Having taken on the role of Executive Chef at Gouger Street’s newest Asian eatery Mrs Q, Nu Suandokmai is back in the city that that gave him his start as one of Australia’s most celebrated and prolific chefs.
“I always love cooking, doesn’t matter what. I always want to learn,” Suandokmai tells The Adelaide Review. “I work with lots of Australian people – they’re very good. So many cultures.”
Suandokmai’s cheery and open outlook does little to betray the remarkable work ethic of this one-man gastronomic powerhouse. Many might not realise the impact Suandokmai has had on Adelaide’s traditional Thai and Asian-fusion scenes, but a quick perusal of the man’s history speaks volumes.
Arriving in Adelaide in 1988, Suandokmai got his start cooking at Star of Siam, and speedily grew his encyclopaedic experience from there. He worked to help set up the Kwik Stix restaurant chain, trained with chefs in silver service settings, cheffed in bistros such as The Old Lion, then set up his own outlet Nu Thai, which quickly became a hit.
Working with Walter Ventura he’s also helped set up more than a dozen Asian and fusion restaurants across the city, including Fish Head, Concubine, Gin Long Canteen, Cliché Exhibition and Singapore House. Golden Boy was another of his projects, which he left in somewhat controversial circumstances after a dispute with the restaurant’s owners.
His skillset is even broader than classic east Asian styles, as Suandokmai counts some traditional European cuisines in his kit, including Italian, which he learned from culinary friends behind Caffe Buongiorno and Lucia’s. “That’s the way I learned Italian,” explains Suandokmai, “from the old people. I go to their house, I like their cooking and say, ‘Can I learn?’ and they say, ‘Yep!’ Then one day they have no chef and they say, ‘Nu!’”
Suandokmai continues to consult and advise many more restaurants across the city, as well as taking on the role of executive chef at the spanking new Mrs Q on Gouger St, which sits in the high-ceilinged palatial space that was Loft Bar. Oh, and he does this while commuting from Sydney (with more restaurants in the harbour city, Nu’s influence stretches across the nation). If he wasn’t such a pleasant fellow, you might think his seven-day-a-week work ethic bordered on the pathological.
Somehow, amid this break-neck work schedule, Nu manages to make it back to his home village in Thailand every three or four months (with a pit stop at Bali’s Ritz Carlton for more consulting work, of course). His homeward jaunts are sentimental and important for Suandokmai to maintain connection with Thai cuisine.
“[I go home] because my family is there, my mum is there, she used to be a chef, she’s just retired now,” Suandokmai says. “She used to cook for many old hotels, for the royal family. She’s like 84 and I’m 50. I go back because of my home in Bangkok and in the country, in the north, halfway to Chang Mai. My sister still cooks in the woods and stuff like that.”
Suandokmai’s sustained connection with Thailand is also evident in his mourning for the country’s recently passed King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “I loved the king,” he says. “That’s why we’re all wearing black. I’ve got Thai chefs, everyone in the back in black. My mum, everyone’s upset, but what can you do?”
Those traditions, and the strong influence of his mother’s own cooking, have been key to Suandokmai’s successes. His menus in fusion venues have woven in Thai traditions and dishes that rarely reared their head in Australia’s old paragon of Thai food. “Things like red curry, green curry, massaman – they’re a bit boring now,” he says. “I think Adelaide Thai could be more different. A lot of people tend to have more traditional tastes. People tend to go overseas now, so they know what Thai food should taste like.”
At Mrs Q, these influences make themselves clear in Suandokmai’s roster of seasonal menus that bring many east Asian styles together in a cosmopolitan setting. The Adelaide Review is lucky enough to sample a few of those dishes. Aside from a delectable pad Thai dish, we are greeted by a moreish Miang Kham snacking dish of prawn and desiccated coconut sauce on mint leaf and banana heart and pork neck curry running over with rich, complex flavours.
“The pork curry – Adelaide doesn’t have it anywhere,” says Suandokmai, beaming with pride. “Only I use the banana tree, use the heart inside. That one is from the country. We get the heart direct from the banana farms up in Darwin. In my village we’re eating everything like banana flower, banana blossom salad, and then, you know, the heart.
“They’ve been cooking it [since] a long, long time ago, but no one wanted to do that here. Because sometimes they’re not looking for the product, but I do. I went looking for people to try it and buy it. I still want to do that here.”
While some of those key ingredients are selectively imported, Suandokmai is pleased that much of his produce comes from local sources. “Now you can have nearly everything here in Adelaide,” he says. “You can get some at the Central Market and another market in Parafield. That one, you walk in and it’s like Thailand everywhere. It’s beautiful. I think Adelaide’s changed a lot. You’ve got lots of Asian people farming there, like Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao.”
Suandokmai expects to stay at Mrs Q for at least a year. He is passionate about Adelaide’s potential, and growing set of more authentic Thai restaurants, many of which are apparently spilling in from Sydney. “I go sometimes to Peel Street, to the Thai one and Kin Kin on Hutt Street – they’re similar to street food and they come from Sydney – I know them,” Suandokmai explains. “Adelaide’s starting to grow.”
He even has tentative plans for a truly traditional Thai-style BBQ joint that brings the best and most casual aspects of street food to the city.
“For me, if I do my own, like maybe in three or four years, I want to do everything in charcoal. Everything cooked in the old school, like the street food. I’m still waiting for a good area.”
Mrs Q Asian Kitchen and Bar
128 Gouger Street
Opening hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 12pm- 3pm and 5pm-late, Friday, 12pm-late, Saturday and Sunday, 3pm-late
Photos: Jonathan van der Knaap