Business plus leisure, plus indigenous coffee and some sick Nam Prik: acclaimed food writer, editor, and radio host Francis Lam talks about it all with Nathan in Chiang Mai.
The morning after a wedding—any big party—is usually a little groggy. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, especially if it’s February in Thailand and the air is a little bit cool and very humid, and you’re kicking around in a quiet village along the Ping River with someone like Francis Lam. Francis, besides being a classically-trained chef, former New York Times columnist, lauded cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter, and host of The Splendid Table on American Public Media is also one of the truly good people in the world of food and letters. So, Nathan was pleased, not just to get some good stories from his time in Thailand, but also to be able to annoy the living shit out of him with one very trashy word—a portmanteau, really—near the end of the show. Nathan may not be an adversarial news magazine reporter anymore, but it’s good to know that he can still piss an interview subject off for business or for pleasure.
Nathan Thornburgh: So Francis, tell me what are we drinking this morning?
Francis Lam: We’re drinking coffee from Akha Ama, which is a producer here in Thailand. I don’t think people think of Thailand as a coffee producing place, but it’s gotten a lot more popular domestically. This particular coffee is a social enterprise started by this man named Ayu “Lee” Chuepa.
He’s a member of the Akha tribe. So, okay, here’s the deal with tribes in Thailand…I’m not an expert in this whatsoever. I just happened to know a little bit about it because I edited a book in which it was talked about.
Thornburgh: Alright. Tell me what you’ve learned.
Lam: So, there are lots of ethnic minorities within Thailand who are not seen as being Thai, both ethnically, and in some cases, nationally. They tend to live up north, up in the mountains or in the hills.
But the reason why I bring up this guy is because there is this awesome story about him. He started this coffee company as a way to bring you a new industry to his people. They grow this really nice coffee. He’s really thought about thoughtful roasting and contemporary trends in coffee roasting and all that stuff. He was on like national Thai TV once and the story goes that he showed up at the studio and they put this outfit on him and do his hair and makeup, and he just looks in the mirror and is like, “what the fuck did you do to me?” Because they gave him this like super like farmer-y haircut.
Thornburgh: Oh, no kidding? They just made them like a bumpkin?
Lam: They made him look like a bumpkin.
how we can honor and respect one another as co-inhabitants on this planet that’s dying at our fucking hands
Lam: And like put them in like this outfit that was two sizes too big, so he looked tiny. Lee came out and the host of the show is a woman who’s wearing this very stereotypical ethnic dress. Apparently, it was just like, okay, you’re trying to humiliate me. He took it and was totally unfazed and talked in beautiful academic Thai. He talked about the mission of what they do and the science of what they do with the Akha coffee. Apparently, that was seen as a somewhat pivotal moment. Maybe that’s overstating it, but the next day, people were trying to find his cafe. People were looking for him and wanted to talk to him and to learn about what he does and his tribe’s culture.
I’ve been in food media for a long time and I used to be a cook, and as much as I love food, I’ve always been really interested in people.
Lam: And part of what that means is I’m really interested in social equity, how people view one another, and how we can honor and respect one another as co-inhabitants on this planet that’s dying at our fucking hands. So, one of the ways that I think about how do I justify the fact that I work in food if I care about these other things is by thinking about the ways that you can speak to people in a way that can circumnavigate maybe their prejudices. It’s a little bit of a cliche in food writing that food brings us together. I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t think we can pretend it’s that simple. But there are ways where you can be smart and strategic about it. And here Lee is, creating this drink that is a very cool thing. People are coming to this culture of coffee drinking with an open mind because they don’t know a whole lot about it yet. So it doesn’t matter that you’re different. That difference is actually adding to the level of education about [coffee].
Thornburgh: He got married and he attracted an unusual number of people like you and me who came halfway around the world for his wedding, which is a testament to him. He’s a good dude. By the way, I think that might be the best food that I ever had last night. That’s why we were eating head cheese at eight in the morning this morning. We wanted to test whether it was actually as good as I remembered it.
Lam: Did that really exist?
Thornburgh: It did. Oh my God. We had fermented pork. That was the dish for me.
