blog while researching on LCB Dusit. It was interesting reading about your culinary adventures.

    I am keen to join the LCB pastry course but am undecided if I should do it in Paris or Bangkok. Bangkok is part of my consideration as I love the food and people there plus the cost of living will be much lower as compared to Paris.

    Would you recommend LCB Dusit? Would be grateful if you could share your thoughts, e.g. quality of the teachers, school facilities, job opportunities in Bangkok for a foreigner, internship opportunities, living in BKK, etc. I can be reached at coughy_bean@yahoo.co.uk

    Hope to hear from you soon!

    Regards
    Chinyi

  2. Looking forward to seeing more of what 2015 has in store for you John!

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