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Strong Australian ‘Thais’

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Australian chef David Thompson is known as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Thai cooking.
Australian chef David Thompson is known as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Thai cooking.

Matthew Michaelis

Many years ago in a land far, far away…

Many years ago… I know that every time a person kicks off a story with this familiar intro, whole generations start rolling their eyes like Mr Squiggle impatiently waiting for Miss Jane (google it!); however, I feel the need to qualify that some of the details following may have blurred over time.

Anyhoo… many years back (24 years to be precise), I was told that I should eat in a pub in Enmore in Sydney. Being the good foodie I was, I followed the lead to an indescribable looking street on the border of St Peters and Enmore.

Darley Street was (at the time) a badly lit street at the industrial end of Enmore. My destination was a pub called the Botany View Hotel, an art deco pub that was a little worse for wear, rounded edges and tiled for that late-night chuck-up.

I ventured meekly upstairs to this new bistro restaurant wishing I were somewhere else.

When Thai food rounded the corner

When I hit the top floor and rounded the corner, I saw the very well-known face of a Thai restaurant owner with his family on a table in the corner.

I had only recently reviewed his Thai restaurant in Kings Cross (one of the better-known and larger Thai eateries of the day). I was miffed to say the least – what business does a Thai-born, Thai-restaurant-owning person have in a joint like this? I asked myself.

I sidled up to him, shook his hand and said, ‘What are you doing in someone else’s Thai restaurant?’ He quickly retorted, ‘I can’t make food like this; this is the stuff my grandmother used to make, and it’s really hard to get these ingredients in Australia.’

How fascinating, I thought. I sat and ordered, with a lack of belief that anything could be that interesting (at the time). What came forth, I can honestly say to this day, was the most different and exciting food I’d tried; it almost blew my mind!

Not many at this time had been treated to such strong and interesting uses of flavours. Kaffir lime and galangal, with copious fresh lime juice, Thai basil, ground nuts, fresh coconut cream and freshly pasted sauces yellow, green, red. I remember quizzing the waiter as to the peas in my dish – ‘These are unusual peas,’ I said. He looked over to me and put me straight: ‘they are Thai eggplants, not peas; though they do look like them,’ he said in an understanding tone.

A Thai-d up Aussie

At the end of the meal, I just had to meet the chef and owner of the restaurant that had alone changed my view on multiculture cuisines in one sitting. I was expecting a Thai national to come out. More shocks were about to happen – a pasty (white) and slight Australian guy walked out and introduced himself – ‘Hi, I’m David Thompson the chef’. ‘Wow!’ I expounded, ‘you’ve tipped me on my head.’ I remarked. And he had absolutely with this fresh and entirely different taste.

David explained that he’d just returned from working in Bangkok for some time. He could speak and write the language fluently and had procured, on his travels into villages in Thailand, the family diaries of the long-dead grandparents and folk of various Thai regions. These memoirs contained the family recipes that would be modified and recreated by David. He then over time facilitated the delivery route of the ingredients required back to Australia.

The incarnation of Thai cuisine

For those who still don’t know of him, David Thompson is now known as the world’s foremost authority and expert on Thai food – yes, the same guy and an Australian. He went on to open another Darley Street restaurant in Kings Cross (since closed) and then another in The Rocks in Sydney – Sailors Thai, which is still pumping.

He gained the attention of Christina Ong, a well-heeled hotel owner, and through this business relationship an international reputation was spawned with Thompson’s Nahm restaurants. The first was established in The Halkin, a boutique hotel in London’s Belgravia district.

Through Thompson’s direction and care this eatery attracted Europe’s first and only Michelin Star for an Asian restaurant. His second venture is now one of Asia’s most respected eateries – Nahm opened in the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok.

This restaurant was very recently named No 1 in the S Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 Awards (fellow Australian, Tetsuya Wakuda, placed at No 7).

Thompson closed Nahm in London as the fresh ingredient supplies (that we’re spoilt with in southeast Asia) were not reliable in Europe – so rather than bring down his quality and reputation, the restaurant was shut to concentrate his energies on the Bangkok venture.

The moral of this fairytale is not a moral at all; it’s a thank-you to a shy and retiring chef who enlivened the traditional energy of an Asian cuisine and showcased the possibilities in Australia.

Thompson effectively gave Thai cuisine a profile and delivered it successfully to a reasonably unadventurous Aussie palate at the time. Today there are few Australians who’d turn their noses up at a well-made Thai dish – I cook it and eat it with gusto. Here’s cheers to all good Thai eateries and to David Thompson for a modern incarnation of Thai food.

Hot and sour green mango salad with caramelised pork and grilled prawns from Traditional Thai.
Hot and sour green mango salad with caramelised pork and grilled prawns from Traditional Thai.

