words by Jenna Harfield
There’s something incredibly satisfying when you learn of someone’s deserved success, but you can’t help but get a double dose of the warm and fuzzies when that someone is a dear old friend. I have known John Chantarasak for a lifetime. I have photos of us in a school line up from the age of five, bright-eyed and snotty nosed (or pig tailed in my case), unaware of what adventures lay ahead. For John, those adventures have taken a culinary twist it seems and he is creating some serious waves in the London food scene, having recently been shortlisted for the chef of the year at the Young British Foodie Awards. Working at Andy Oliver’s (UK Masterchef Finalist) som saa, an edgy London based pop-up restaurant at Climpson’s Arch, John specilaises in bringing colourful and authentic North-Eastern Thai cuisine to a crowd of hungry Londoners.
I caught up with John to congratulate him on his recent recognition and chat about his experience of the evolving London food scene.
Q. How did your journey with som saa begin?
A. Not too long ago I spent a year living and working in Bangkok. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the kitchen at Nahm (San Pellegrino Asia’s Best Restaurant 2014) where I met David Thompson and gained a wealth of new experiences in terms of Asian cookery. Upon my return to the UK I was put in touch with head chef/owner of som saa (Andy Oliver) who had previously worked with David in London. After some email exchanges Andy asked me to help with the opening of som saa at Climpson's Arch back in October last year.
Q. Why Thai cuisine? What inspired you to go in this culinary direction?
A. When I set out to train as a chef I always knew I loved exotic cuisines but felt that gaining a classical culinary background in French cuisine would be the most beneficial building blocks for a career. I enrolled with Le Cordon Bleu studying the Diploma de Cuisine but instead of studying in one of the more conventional French based schools I chose to take up my studies at the Bangkok campus. I became saturated with Thai food, from hitting the streets after class with Thai classmates to weekly dinners with my Thai family (I am half Thai) and then of course ending up in Thai kitchens, it was the cuisine that began to become my staple and I totally fell in love with the food.
Q. Where do you see food trends going in London, particularly with Thai cuisine?
A. Londoners (and the world for that matter) are becoming more and more enchanted by authentic foreign cuisines, and this can be seen in the diversity of restaurants that have opened in the capital over the past few years. At the moment there seems to be a trend in food cooked over charcoal and barbecue, from Smoking Goat to Berber & Q and of course som saa, people seem to be genuinely interested in this style of eating. In terms of Thai food I think the som saa pop-up has proven that people are interested in learning more about regional Thai dishes other than your typical green curry and pad Thai, and hopefully this interest will continue to grow.
Q. Tell me about working in a pop-up environment? How is it different to a more traditional restaurant space?
A. To sum it up in a word it would have to be “unconventional”. In terms of our set-up we work from a kitchen that’s built in a disused shipping container that has reclaimed fixtures and fittings using portable electric hobs and one oven. We are however blessed in terms of outdoor cooking space where we have double wood fired ovens and a huge adjustable grill section, these ovens and grills really dictate the bulk of our menu and there is rarely a dish on the menu that doesn’t have an element or ingredient that has been grilled or smoked. Front of house also experiences its own challenges in terms of the actual restaurant dining space. The archway we’ve been using for our residency is a functioning coffee roaster in the weekdays, so until around 4pm every week day there are people roasting coffee, packing bags with coffee beans and generally using the space for this function. Then come 4pm our main man (Tom George, General Manager) and his team completely transform the space into a 40 cover restaurant ready for first bums on seats at 6pm. It’s remarkable how they do it really given the time constraints and the amount of other tasks that need to be achieved in this one small window of time.
