It’s midday on a lovely sunny Sunday and I am sitting in a booth at a stylishly rustic wood table surrounded by a jungle’s worth of foliage. Sipping on a tiny ceramic cup of decidedly fancy tea, I could squint and pretend that I am holidaying at some luxurious Thai island resort. In reality, I am only a hop skip and jump away from Liverpool Street Station, at the just recently-opened Thai restaurant Som Saa.
Som Saa, (the name taken from a rare citrus fruit used in old style Thai cookery), is the brainchild of Tom George, Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver. Following a year-long residency at Climpton Arch, and a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign, they have now found a permanent home on Commercial Street, in what was once an East London garment factory. I dropped by to chat about the process of opening a restaurant, their food philosophies, and the best way to chop up a body. Here’s what they had to say.
Can you tell me about each of your roles?
Tom: I’m General Manager. Among other things, i’m a wine nerd, a tea nerd, do bits of the cocktails, and as with all the managers, also do bits of reservations and things like that.
Mark: I’m head chef along with Andy, we both look after the kitchen together, that’s about the broad gist of that.
Andy: I run the kitchen with Mark, we’re co-head chefs.
So you’re like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?
Mark: No, we’re two Tweedle Dums.
What do you have against Tweedle Dee? He’s cool too.
Andy: I think maybe he’s a bit too ambitious for us.
Firstly, congratulations! This place is gorgeous, all these plants, I feel like I’m sitting in the jungle.
Tom: They’re normally up on the shelves rather than all over the tables but yeah, they’re good. I think the vibe is right.
It feels so calm and relaxed in here. In terms of the decor, was that what you were aiming for?
Tom: Yeah. Simple, relaxed, fun. Not adhering to any cliches of Thai restaurants. No gold Buddhas or purple drapes. It’s surprising when you’re building a place how hard it can be to see what something’s gonna look like. We’re really pleased with how it’s turned out. We think it’s pretty cool.
Did you have a particular vision in mind or was it a more organic process where you thought up ideas as you went along?
Mark: It was definitely a progression of things. We started with a bunch of ideas and worked it out with our designer. There were also a lot of natural features that came into play because they were already there. Even the three windows at the front – they create a lot of bright light. It’s nice and airy. These arches behind you looked absolutely horrible when we first started. We actually wanted to get rid of them, but once we paired it back and took all the plaster off they looked really nice and then we could start working around them.
Did you pick the location for the space, or was it the area?
Mark: Probably a combination of the two.
Andy: We needed a bit more space back of house than most restaurants. Or maybe we’re just a bit more greedy, but we had the opportunity to take this space. It had the back of house, and then it still had quite a bit of space front of house to also have a bar, so it ticked all the boxes.
It’s an amazing transformation from what it was previously.
Tom: Yeah it is. A lot of that is actually achieved though by taking things away rather than adding them.
It can be harder to know what to take away rather than what to add. Do you practice that philosophy when developing new recipes?
Andy: Sometimes, but I think our food is always progressing naturally. We both critically analyse stuff even if we have been completely happy with it for the last three months or so. We’ll still be tweaking recipes even if we’re actually fine with them… I’m not actually sure that’s the best thing (haha).
So you’ve both spent a lot of time working with Thai cuisine?
Andy: Yeah, Probably Mark has spent even more time than I have, but we’ve both spent the vast majority of our food careers cooking Thai food because that’s what we are passionate about.
Was there something particular that drew you towards Thai as apposed other types of cuisines?
Andy: It’s hard to say really, probably not. I think it’s just that certain people gravitate towards different types of cuisines more. I remember that even at a young age I was more interested by Asian and exotic recipes than I was Western recipes. I like cooking from all over, but I always found the exotic flavours more interesting. That progressed to eventually discovering Thai food, and that was my coming home. It’s the thing I’m most interested in and want to dedicate my career to. I think the same is true for Mark, also, some of the other chefs we have in the kitchen. The majority of the chefs we have working here are not just floating in and out of Thai food. They’re dedicated, and that is the style of food they’ve chosen.
You did a very successful pop up at Climpson Arch a while back. Would you say that has impacted where you are now?
Mark: Undoubtedly. It definitely helped us establish our name and obviously helped with the crowd funding. I don’t think we would have opened a restaurant of this size or this sort of finish without having had that twelve months of residency.