Lam: That was crazy, right? A bunch of friends in the food world just literally came together and they cooked at Andy and Khun’s wedding.
What was really, really special and a real privilege was that some of Andy’s friends from Thailand came too, including Lee’s mother who is a lovely home cook. She brought this nam prik, which is like a chili dip. It was sooo good.
Thornburgh: To be honest, I’m a taker. I mean, this is why I wanted to come to Thailand. Is this like a dick move to be talking about this food that we ate that was so incredible that is absolutely inaccessible to use the reader unless they invest the time to come to Chiang Mai? ‘Cause they are cooking here.
That’s part of why I wanted to talk to you. I think we live on the same subway line and we can talk at any point, but the moment that you’re in at the moment is really cool for me to see. You’re one of the great food voices out there. You have done shows about Thailand and you’ve just finished editing a book, your second book, about Thai food. So, you have all of this connection to Thai food in particular, and yet you’ve never fucking been here.
Lam: I know, right?
Thornburgh: So, it’s pretty rad to see you on your third day ever in Thailand.
Lam: Well, first of all, you just exposed me as a fake. So, thank you for saying all that (laughing).
I’m by no means an expert in Thai food, but I have edited two books that are largely about Thai cooking.
you can’t necessarily talk about good and bad until you’ve been here long enough to really absorb it
Thornburgh: Yeah, and you have a cook’s like obsession with the greatness of what you have been exposed to.
Lam: Sure, sure. This is actually something that’s really interesting because I feel like there’s stuff you could know intellectually. But when you come to the place and you start eating the food—even though I’ve read six drafts of this recipe and, in theory, I kind of know what the dish of going to be like ish because I know the process— until you eat it in the place in the context of other people who also cook a version of this dish, you really have no idea.
Lam: And I don’t want to get into the conversation about authenticity. That’s more about when we’re in the states and you question whether you’re getting something “authentic.” Oh, is it just like they would make it in Thailand? That’s a ridiculous question because in Thailand you might get a great version of that thing or you may get a terrible version of that thing. It’s sort of immaterial, right?
Thornburgh: I have spent a fair amount of time in Thailand. I’ve had some wack-ass pad Thai. It exists out here.
Lam: It exists for sure. There’s still always going to be like good food and bad food, but also food that makes sense to your palate and your expectations and food that doesn’t. I think it’s really important to recognize that you can’t necessarily talk about good and bad until you’ve been here long enough to really absorb it.
Thornburgh: The complexity and Thai food in the U.S. is also super interesting to me. And why, why I kind of, it, I’m incredibly lucky to be here and taste these things that I had never tasted before and go way beyond what I knew about Thai food. You did this great episode on Thai food and you said that in the last 15 years, the Thai population in the U.S. has doubled, and they’re opening restaurants at something 10 times the rate of Mexicans. Thai people are out there just like, I’m here now, I’m going to start cooking for y’all.
Lam: Yeah, totally. Those people go around the world and open restaurants and it’s not like they’re being sent. They feel like Thai food is one of the things that put Thailand on the global map, so let’s make sure that you can serve the greatest hits roster of Thai dishes. and you can make them to like a standard that we abide by. I don’t know if these are great restaurants or great restauranteurs.
Lam: It’s basically like franchising or like a global franchise model set up by the Thai government. So, I don’t know how great the food is but what’s really amazing is they’re really into setting the standard of what like a green curry is supposed to be and what a yellow curry is supposed to be—which, as we’ve been saying, is a really hard project and probably like foolhardy, right? Because things are supposed to change and your green curry should taste different than mine because you’re a different cook than me.
Thornburgh: Right. So tell me something that you learned in the last couple of days here in Thailand.
Lam: Oh, man. I learned that I’m an old man.
Thornburgh: What happened? What happened to you?
Lam: I left the party at like 10 p.m., man!
Thornburgh: Oh, that’s true. Yeah, it was at least five hours before, like an acceptable leaving time. So, you learned that you’re an old man because you went to bed on time.
Lam: Yeah, and I came home and worked. How bad is that?