Q. How have the public embraced som saa, the style of food, service and the atmosphere?
A. The reaction has been nothing short of incredible. From day one we’ve been a massively bustling restaurant space with people willing to wait upwards of two hours just to be seated to experience the food. We have developed a very loyal following and it’s not surprising to see the same faces coming to the restaurant every weekend, that’s a truly humbling feeling. It’s also been great to see the number of expat Thai’s that have found their way to the archway and have returned time after time bringing more of their friends and family with them. It’s no easy feat to win over the Thai crowd and it proves that we’re cooking food that truly has authenticity. We’re received glowing reviews from pretty much every London based publication from The Metro to The London Evening Standard, who incidentally also included the main guys (Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Tom George) in their list of 1000 most influential Londoners for 2015. The formidable Marina O’Loughlin of The Guardian surprised us all by awarding som saa 5/5 for food, only the second time ever for a restaurant and most recently we were bowled over by the reaction to our Crowdcube campaign in order to generate capital for a permanent restaurant site. We aimed to raise £550,000 over a 30-day period but instead smashed a whopping £700,000 in less than 72 hours and had to pull the plug on any more investment.
Q. When you’re cooking for friends at home what do you like to make and why?
A. I can probably count the amount of times I’ve cooked at home this past year on one hand. I know that’s terrible to say but when you spend upwards of 60 hours a week in a kitchen catering for hundreds cooking is the last thing on your mind when you get a precious day off here and there. Saying that I usually dip into Thai Food (David Thompson) every now and again to cook something I’ve never made before and generally further my knowledge. Other than that I cook big batches of lentil dhal at the beginning of a week and eat that for breakfast before work with breads and chutney, I much prefer that kind of eating to a bowl of cereal or toast.
Q. How can people incorporate Thai flavours into their cooking at home?
A. A really simple way is just by using gapi (shrimp paste). When used well it can add a lovey depth of flavour to dishes and adds an umami quality with its savoury saltiness. A good quality gapi roasted over charcoal in banana leaf will add another level of complexity to Thai curry paste or nam prik (chilli based hot sauce). Alternatively home cooks can use nam pla (fish sauce) to season dishes rather than salt, although be warned this stuff is strong! Also the typical flavours of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf add a perfumed fragrance to dishes that most people will associate with Thailand. Oh and of course coconut cream is another ingredient that makes people think Thai food.
Q. Where are your favorite places to eat out at the moment?
A. That's a hard one as I'm at the restaurant for dinner service most nights! But I love to eat out on my days off. I'd say the places I'm visiting most at the moment are Lyle's, Quality Chop House and Brunswick House. I quite like eating British cuisine when I'm not eating Thai. Something seasonal using local produce is always a winner in my books. I recently had a fantastic meal at Typing Room located in East London Town Hall Hotel. I really like the ambience Lee Westcott has created in this space and his cooking is beautiful, he’s fast becoming one of the best chefs in the country and for good reason.
Q. What excites or inspires you in the industry at the moment – any particular books / chefs / restaurants / ingredients?
A. The whole industry is a constant inspiration. I recently attended the YBF (Young British Foodie) Award’s at The Tate and it was just so inspiring to see the sheer amount of talent the UK holds from bakers, street food vendors, brewers, butchers and coffee baristas. There are so many people putting themselves out there creating produce of a remarkable quality and that’s great to see. I can still remember that not too long ago Britain was seen as a poor destination for food, but I genuinely feel that London has become one of the gastronomic hubs of the world. I love the food that James Lowe (Lyle’s) cooks and this was very recently acknowledged with Lyle’s winning it’s first Michelin Star. I’m also a big fan of the food at Taberna do Mercardo, the latest venture by Nuno Mendes of Chiltern Firehouse. It’s the first time I’d experienced food of this kind, the restaurant specializes in cooking dishes from Portugal where Nuno originates. Of course the biggest inspiration in terms of chefs is being able to work with Andy at som saa each week. He has an extraordinary wealth of knowledge when it comes to Thai food and I find his palate and ability to pin point seasonings and flavours second to none. It’s been a pleasure working alongside him for this past year.
If you want to see John in action at som saa you will have to be quick, as the residency at Climpson's Arch will end on Sunday 18th October 2015. Fear not, however, the restaurant will be opening its doors at a permanent site in early 2016.
For more foodie anecdotes follow Chef John Chantarasak on Instagram @englishhippy and Twitter @english_hippy.