David Thompson, an Australian chef renowned for his passion for Thai food and whose cookbooks on Thai food have been our bible has opened up a restaurant in Bangkok named Nahm. A cat fight (some have predictably called it a food fight) has ensued between him and certain offended sectors of the Thai food world. I could really literally see the fur flying as I read this article and came out with very mixed emotions. David Thompson, according to this New York Times article, is on a mission to “revive” Thai food because he finds that Thai cuisine is “dacaying.”
On one hand was the question: where’s your humility, David? For someone who has been going back and forth to Thailand since 1986 and whose partner is Thai, his arrogance reveals a deep seated ignorance of Asian sensibilities of respect and not showing up your hosts. What he has done is commit the worst offense to Asians: coming to the table during a feast and pronouncing that he, an outsider (a white guy at that) can do better than what he has been offered. Not only that, he flaunts it to the entire world (and gets a Michelin star for his Thai restaurant in London, but never mind that because that star is given by French guys anyway).
I had very mixed feelings about this recent turn of events. I could feel the heat come up to my throat and ears (without eating Thai chile peppers) and imagined a non-Filipino coming to the Philippines and telling us that what we cook is destroying our culinary heritage.
And yet, I could not help feel a tingle of excitement to see what will happen with this fight. Who will win this knockdown drag out fist fight in the culinary ring? I began to question my premises: do race and ethnic heritage matter when it comes to cooking? What if David Thompson, a white Australian, grew up in Thailand, going to the wet markets and eating homecooked meals for a greater part of his life, would that ease the anger and resentment that Thai food critics have heaped on him and look beyond his skin color and ethnic origins?
Colonial masters in the past centuries have done both good and much damage to many cuisines all over the world and we don’t feel that anger these days. No one writes heated and impassioned columns whenever a MacDonald’s opens up in the Philippines. And yet, that to me is one more assault to our cuisine –not to mention our health and well-being raising a generation of Filipino kids whose food memories will not be grandmother’s cooking but that of fast food outlets.
David Thompson is on a mission to “save Thai cuisine.” That is not too different when I say “I am on a mission to preserve Philippine culinary heritage.” The content is the same because for me to preserve our heritage is to save it. It means rescuing the good stuff before they are relegated into oblivion. The one who professes it is different. I belong to my culture and I know better to stay within my own culture.
I am grateful to David Thompson and thoroughly appreciate all the hard work and passion he has put into his books and restaurants. Critics are a dime a dozen. People like him come only once in a while. I say, if you know the heat of a kitchen fire and if you wake up at 6 am every morning to be at the wet markets to make sure you serve nothing but the freshest food for your diners everyday, then fire away.
Who are the keepers of the culinary flame for our culture? I can’t wait to see where this drama leads us to. Stay tuned!