David Thompson opened Darley Street Thai in Sydney’s Newtown in 1991, taking Thai food in Australia to a new level. He was the first to offer Thai royal cuisine – a far cry from the Thai food we had experienced until then. The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide named Darley Street Thai as Best Thai Restaurant every year for the eight years it was open. Thompson went on to open Thai restaurants in Bangkok and London and returned in 2014 to found his Long Chim restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, as well as Seoul and Singapore.
The first Thai restaurant in Australia opened in 1976 and the popularity of Thai cuisine increased in the 1980s. Typically they offered inexpensive casual dining and an alternative to Chinese take-away. Chef David Thompson changed all that.
Thompson travelled to Thailand in 1986 where he discovered that the country’s cuisine involved more than green curry and fish cakes. He says his initial understanding of the food came from spending six months with a 90-year-old woman who introduced him to the ingredients and cultural significance of Thai cuisine. Returning in 1988, he lived there for two more years, learning the language and collecting recipes.
When he returned to Australia Thompson began cooking at Darley Street Brasserie, in the back of a somewhat insalubrious hotel in Sydney’s inner west. Together with restaurant manager Peter Bowyer, he converted the brasserie to Darley Street Thai in 1991. Moving out of the pub in 1993 and opening in King’s Cross in a purpose-designed restaurant, he took Thai food up-market for the first time.
Critics were enthusiastic. Nicholas Hayward wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “…many of Australia’s Thai chefs have found the tin opener indispensable. Thompson, on the other hand, became an indefatigable searcher for the fresh ingredients.” He went on to praise the gaeng jin juan nok pirap, a squab and banana capsicum curry, and the Lon of Naem, a dip made with cured pork, red shallots and coconut cream served with raw vegetables.
Thompson’s next Sydney venture was Sailors Thai, in The Rocks – a mix of restaurant and more casual canteen. Opened in 1995, it had a more relaxed vibe of which Terry Durack wrote: “If Darley Street Thai is the haute couture of Thai food, then Sailors Thai restaurant is the ready-to-wear.” Sailors Thai remained a favourite with the smart set for 20 years. Eventually sold to a Sydney businessman, it closed in 2016 when the lease was not renewed.
But Thompson had his eye on bigger things. In 2001 he opened Namh in London. Six months later, it became the first-ever Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. However, after nine years Thompson was finding it difficult to obtain many of his genuinely Thai ingredients in London. Blaming European Union regulations, he decided to close the London restaurant and re-open Nahm in Bangkok. By 2014 it had been named No. 1 on the ‘Asia’s Best Restaurants’ list.
The first of Thompson’s Long Chim restaurants opened in 2015 in Singapore, followed the same year by one in Perth. His aim with the Long Chim chain is to serve authentic Thai street food – a cuisine he says is influenced by Chinese culinary traditions.