Fresh, contemporary with Traditional Thai-d in

In many cultures you’ll find that the indigenous populations will cook regional and national foods generally very well.

You can see Australia’s multicultural legacy in action when people like David Thompson – who is not a Thai – can become an authority on Thai cuisine in that country.

In much the same vein, John Verano, head chef and owner of Traditional Thai in Byron Bay, is preparing and cooking amazing Thai dishes.

John came from Columbia to Australia when he was four and was eight years old when he turned his hand to cooking. He rapidly replaced his mother in the kitchen and by thirteen was cooking full meals. ‘I was good at it, so good that I knew it was my calling,’ he told me.

In 1988 he started an apprenticeship at the Opera House with Rowland Commercial Catering and then as an apprentice under Neil Perry at the Rockpool in Sydney.

It was David Thompson who influenced John with his exceptional treatment of Thai cuisine. As an apprentice he took several cooking classes with Thompson himself at his Darley Street Thai restaurant in Enmore and found that, after meeting and working with Thompson, his own perception of Thai cuisine was changed forever.

Both John and his partner Mariana Pavlova are consummate professionals and this shines through their creative and standout menus.

‘We source and make everything ourselves here fresh from scratch – we pound our own curry pastes, make our chili jam, sweet chili sauce, dressings, sorbets, ice-creams, etc,’ Mariana told me. ‘We source a lot of our produce locally or travel up and down the coast to hunt for particular traditional ingredients such as pea and apple eggplant, green peppercorns, betel leaf, etc.

We only use sustainable Australian seafood, all of which comes from the Ballina Fishermen’s Co-op as soon as the boats come in (we don’t have fish on the menu, as we only use fresh fish when it’s available). Also we cook every single individual dish to order to ensure maximum quality and freshness of flavour,’ Mariana added.

I can attest to the quality and flavours being served here as I’ve had them firsthand and rest assured I’ll be in to try more (you’ll know when it happens).

Traditional Thai.

Dine in or take away. From 5.30pm to 9.30pm, seven days. Shop 4–5, 2 Fletcher Street, Byron Bay; www.traditionalthai.com.au (closed on Christmas Day, New Years Day, and 8 January (their daughter’s birthday – Nawww!).


The dad’s secret Pad Thai from Bamboo Thai.
The dad’s secret Pad Thai from Bamboo Thai.

Bamboo Thai takeaway Bangalow

This little kitchen was opened seven years ago as an Asian noodle bar in Bangalow. In its present incarnation, it’s an authentic and busy Thai takeaway with bench seating and few tables for eat in.

Its owner, Panalee, or ‘Bam’ as she’s known to many of her customers, started working here seven years ago as a second job. It was five years ago that she was offered the business to buy – she did, I ate, and we’re definitely all the better for it.

An expat from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Panalee came over with her husband and three children for a fresh start in Australia.

With hospitality and the business of food in her bloodline, she came straight from Thailand to the northern rivers, and took a job in the Traditional Thai restaurant in Byron Bay. After one-and-a-half years, she started her second job in the Bamboo Noodle Bar.

‘It’s like a family business; all of my family were brought up with my father cooking. He was a great Thai chef and he himself ran a restaurant in Chiang Mai,’ she told me. Though her father has since died, it’s his culinary skills that have stayed and inspired the whole family to carry on in business.

Panalee’s aunty and sister own a busy Thai restaurant in California, and both Panalee and her sibling are using their father’s renowned Pad Thai recipe (I tried valiantly, but couldn’t get it out of her).

A mother of three, she finds time to tend a substantial garden to ‘help unwind’ and to provide essential Thai produce along with other staples. She grows as much organic produce as she can with home-grown ingredients that include galangal, turmeric, Thai basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime, lettuce and pumpkin.

An extensive vegetarian menu exists here, not just an afterthought. Vegans are also treated to a personalised service with the care of dishes prepared to order.

Bamboo Thai. Dinner: 4.30–8.30pm, seven days, 12a Byron Street, Bangalow; phone: 6687 1982.


The  quirky and colourful space at Thai Lucy.
The quirky and colourful space at Thai Lucy.

Family Thai-s

Bay Lane in Byron Bay is a short road thick with quirky eateries and a bit of magic. Here you’ll find some colourful and eclectic interiors and tables set to serve their own individual menu styles.

You get the feeling that in this back street it’s a tight community – tight in a business sense. When people do business so close to each other, then I guess there’s nothing for it but harmony.

Thai Lucy sits cosily between its competitors, and it’s been here for years. Its owner, Joseph Jurd, waxes sentimentally about eating here when he was a small boy and although he doesn’t quite know how long the restaurant has been here, he puts it at around 16 years or thereabouts.

