Bangkok restaurant Long Chim at Expo 2020 Dubai 'goes beyond red and green curry'

Australian chef David Thompson melds signature and offbeat Thai dishes

Australian chef David Thompson's first UAE outpost of Long Chim has opened at Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: Long Chim

Long Chim founder David Thompson is as famous for his Michelin-starred restaurants in Thailand as he is for his witty one-liners. So it should come as no surprise that Thompson says he's coming to Dubai “for the hummus”, or that his many restaurants are “more demanding than newborn babies” five minutes into our conversation.

“They all want me at once,” says the Australian chef, his tone suggesting he can’t quite fathom why that would be.

One such restaurant is Long Chim, which made its foray into the Middle East via Expo 2020 Dubai. Translating as “come and taste” from Thai, it is the newest branch of the restaurant chain that’s inspired by the markets of Bangkok.

“It’s such an interesting event,” Thompson says of Expo and his decision to launch here. “It’s not just a commercial opportunity, it’s unique. It’s a nexus of ideas dealing with the future, and I knew I’d love to be connected to that.”

Thompson wants to prove that Thai cuisine is about more than 'just red and green curry'. Photo: Long Chim

However, setting up a Thai restaurant – which requires specialised skills and ingredients – while dealing with travel restrictions for most of 2021, made for a near impossible task. The fact it was for a six-month pop-up further complicated matters.

“It took an effort to arrange the ingredients, the logistics, the operations,” he admits. “Most importantly, we had to take into account tastes, as we had travellers coming in from around the world. It took time to make a menu that was acceptable for [all].”

To do that, Thompson went back to the basics. “I knew what worked. I searched my archives for recipes that were relatively simple for the untrained staff, but which I knew were crowd-pleasers. Much of the items on the menu in Dubai are those tried-and-tested ones.”

Which is why when you scan the menu at Long Chim, you’ll find plenty of favourites – chicken satay, green papaya salad, massaman curry and sweet and sour prawns – although these are interspersed with lesser-known dishes; think grilled Thai squid, smoky chilli relish with crispy bean curd and Thai oxtail soup.

Chef David Thompson is also the mastermind behind Michelin-starred restaurants Nahm and Aaharn. Photo: Long Chim

Perfecting the subtle flavours from afar was no easy feat for Thompson. “The fact is that, through Zoom or other apps, you can talk to the chefs, you can give them pictures, you can give them instructions. But there is no way yet that I know of to convey taste.” He got around this hurdle by sending two head chefs from Long Chim branches in Australia to train the staff.

The restaurant's interior meanwhile “relies upon renditions of previous Long Chim, and has the same motifs that are consistent and characteristic throughout all of its branches. It adds a bit of excitement because it’s about Bangkok’s streets and markets, which are delicious and fascinating.”

Despite all this, ask the eccentric chef what he would try first when he pops over and he says “I'd go next door and have hummus or a pizza”, in his trademark deadpan manner.

Inside Long Chim's branch at Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: Long Chim

If you’re wondering how an Australian chef made a name for himself in the world of Thai cuisine, the answer goes back decades, when Thompson visited Thailand in 1986 and “fell in love with the place”.

“It was not just the food, but the fascinating culture. I learnt as much as possible and opened a Thai restaurant later,” he says.

It was the beginning of an empire that includes Nahm, which opened in 2001 in London, and received a Michelin star in six months (the first Thai restaurant to gain the laurel). Since then, Thompson has published cookbooks, co-founded Thai food group Aylmer Aaharn and launched a second Michelin-award-winning restaurant Aaharn.

It’s also part of his effort to showcase Thai cuisine as being more than just about “red and green curry. The cuisine is much more vigorous, sophisticated. I’m still trying to grasp some of it, and it is ever expanding. It will take the rest of my life to understand the cuisine.”

Updated: January 10th 2022, 8:41 AM