David Thompson fell in love with Thailand on a trip there in 1986. He subsequently moved to Bangkok where he learnt the fundamentals of Thai cooking and spent many years researching techniques and recipes. David opened his first restaurant in 1991, Darley Street Thai, which was awarded Best Thai Restaurant in the SMH Good Food Guide for 8 years in a row – every year of the restaurant’s life. He opened Sailor’s Thai in 1995 which is still open today (although David is no longer a part of the restaurant).
Unfortunately for Australia, David moved back to Bangkok in 2000. In 2001 he opened nahm in London, which was awarded one Michelin Star the following year – becoming the first Thai restaurant to ever be awarded a Michelin Star. In 2010 David opened nahm in Bangkok, which was recently awarded a coveted spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (ranked #50).
David Thompson has been one of Dylan’s favourite chefs since as long as I can remember. He is the master of Thai food, Dylan’s favourite cuisine. We missed out on the last class David ran at Sydney Seafood School and I knew I didn’t want to miss out this time around. So for Dylan’s 30th I bought him (us!) tickets to one of the classes David was running during the winter season.
Sydney Seafood School (SSS) has been on my radar for a few years. I’ve heard many great things but as usual it took much longer than anticipated to actually get there. Located at the Sydney Fish Markets in Pyrmont, SSS runs classes 7 days a week. Classes contain no more than 50 people (ours had about 42) and vary in duration and cost. The smaller weeknight classes are generally 2-3 hours at $85-120 per person, with the all day Saturday classes taking 4-5 hours at $155-200 per person.
All classes include a demonstration (by a chef or seafood educator) followed by a hands-on cooking session where you cook the dish(es) you’ve just seen demonstrated. Once you’ve cooked the meal you get to sit down in the dining room and enjoy the fruits of your labour with a nice glass of wine. Aprons, insulated carry bags and recipes are all included in the package.
As well as being excited about meeting David Thompson and finally making my way to SSS, I was also excited about meeting SSS manager, Roberta Muir. Roberta is a food, wine and travel writer. You may have seen her work in magazines such as Australian Gourmet Traveller and Jetstar Magazine. Roberta graduated from the inaugural Master of Arts degree in Gastronomy, from the University of Adelaide, in 2003. She wrote ‘500 Cheeses’ (which I am yet to get all the way through – how on earth can people retain so much information on cheese? It’s like the cheese bible!), ‘A Sardinian Cookbook’ alongside Giovanni Pilu and ‘Sydney Seafood School Cookbook’ which are both due to be released later this year. I follow Roberta and her husband Franz Scheurer (a wine, spirits and food writer) on Twitter and am always extremely jealous of their travels, including their latest trip to Africa.
We arrive just before 10am on a cold and rainy Saturday morning. We take a peek through the recipe book we’ve been handed and see that David will be teaching us how to make three dishes – minced perch jungle curry with wild ginger and basil, grilled prawns with sweet fish sauce, and crab stir-fried with egg and bean sprouts.
Before long Roberta introduces herself and then welcomes David into the kitchen. A man who comes across as a down to earth, humble chef. David starts by talking about his thoughts on Thai food; a cuisine he describes as “challenging and exciting”.
Minced perch jungle curry with wild ginger and basil.
While David is chatting away, he kicks things off with the jungle curry paste. One of the class attendees, Karen, had been asking lots of questions and so David decided her ‘punishment’ was to pound the curry paste. While Karen is pounding away David chats through the recipe and gives us tips. He tells us the finer you slice your ingredients, the easier it is to make your curry paste. And add one ingredient at a time, from the hardest to pound to the easiest to pound. He makes jokes about us, about himself, and answers all of the class’ questions as he goes. With his dry sense of humour, David throws in extra chillies as punishment for not laughing at his jokes, or laughing at the wrong time.
Some of the class wanted to know if curry pastes can be made in large batches and frozen. In David’s mind fresh curry pastes are best and he advises us to make up the just the amount of paste we need there and then, rather than trying to make extra to save for later. Though he does admit he is a ‘precious chef’. Having said that, David announces he’s developing a range of curry pastes for the Australian retail market at the moment, much to our delight. The pastes will be preservative free and he’s working on increasing their longevity while retaining their freshness.
