One of the biggest London openings of the year will see a British chef best known for growing indigenous Thai ingredients aim to “faithfully recreate” the searingly hot and lip-smackingly sour curries and wider regional cuisine of southern Thailand. Plaza Khao Gaeng — the flagship restaurant on the mezzanine floor above the Arcade food hall at Centre Point — is a joint venture between Gymkhana’s JKS Restaurants and chef-grower Luke Farrell.
The restaurant, which is scheduled to open in April, is loosely based on the khao gaeng found across the provinces of southern Thailand. Farrell, who is currently in Bangkok putting the finishing touches to the bespoke supply chains he says are critical to this restaurant, describes the format of the restaurants in Thailand as canteen-cum-caffs, designed to feed workers or tradesmen; where one collects their plate of rice before selecting a couple of curries which are set out in trays, displayed across a counter. Khao gaeng translates as “curry over rice.”
At Plaza Khao Gaeng, there will be a menu, but the curries — the likes of gaeng tai pla, smoky mackerel with fermented fish innards, bamboo shoots and Thai aubergine; southern sour orange gaeng som, with garcinia, among other “puckering” fruits, and fish; and gaeng gati, a perfumed chicken and coconut curry with betel leaf — are designed to be shared once each guest receives their own plate of rice.
While there’s something obviously incongruous about this style of restaurant opening in a flash glass building in the very centre of central London, where Tottenham Court Road meets Oxford Street, Farrell is not an orthodox chef. For the last decade, after having run a Vietnamese bánh mì shop in London, he has been cultivating rarefied South East Asian ingredients in a 35-metre tropical greenhouse at Ryewater in Dorset; now one of those insider-known locations with which only a handful of the most devoted London chefs and food nerds are familiar.
Plaza Khao Gaeng will be supplied by Ryewater, what Farrell calls his “living library,” where herbs and vegetables are pollinated by hundreds of butterflies and where tropical tropical rain showers water the plants. “Aromatic gingers, galangal, citrus, green papaya, and delicate leaves, all with the floral and fleeting aromas that would struggle with the long journey from Thailand,” he says is what ought to set the restaurant apart from what already exists in London. “To cook Thai food in London you’re at the mercy of suppliers,” he says, implying that there’s something unique about the sharpness, freshness, and aromatics which are lost in transit.
Not that he is suggesting for a moment he is going to better that which already exists — Farrell cites Singburi, 101 Thai Kitchen, and Som Saa, and says there are “nods to [Southern Thailand] all over” — but that nowhere is solely focused on the region. And because of the supply issues he hopes to overcome both through Ryewater and the network he’s put in place from Thailand, the restaurant can “hone in on that cuisine in its entirety; not [serve] a generalised Thai menu.” Later, he says, it will get yet more regionally specific, focusing on individual southern Thai provinces, serving rice varieties grown in those areas.
Many diners must be braced for a wholesale reconfiguration of the red, green, and massaman curries which have been served in Thai restaurants in Britain for decades. Farrell, who is almost as eloquent as he addicted to these ingredients, refers to the style of food as the “vernacular cuisine” of Thailand — one he says he hopes to “dutifully recreate” in London. And it is with duty and care that Farrell also believes he can escape charges of cultural appropriation. The subject of non-Thai chefs cooking and profiting from Thai food in London has been somewhat charged since the Som Saa scandal of 2018, when it emerged one of the popular Shoreditch restaurant’s chefs had been indiscreetly moonlighting as a racist YouTuber.
“It’s not something that worries me,” he says. “I think it is culturally appropriate [...] The team we’ve assembled, we’re not doing anything that’s raised those alarms. We are cooking in accordance to how they do so in Thailand. We’re at pains to make sure that it’s respectful.”
The menu will “hinge,” the chef says, “on fresh curry pastes from small producers in Thailand.” It is these which will enable a kitchen team comprising British, Greek, Swedish, as well as Thai chefs to deliver on the recipes’s complexities. The pastes will meld specialist chillies, turmeric, and long pepper; premium shrimp paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce too.
“Coast to jungle cuisine” might sound like a neatly packaged marketing slogan which is effective in London in 2022; but Farrell’s “kaleidoscope of curries thick with fresh coconut milk and aromatic curry pastes, fermented fish for depth, and searingly hot stir fries with cooling herbs alongside,” speaks to the range, balance, and wholeness of Thai cuisine he wishes to bring to central London.
His description of a southern Thai massaman is instructive here. He emphasises that the version at Plaza Khao Gaeng will be less like the thick, rich, sometimes nutty, often comparatively mild curry some in Britain may imagine, but “rough and ready, made with Indian shallots, heavily spiced,” and featuring a thin pool of red oil on its surface. This, which belongs to the Muslim communities of Thailand, comes from the country’s “deep south,” Farrell says.
If dishes have been lost in translation over the years, where recipes have been bent to the palates of the median diner, and where the limitations on the availability of ingredients have neutered the ambitions of chefs, then Farrell seems hell bent on giving London the original text.
“I consider myself very lucky,” he says.