From opening Long Chim, his casual street food restaurant, in food-obsessed cities like Singapore and Sydney, to managing top Bangkok restaurant Nahm, chef David Thompson is unstoppable. The culinary wizard still manages to set aside time to be chef consultant aboard the Aqua Mekong, a luxury cruise that plies the waters from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (and vice versa). We find out from Thompson about his experiences on this unique “chef-hosted” journey.
Why did you decide to cook on a cruise?
It always seems like such a romantic idea to me, and there’s an exotic charm about travelling down the Mekong on a regular basis. However, there are guests to please (which I never do in a normal restaurant). It’s very different from operating a restaurant. And for me, it was totally unexpected at the start. I learnt that it’s important to maintain the interest of the guests.
How do you plan the cruise’s menu, and how has it evolved since Aqua Mekong was launched in 2014?
When visiting a restaurant, people would come knowing what to expect. But that’s not the case on this cruise. People are on board for up to seven nights, so when we plan our menus, we have to take that into account by offering a mixture of Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Western dishes – that are of restaurant quality. We try to offer a nice, interesting and comprehensive range of cuisines that represent the countries through which the boat sails. As the boat is going into its second year, it is feeling far more comfortable in its skin. I’m delighted that the food we cook now is more local [when Aqua Mekong first started sailing, Thai cuisine was mostly served]. It also means that our [Cambodian and Vietnamese] staff are cooking the food they know best. It’s great that we take advantage of the availability of ingredients in the area too. This makes more operational sense for us.
Operations-wise, what are some of the challenges for you and the kitchen team?
When we first started, it was tough working in the rather small galley. Adrian, Aqua Mekong’s F&B manager, has since put systems into place to make it work a lot better. And he’s been doing all the staff training. He’s also part of the development of putting more Vietnamese and Cambodian food in the menu, which makes more sense from a guest’s point of view. Adrian is scrupulous in making sure the quality of ingredients is consistent – so he gets them from more certain providores in Phnom Penh and Saigon.
What have you learnt about the food in this region?
There’s a delicacy about Vietnamese and Cambodian food, which is not as extreme and full-flavoured as Thai cuisine. For example a green curry in Thai is riddled with tongue-numbingly hot chillies. But a Cambodian green curry is totally different. Instead of chillies used in Thai green curry, the Cambodian version uses lemongrass leaves, which have delicious aromatic qualities. It has a bit of spiciness which hits you, but it has an aromatic pepperiness. There’s turmeric and peppercorns in the dish as well. Overall, it’s been a learning process for me. I mostly learn about the local flavours by going on-shore to eat. And we welcome ideas from the staff.
What are some of the more interesting ingredients that you’ve tasted from this area?
Some of the fermented fish, which is called Prahok in Cambodian, is interesting. We use that to flavour the green curry. In Cambodia, there is also a smoked fish from Tonle Sap Lake – which is renowned throughout Southeast Asia for its quality.
Find out more about Aqua Mekong in the latest issue of The Peak Selections: Gourmet & Travel. For more information, visit www.aquaexpeditions.com.