Hubert Burda Media

[Gallery] Back to Basics with Chef John Chantarasak

British-Thai chef John Chantarasak is challenging the status quo of the Thai food scene in London.

This article is a condensed version of the original piece that appeared in the August issue.

Under an old, disused railway arch in East London something is brewing. Sure enough, from Monday to Thursday, Climpson’s Arch is home to Climpson & Sons Coffee Roastery & Coffee Bar, but when the coffee business closes for the weekend, something else is brewing. 

Namely, restaurants. Since 2013, Climpson’s Arch has functioned as a so-called restaurant residency and business incubator, offering a platform for young chefs to experience what it is like to run their own restaurant, and so far the curators have had an uncanny ability to nose out remarkable talent. Dave Pynt, the first chef to host a pop-up here, went on to open Singapore’s hugely popular Burnt Ends.

“They turn everything into gold it would seem,” muses John Chantarasak, chef at Som Saa and a nominee of the Young British Foodie award last year. “It is one of those things that started as a small-scale project a few years ago but it has gone on to propel a lot of chefs into amazing things.”

For John Chantarasak and Som Saa, whose head chefs include Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie, the success has centred around authentic regional Thai dishes that serve the double purpose of pleasing palates and at the same time educating people about the Thai kitchen beyond pad thai and green curry. Mission accomplished, if reviews and accolades are anything to go by – the restaurant won the One to Watch award at the National Restaurant Awards in the UK at the end of June.

“The main focal point of Climpson’s Arch was an outdoor grill and wood-fired ovens, so we cooked a lot of northern and northeastern Thai food such as gai yang, som tam, aubergine salads, gaeng hang lay, nam prik noom – lots of emphasis on charcoal – and that has followed into the permanent restaurant,” explains John. “The main thing was to try to bring these unknown dishes to London and educate people a bit about how bastardised Thai food has become overseas.”

Chantarasak grew up familiar with Thai flavours but had not worked professionally with food until he moved temporarily to Bangkok in 2014 where, after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School, he started working at Nahm.

“I think Thai is one of those cuisines that were embraced very early on by Western culture, but because it happened such a long time ago, people weren’t very well-travelled at the time so only a few things came back here and people didn’t really question those things,” he says. 

“At Som Saa we’re re-evaluating that. It’s been nice to introduce new dishes to people and also try to break down that formula of Western-style of eating where you have your own dish, to making it more family-style eating. We also try to encourage people to eat the Thai way in terms of having a balance of dishes on the table so you are not just having super spicy food all the time. It is basically about letting people realise the different nuances of Thai food and Thai food culture.”