Don’t be a dick
Earlier this year, a colleague sent me a link to an announcement on Eater London that had made him 'laugh aloud as a near-parodic London 2018 food thing’: three of ‘London’s hottest restaurants’ would be joining forces for ‘one night only in Soho’ at Kiln, a Thai barbecue joint that was voted the best restaurant in the UK at the National Restaurant Awards a few months later. Chefs from Kiln and Som Saa, a Thai pop-up that crowdfunded its way into a permanent home, and sommeliers from P. Franco, would be creating a ‘standing-room-only larb bar. Guests will pay £45 on the door, there’s only one type of dish, it’s all-you-can-eat, there’ll be natural wine, and there’ll be no bookings. There will be queues.’
Larb, a salty, sour and disconcertingly crunchy mix of chopped meat, fish or vegetables, flavoured with bitter herbs, fish sauce and lime, and flecked with toasted rice, is the latest fun-to-say word, like bibimbap and poke bowls before it, to suddenly appear all over menus and newspaper food supplements. Kiln was founded by Ben Chapman, a late-starting autodidact and former DJ; Som Saa by his friend Andy Oliver. Another successful Thai restaurant, set up by Seb Holmes and Dan Turner, is called Farang, the Thai word for 'foreigner'. The chroniclers of London’s restaurant scene celebrated this farang commitment to 'nu-Thai' cooking as a maturation of British gap year culture, pioneered by Gen Xers clutching copies of The Beach by Alex Garland.
A fortnight ago, however, an Instagram user discovered a YouTube channel of videos created by a Som Saa chef named Shaun Beagley, or @BoringThai. Step-by-step recipes and cooking tips were accompanied by a ‘Chinglish’ commentary that, to take one example, described the people of Chiang Mai, a city with one of the highest HIV rates in the world, as ‘a bunch of pussies with Aids’. Som Saa promptly sacked Beagley and put out an apologetic statement.
But Mimi Aye, a British-born Burmese chef and writer, pointed out that Oliver had once shared an unambiguously racist @BoringThai video on ‘How to make Coconut cream’ with the words: ‘This is awesome – how all Thai food should be taught.’ Smoking Goat, Chapman's other restaurant, had commented: ‘ha, brilliant’. The woman who found the videos later shared screengrabs of rape threats she’d received from an account with the same name as the wife of Mark Dobbie, Som Saa’s head chef.
Oliver released another statement, this time in his own name, which said that he was asking himself some ‘hard questions’. Marina O’Loughlin, the Sunday Times food critic, waded in on Twitter:
Pse don’t make this (justifiable and deserved) racism scandal into a row about ‘cultural appropriation’. The idea that there is something inherently wrong about the cooking of food from other cultures is a vv slippery slope.
This *is* about cultural appropriation … If a person cooks food from another culture, even profits from it, that’s absolutely fine, but as soon as they’re a dick about it, in whatever fashion, that’s cultural appropriation.
The #SomSaaShitshow was pretty ugly for a week or so, most of all for the people who made sure the story wasn’t buried, and then it went quiet, as these things do, until the next time.
I went to Kiln last week, queued for half an hour to get in, sat at the bar and ordered larb (Romanised this time as ‘laap’), some skewers, a sour turmeric curry, all pretty great and not at all expensive. In a city full of open-counter kitchens, Kiln’s is especially dramatic, with chefs stirring clay pots over red-hot charcoal a couple of metres away from your face and plate. Two things struck me: none of the cooks or waiting staff was Thai, for what that’s worth; and the theatre of the place felt a bit pointless, after its initial atmospheric impact – a generic ‘othering’ of the food, at odds with its meticulously researched flavours, which are refreshingly harsh and bright. As Tim Hayward put it in the Financial Times:
When you cook on charcoal, it doesn’t add flavour – in fact, I couldn’t detect smokiness in anything I ate at Kiln. It’s not like burning wood in an enclosure where you get a lovely rich smoke to it. Charcoal is just a great source of heat in places not fortunate enough to have electricity but cooking over it, in woks, adds nothing to the food except a degree of challenge to the cook.
Not being a dick necessitates ‘hard questions’ about every aspect of a transcultural project, including its optics. Was it really a good idea for Chapman to open a restaurant in which he could be said to be cooking in poorface? And what about all those other London cafés that seek to evoke a ‘colonial’ ambience of clacking fans and polished teak?
There is an older Anglo-Thai restaurant tradition whose origins are hearteningly collaborative. In the late 1980s, ‘Ben’ Songkot Boonyasarayon was a regular at the Churchill Arms in Kensington. He started cooking in the pub’s tiny kitchen – the preparation of Thai food doesn’t require much space – and his dishes were rapturously received by customers sick of microwaved pies. The Churchill Arms swiftly became one of the best-performing Fullers pubs in London, so the brewery introduced Thai kitchens into nine of its properties, five of which are still managed by Khoyachai Sampathong, whom Ben introduced to the landlord of the Churchill Arms before moving on. The successful model was copied by publicans and Thai entrepreneurs all over London and beyond.
Catherine Lamb wrote a piece about it for Lucky Peach last year. ‘The strangest thing I found in my investigation,’ she said,
is that no one else seemed curious about how Thai food first started appearing in pubs. Going to a British pub to eat Thai food was perfectly normal to the chefs, the pub owners, and the patrons – the only thing they found odd was that I seemed to care about how it came to be.