While cooking away David adds a bit of this and a bit of that, never tasting the curry, merely smelling it. He goes on to explain that you should only be tasting for seasoning – if you taste too often your palate will become fatigued – so you should use your sense of smell along the way (hmm somehow I think his sense of smell might be a *little* better than mine).
Before we know it, it’s time to taste. We all head down to the demonstration bench for a taste. Dylan loves jungle curries but I am often wary of them, I like a bit of heat but can’t handle too much, and am a little concerned about how many ‘extra’ chillies David threw in. One word comes to mind as soon as I taste David’s jungle curry. Balance. The essence of Thai food is balance and that is exactly what David achieves. The saltiness of the fish sauce hits first and then the lingering heat from the peppercorns on the back palate. The extra chillies he threw in were all a pretence, the curry was hot, but in a good way, not an insane way. This was the best jungle curry I have ever eaten.
Grilled prawns with sweet fish sauce.
We return to our seats and David gets onto the second dish. The sweet fish sauce takes only a few moments to pull together. David’s assistant from nahm, Park, gets the grilling of the prawns underway.
Before we know it, David is plating up the freshly grilled prawns, sweet fish sauce, deep fried garlic and a handful of coriander leaves on top.
It’s time for another taste and Dylan heads down to take a quick snap before the bowl is demolished – excuse the rushed, slightly blurry photo. The prawns are sweet and salty, with the heat of the chillies placated by the fresh burst of coriander leaves.
Crab stir-fried with egg and bean sprouts.
Then David is on to the final dish of the day. A handful of ingredients and a matter of minutes is all David needs to whip up the most delicious crab and egg dish I have ever tasted.
Three hours have passed and it is time to head through to the kitchen and get cooking. The room is large, with about a dozen stainless steel cooking islands, half a dozen grills flanking the right side of the room and all the walls covered in blackboard paint – the back wall is full of illustrations of numerous fish and marine life.
We split into groups of 4 and head to a cooking island, armed with our recipes, all the ingredients and equipment we need to replicate the dishes at our disposal.
Dylan gets chopping, I get pounding, Elliot preps the garlic and chilli for frying and Will starts on the sweet fish sauce. I’m surprised by how well we seem to gel and slide into a rhythm, each person identifying what needs to be done next.
And before we know it our curry is ready.
The grilled prawns look quite a treat.
And our crab and egg dish is plated up.
Lunch is served in the dining room where an image of Blackwattle Bay spans the entire length of the wall on the left hand side, and fishnet ‘chandeliers’ hang from the ceiling. We share a bottle of 2010 MadFish Chardonnay, which is rich in melon and citrus with a long finish and nice amount of acidity. A nice match to our seafood dishes.
Our curry is much hotter and far less balanced than David’s (perhaps the fact that we didn’t de-seed the dried chillis may have played a part in that), yet still a mighty tasty curry. We decided to leave the shells on our prawns and I love their charred bbq flavour, with the addictive crispy fried garlic and sweet sauce. The crab and egg is a fairly accurate rendition, though an extra splash of oyster sauce wouldn’t go amiss. With tastings along the way, the three dishes and massive bowl of rice was plenty of food for the three guys and I.
As we polish off our bottle of wine, the kitchen assistants advise us they’re selling David’s books and mention David is happy to sign them. I look at Dylan and frown – we have both of David’s books at home and could have brought them in to be signed, but it didn’t even cross my mind. Doh!
We finish up the meal and wander back through the kitchen to where David and Roberta are sitting in the amphitheatre. Dylan and I say hello and ask the all important question of how far in advance does nahm in Bangkok book out (Dylan and I will be there next year for Dylan’s brother’s wedding – and for the record, you need only book a few weeks in advance for nahm in Bangkok; it is after all Thailand). But other than that I don’t say much at all (chef star struck much?!). We thank David and Roberta for the day and then we’re on our way.
Having participated in an Italian cooking class for my 26th birthday (with 9 friends), a Korean cooking class last year and now a Thai cooking class, I have got to say I love cooking classes. I’ve learnt so much from all the classes I have done and can’t wait to get to another.
Sydney Seafood School
Sydney Fish Market
Pyrmont NSW 2009
(02) 9004 1111
Sydney Seafood School Website