Andy Oliver of Som Saa – an old style Thai restaurant in East London – is one of the leading cultivators of Thai flavours in the heart of London, a group in which the most prominent figures can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
His constant urge to travel, discover new flavours and meet new people is a rare and valuable trait that has helped to secure his recognition in today’s buzzing world of food.
Andy has had his fair share of training across the flames of the kitchen in both the UK and Thailand. His experience as a protégé of David Thompson (Australian Thai Cook & Writer) has enabled him to develop his own unique and intriguing definition of the ideal Thai flavours, and also informs his opinions on the culinary landscape of London.
As a Thai person brought up in that landscape, dining at Som Saa was a revelation, a delectable experience conjuring up visions of relaxing in a comfortable hammock on the beautiful coast of Thailand.
The food is simply remarkable and clearly demonstrates how his combination of profound passion, skill and wanderlust results in the creation of tangible and authentic pieces of art.
In this issue, Andy spills his thoughts on food, business and the ideal weekend.
Hello Andy how are you today?
Good thanks Mulgaro!
Where did you grow up?
In North Devon
What did you have for dinner last night?
I was working at som saa so I had our staff meal of lasanga and salad
What’s your favourite dish to eat?
depends on my mood, sometimes it’s Thai, sometimes Italian sometimes just a bacon sandwich
What do you like to cook on a Sunday?
I often cook vegetarian Indian food
Whats the first thing you do when you arrive in a coffee shop?
Order a black coffee
Tube or walk?
Favourite day of the week?
What’s your favourite drink (alc and non-alc)?
Typical chef – i like negronis, and black coffee.
What is the best food combination you have come across?
Coriander root, white pepper and garlic is one of the key building blocks of thai food.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
It varied – I changed my mind a lot.
What did you study at University?
Business and Ecomonimcs.
You went into Telecoms, how was that?
Fine, i learnt things but it wasn’t for me – it didnt excite me.
You fell in love with Thailand during your gap year, when was the exact turning point when you thought that this was the cuisine you wanted to specialise in?
When I first set foot in the kitchen at Nahm London
You ventured into Thai food, were there any other secondary cuisine options you had considered?
Moro and its Spanish-Middle Eastern cuisine also excited me
How did you introduce Thai cuisine to such a crowded marketplace?
Just by trying to cook interesting Thai food that doesn’t get showcased over here so much and trying to cook it like you would find it in Thailand
There are a lot of farang introducing Thai cuisine in the UK, why do you think this is so?
Because Thai food is such an exciting cuisine to cook and people over here (both chefs and customers) are getting excited about it which is great
Do you think Thai food in the UK is very different to food in Thailand?
Sometimes yes sometimes no, depends who’s cooking it and what their style is. obviously some of the produce e.g meat and fish are different over here too
How much do you value the ingredients of Thai cooking, is it okay to substitute here and there?
We work really hard to get good quality and sometimes really unusual / interesting Thai ingredients – it matters a lot. But using the best of British and European produce makes sense too, you just need to try and understand the principles of Thai food first and then stay true to them.
What is your signature Thai dish? British dish?
Thai dish i dont have a signature dish, but i really like cooking dtom klong – a hot and sour soup with smoked fish. British, i like to make some kind of stew with dumplings.
Do you ever want to fuse Thai food with something else?
Not in the plans but of course you could have fun using some of the flavour combinations from Thai food in non-traditional ways.
What are the challenges of creating authentic Thai dishes in the UK?
Staying true to the taste is very important, and if you are not in thailand you need to work hard to achieve that. That’s why travelling to thailand every year is really important to me.
For the chefs you recruit, do they need to have extensive knowledge of Southeast Asian cuisine?
No, just good chef skills and an enthusiasm to learn.
What characteristic do you most admire in other chefs?
When a you see a really good chef work, they have a way of organising themselves and overcoming challenges thrown at them – that is really impressive.
On a day-to-day basis, what are the responsibilities of your job?
Manage the kitchen, run the pass, do the orders and be involved in all the other elements of the business e.g staffing, PR, finance or management issues.
What are the challenges of your job?
Lots. But looking and planning forward while trying to run a restaurant is one of the hardest.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Cooking, teaching people, coming up with new dishes and working with the great team we have at som saa.
Can you tell us something interesting that goes on behind the kitchen that we don’t see?
Every morning we make fresh coconut cream in a machine we imported from thailand.
We love Som Saa! How often do you pop in there? Do you still cook there?
Erm, yes. I’m the head chef – so I work there. 5 days a week, sometimes more.
In your opinion, what are the top 3 things someone should consider before pursuing a career as a chef?
Do you love to cook? do you like working hard? are you ok working long and antisocial hours?
Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in the kitchen?
Had to throw this in – will you be writing a cookbook?
Maybe one day
Aside from food, what is your side passion?
How often do you spend time on it?
How do you balance work/leisure?
With difficulty, but it’s getting a little better, for now.
Best place to chill in London?
Would you like to move to a new country?
I’m set in london for now.
Eating IN at someones home or OUT in restaurants?
What is your perfect weekend?
A weekend at coombeshead farm.
What is your favourite thing about your workspace?
How much do you value home cooking and why?
A lot, because you can’t eat in restaurants every night.
What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in your career/line of work?
Working long hours, so you see less of friends and family.
What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?
What would you tell yourself 10 years ago that you wish you knew then?
To just pursue what you enjoy not what you think you should do.
Best life advice you’ve been given?
Trust your instinct.
What does the food world need more of? less of?
More cheese, less populists.
What’s your favourite thing to come home to after a long day of work?
One thing you love about Mulgaro?
The diversity of people and food on there.
Where are you going now?
Keep up with Andy – @oliverandy | Som Saa @somsaa_london