Thornburgh: Hey, listen, there’s this word that has infected my mind since I went to the New York Times travel show: bleisure.
Lam: No, fuck that shit.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Bleisure.
Lam: Fuck that shit. Get that shit out of my ear. Stop saying it.
Thornburgh: We’re bleisureists and we’re part of the bleisure class. I fly bleisure class, which actually is the back of the plane, sadly. So what’s another thing you’ve learned in Thailand?
He fucked some lemongrass up
Lam: I learned about this incredible dish. So, David Thompson, who’s Australian, is sort of known to the chagrin, but also somewhat to a degree of pride, I think, among Thai people as like one of the great chefs of Thai cooking living today. The reason is that he’s doing something that not a lot of people were doing, which is digging into the really incredibly rich history and traditional written recipes in Thai cuisine that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. Not a lot of cuisines have that necessarily, right? So, he’s dug into that history and started serving those dishes that had gone extinct for, in some cases, hundreds of years.
That was the cuisine that he was presenting at this restaurant called Nahm in Bangkok. So, on some level that was amazing because, holy shit, how’d he get to taste food that hasn’t existed in 200 years? And another level, is why did it take like a white guy, a non-Thai guy to do that? Or maybe to do that in a way that international media wanted to talk about it.
Lam: Whatever. It’s complicated. But he’s a good friend of Andy’s. He was here, as well as some of the people who’ve for him for years, including Prin Polsuk. Prin has, functionally, run David’s restaurant while David is doing business internationally.
Thornburgh: It was rad watching Prin work.
Lam: That dude is a fucking beast. He was cool looking with his hair, which is a little bit long. It’s kind of graying salt and pepper and he’s got his glasses up on his head. He’s got running shoes and this tee shirt that’s like very fashionably ratty. This dude just looks fucking cool.
Thornburgh: He’d be like the sixth member of Carabao or like one of those Thai rock bands.
Lam: That dude looked like he could just shred. It didn’t even look like he was trying super hard. He had his big cleaver to chop chunks of pork belly.
Thornburgh: He fucked some lemongrass up. I remember he brought it out of the fridge, smacked it with the cleaver until it just like cried for mercy, and then chopped it fine. It was all emotion, you know?
Lam: And he had two of his dudes making this tofu dish. Like a tofu club sandwich. It was a slice of tofu, really awesome fish sauce, marinated ground pork, more tofu, more pork, and then more tofu. They were unwieldy sandwiches. Then they took the whole thing and steamed it so it kind of stuck together. They let it cool, and then deep fried it until the tofu was super crunchy. sprinkled five spice powder, cilantro, and fried garlic chips on it. It was fucking incredible. Getting back to the thing I learned—aside from wanting to be Prin Polsuk—is that if you put tofu around meat and fry the shit out of it, it is incredibly delicious.
Thornburgh: You know, I had kind of a list in my mind of the five best things out of the 30 things I ate yesterday. You actually rescued a piece of that for me cause I showed up late and it was everything that you said. I think that now might be right at the top of the list. You feel the DNA of deep-fried meat, like chitlins or chicharron, when it’s done with depth and quality but having the tofu in there—this was something that just like blew it wide open. And you’re right, and Prin did it while looking like the baddest motherfucker on the planet.
Lam: He was just getting ready for sound check.
Thornburgh: God, what a stupid privilege to be able to just sit, and drink a beer, and watch a guy like that work. I mean, you’ve earned it because you went to culinary school and have risen through the ranks. I just feel like I’ve kind of flopped into this position, where I get to eat that kind of food and it’s fucking ridiculous. It was pretty cool. But you know, this is part of the bleisure lifestyle.
Lam: Fucking…. This interview’s over!!
Episode 31 Show Notes:
If you’re not already listening to Francis Lam’s weekly radio show, what are you doing with your life? Head over to the The Splendid Table.
Influential chef Andy Ricker’s roster of Thai restaurants: Pok Pok
Check out the lovely Khun Narata’s Instagram.
Bangkok-based Austin Bush’s book dives into the cuisine of northern Thailand: The Food of Northern Thailand