Asia’s number one restaurant is run by an Australian. David Thompson, the man behind nahm in Bangkok’s Metropolitan by COMO hotel, has become synonymous with the nation’s cuisine. His London restaurant of the same name was the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star before closing in 2012 and its reincarnation in Bangkok was declared the continent’s best restaurant, placing 13th overall in the that year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Thompson’s knack for scouring century-old cookbooks and bringing to life recipes not seen for years means he is also taken extremely seriously in his adopted homeland. He has "always been fascinated" by Thai history. "It makes one aware of the place to which one has come," he says. "As an outsider, it was important for me to establish, or at least be able to understand, the country’s complex culture and past in order to give some validity to my food."

This scholar of Asian cuisine has drawn particular inspiration the late 19th century, a historical high point in his eyes. "Every culture goes through vicissitudes, or waves, achieving great heights, and then going flat for a while," Thompson explains. "This epoch was one of the high points in Thai culinary history."

Another appeal of this period in history is its accessibility. Thompson discovered Thailand’s remarkable tradition of publishing books distributed at funeral or cremation ceremonies. Traditionally, these included recipes: "Cookbooks were first printed in this period and were often given to family members and intimates of the deceased."

Authentic problem

Thompson has a complex answer to the question of whether or not his cooking can be considered ‘authentic’. "Most people say authenticity is something that happened in the past, which must be reproduced faithfully," he says. "I’ve come to the conclusion that different people have varying interpretations of authenticity that depend on when, and what, they are looking back to."

Thompson’s initial understanding of the local food was limited when he first came to Thailand. "I have no right to cook Thai food," he declares. "I arrived here a novice and my understanding was fixed not only on the 19th century, and on Bangkok, but also on a certain, affluent and urbane class that had servants to cook for them. Because that was the epitome of the food as I understood it, my book, Thai Food, articulated a knowledge of Thai cuisine that was rooted in that time, city, and class. It was a very fixed idea that in some ways dismissed all other possible interpretations of authenticity, such as the food of the streets, or regional cuisines.

"It ignored the possibility of rich and satisfying cooking in homes that were not, perhaps, as affluent as the homes I’d tried to get into."

Thompson identifies this understanding of authenticity as flawed, especially where a search for a historical understanding of food is concerned. He says, "This definition fixes an idea of what food should be, as opposed to what good cooking and proper culture is about, both of which change and develop to express the essence of a dish."

Crossing culinary borders

Thompson’s cooking has evolved since he opened Darley Street Thai in Sydney in 1992 after living in Thailand for several years. "I’ve cooked throughout the world. I’ve cooked in Sydney, in London, and now I’m cooking in Bangkok," Thompson observes. "My cooking has changed quite dramatically. First of all, I used to be an uncertain and rather demanding novice and when you are uncertain, you often fix on an idea, no matter how unyielding, in order to achieve what you want. That’s how I ran my restaurant in Sydney. When I look back now, I regard it as a rather immature operation.

"Even if I had a decent reputation in Sydney, it now seems quite limited," Thompson continues. "My understanding of Thai food was quite shallow: I had only spent three or four years trying to understand a cuisine that may take a whole lifetime to appreciate."

Darley Street Thai was joined by Sailors Thai and the success of these Sydney establishments caught the attention of hotelier Christina Ong. She offered him the opportunity to open the first nahm in 2001, in the Halkin Hotel in London.

Thompson now had access to ingredients that enabled him to recreate authentic Thai recipes, but moving to Bangkok in 2010 changed his cooking dramatically. "Opening nahm in Bangkok was quite traumatic as a cook," he recalls. "All the recipes I had been able to use and follow quite faithfully, simply did not work as they had done before. The ingredients were the same and the cook was similar, but not a single dish was right.

"Before, our ingredients had been grown outside Thailand and were not as good as some of those available to us in Bangkok, but nothing worked, from basic things, like stocks to dressings, to the more complicated salads, relishes and curries."

This baffling time became an opportunity for a spot of culinary spring cleaning. Thompson had to test his assumptions and throw away those that did not work. These included the basis of his culinary technique: "Rather than nervously dictating how things should be, as I had in Australia, to being constantly demanding about how things had to happen, as I was London, I became far more collegiate and consensual when it came to developing recipes, which is how Thai cooking works."

Thai it all together

In nahm Bangkok, Thompson drew on the golden age of Thai cooking by using recipes he discovered from the 19th and early 20th centuries. He also learned that bringing old recipes to life allowed interpretation and variation.

One recipe Thompson found was jungle curry, a rustic dish with poultry, dried chilies, lemongrass and galangal, as well as shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste. With the help of his executive chef at nahm and other Thai cooks, the kitchen gradually moved the jungle curry from the 1920s to 2010: "We changed the curry paste and added more shrimp.

We put in more lemongrass to balance the oiliness of the chicken, (‘jungle bird’ no longer being common in Bangkok) and then tried it with beef, which seemed to be an even better fit, but necessitated a another change to the curry paste.

"As you see, cooking Thai food is rather like playing chess: you make one move, then another and another in order to reach your goal: culinary checkmate. My understanding of authenticity is no longer about the dictates of an old recipe combined with some ingredients. Authenticity is also trying to follow set patterns in a genuine way."

The interview took place in Singapore, where Thompson will be opening a restaurant later this year. It won’t be a third nahm, though, which he describes as "a difficult, demanding beast" that is best suited to Bangkok, where he has access to a cornucopia of local ingredients.

"What I will offer in Singapore is the street food I enjoy eating in Bangkok," he says. "It’s a hybrid cuisine with a lot of Chinese influences, so there won’t be extremes of heat, sourness or sweetness. It’s a simpler cooking: street food, by its very nature, is far more tolerant."

When pressed for an opening date for his new venture, Thompson will commit to be nothing more precise than a suggestion that it will be open by the end of this year, believing that "any self-respecting restaurateur always runs late with an opening".

Without the formal trappings of a traditional restaurant, Thompson’s new venture will be more accessible and contemporary. "It will offer a far more relaxed approach to eating, and drinking, so there will be a bar," he says. "There will be an open kitchen, which I have always disliked, but on the streets of Bangkok you see the cooks in front of you."

To solve the labour restrictions and shortage of staff in Singapore, the cooks will also be serving the food.

Before leaving, I ask Thompson what ingredients are always to be found in his fridge at home. "I have chocolate, because I’m addicted to it," he confesses. "But I always have palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chili."

There’s no doubt Thai cuisine runs in his veins. Just don’t get him started on durian. For David Thompson, the 66 different varieties of the fruit mean 66 different manifestations of heaven.