If you have had the pleasure of meeting this fellow, then I’m sure you’ll agree; his personality embodies the attributes of accord and respect, particularly if you’re speaking to him on the topic of the cooks in Thai Lucy.

‘It’s very much a family environment. We all work together like a family,’ Joseph told me. Joe is passionate about letting the kitchen do their own thing.

From what I’ve seen of this authentic Thai menu, this is exactly what they do. These Thai cooks make all the pastes from scratch and work in authentic foods from their home towns.

‘Yupa is our curry chef and she’s from southern Thailand close to the coast where seafood is a speciality. Lek, our head chef, comes from the north of Bangkok and brings traditional home-style and flavoursome dishes to the menu.

Madame Ing is a Thai grandmother who supplies the eatery with its Thai essentials – chilies, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass – it’s a small community.’

The food here is delectable, and some dishes unique, imbibed with unusual ingredients the likes of the krachai root salad or the wild chili basil. The quality of dishes reflects the sort of wellbeing that exists in a stable, happy kitchen – fresh, strong flavours filled with energetic thought and care.

Definitely worth a visit, I’ll be back in.

Thai Lucy. Eat in or take away. BYO. Dinner from 5.30pm to late, seven days, 2/4 Bay Lane, Byron Bay, phone 6680 8083.


Fresh and stir-fried to order at Success Thai.
Fresh and stir-fried to order at Success Thai.

The mother of Success – Thai style

Thai-born Goy and Kan Kingaew have a long history in Byron Bay when it comes to Thai food. It all starts with his mother (now where have I heard that assertion?).

All mother-therapy jokes aside, Kan’s mum, Pramuk Kingkaew, is a Thai food whiz. Everything that Kan and his wife Goy are doing today is as a direct result of this Thai matriarch. Pramuk came to Australia 25 years ago and worked hard over the years in restaurants the likes of Lemongrass in Melbourne.

Her son and daughter-in-law came out to Australia much later, as sometimes is the case with resettlement. Pramuk came to Byron Bay and worked in the then Byron Thai restaurant (now a development) and although she’s retired now, her knowhow and experience is now the family legacy.

This legacy has been strengthened by Goy and Kan having spent the past ten years creating a loyal customer base in their previous eatery, Thai @ Byron in the Feros Arcade in Byron Bay, and now at Success Thai down Jonson Street opposite Woolworths and the cinema.

Again, you’ll find that magical edge that comes from authentic expertise. The menu contains Thai standards, with sauces in green, red and massaman, noodles of pad Thai, pad see ew, stir fries and soups. Everything is made to order, no MSG, and fresh ingredients with a must-try lunch menu for value Monday to Friday.

Success Thai. Eat in, take away, BYO / licensed. Lunch 12 to 3pm Monday to Friday; Dinner 5pm, seven days, 3/109 Jonson Street, Byron Bay, Phone: 6680 7798; web: Facebook.


Thai salad with barramundi from Spice It Up Thai.
Thai salad with barramundi from Spice It Up Thai.

Spiced-up bowls

I’ve eaten in this Thai restaurant quite a few times and each time it’s been under a different circumstance. The Golf Club was my first experience of the eatery and, at the time, the place was filled to the brim and jumping with hungry punters.

They have since upped and moved out of the golfing world and into the bowling greens at the Mullumbimby Bowling Club.

When I hear of folk wanting to start up a cafe or restaurant (apart from cringe), I offer advice like ‘watch your rent isn’t unreasonable’, and I tell of the benefits of leasing an eatery in a club or pub.

I’ve done it, and the benefits far outweigh the obvious cons. For a start, a club has members ready to eat along with your goodwill walk-ins etc.

To me, it appears the Spice It Up owners are smart to move into another club firstly and secondly to move up the road and not too far from their loyal following. So, good business is at home here. Call it a coincidence, but I’m sitting in a cafe, typing away at this story and I overhear the waitress talking about the cafe’s Christmas party held at (you guessed) – Spice It Up Thai.

I called the owner over and asked how it went. ‘Fantastic, they picked us up in the club bus and we had a fabulous night, great service and food – highly recommended’ – well that saved me half an hour looking for local comment.

Here, head chef Matt and his team specialise in authentic Thai food. With eighteen years’ experience that includes working in Thailand, Spice It Up have an impressive menu of traditional Thai dishes utilising local fresh produce and seafood.

The owners, Matt and his Thai partner, ensure that you get all the flavour, colour and excitement of Thailand. Along with this expect ‘an abundance of fresh vegetables and generous servings’, the cafe owner added, referring to his end-of-year hoedown.

Spice It Up Thai. Open Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm, Mullumbimby Bowling Club, Jubilee Avenue, Mullumbimby, phone: 6684 2209; web: spiceitupthai.com.au.


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