Andy: It’s actually almost lucky that we didn’t find a place earlier. That Climpson Arch stepping stone has definitely allowed us to jump further forward and open a restaurant that now, and even in the future looking back, we will still think that we opened our ideal restaurant. Normally you progress, you look back and think that this was a bit small, and this was just a stepping stone, but I think that what we have created is as close to our ideal restaurant as we could have anticipated.
So the residency gave you the opportunity to spend a year working out what you wanted for your next step?
Andy: Probably, but more also that we had the confidence to do it. The confidence, and the bravery. Also, you have the support and following, people egging you on, and the funding, which is obviously very important.
So would you say that pop ups have an important place in the London food scene?
Mark: For sure they have a place. They keep the scene vibrant and give good chefs an opportunity to show what they’re doing. It also gives the diner something exciting to do, because it’s not always as expensive as going out to a restaurant, and is in a more interesting space sometimes. There is a lot of freedom with pop ups.
Tom: By their nature also, you’re almost never going to make money out of doing a pop up so you’re also going to have someone that is really caring about what they’re doing. Whether that’s the food, or cocktails or how they’re running it. They’re wanting to make a name for themselves, progress in some way, try out something new, do something different, or just make something bloody tasty. They have to be doing it for the passion because they’re unlikely to be doing it for the money.
How did you all meet?
Andy: Mark and I met at Nahm, David Thompson’s Thai restaurant. It was a really great restaurant, and it very much influenced the start of Mark and my careers. Working for David was very inspirational. About eight years ago, Mark and I met in the kitchen. Tom and I met subsequently about three years ago now. I was doing a little event, and Tom came along to the event and said hi.
Tom: Yeah, David Thompson was still kind of the connection though. I had all of his books. In Manchester during my uni days there were loads of great Indian restaurants, and also for that reason, lots of amazing Indian spice shops. I ended up getting into cooking Thai food, though not very well. For that reason I was really interested In David Thompson. Then, a mate of mine got in touch on Twitter and said, “Have you heard about this guy, Andy? He’s cooking some food down in Peckham and he used to work with David Thompson.” And I said, “No, but sounds good, we should go and taste it.” And that’s how we met.
How would you say your relationships, both professionally and personally, have developed since you first started working together?
Mark: That’s a weird question.
Andy: We try to keep the romance outside of work.
Tom: It is kind of a funny question, because the way a restaurant operates is so together and fractured at the same time. The front of house and the kitchen do completely separate things that are only connected by communication, and a runner carrying the food. It’s not like a team building a bike in a bike shop where they are all putting together the same bits. In a restaurant, you’re working towards the same thing, but in very separate areas.
So you think it’s really just communication within the restaurant that connects you?
Andy: It’s been a big journey too. From when we all first met, to putting together the idea for the restaurant, working at Climpson Arch together and then going through the big phase of trying to get this restaurant up and running. It was several months of not actually cooking or serving food to anyone but just designing a restaurant, some of the project management, and all the elements that go into that, like not running out of money. We’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster and done lots of things together and it’s nice that the dynamic is still good. We’re still friendly and we haven’t fallen out or killed each other. We’re all different personalities but I think, fairly complementary and we’ve worked together long enough now that we can see it working into the future.
If you were to make a burger that represented you – called the ‘Andy Oliver’, ‘Mark Dobbie’ or ‘Tom George’, what would be on it?
Tom: The burger that represents me as a person? Oh fuck me…Jesus… that’s a therapist’s question.
Andy: Can I think about that one and send you an email? I’ll ask someone to make burgers for a staff meal and take some inspiration.
Mark: It would definitely have pineapple on it. I like pineapple on a burger.
Tom: I think I would make a very refined and elegant burger, with really expensive ingredients and then smash it in ketchup and cheese. That’s where I’d be going with it.
What do you get up to in your spare time when you’re not working?
Mark: Spare time?
Tom – Um, yeah, ha… we sleep. And put our shoes on.
I can imagine it must be a really demanding business and industry to be in?
Mark: It is, but it’s very rewarding too. You wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t enjoy it, or see the value in it. Every day you see improvements and things that make it all worthwhile.
Are there any customer traits or requests that drive you crazy?
Tom: All front of house develop twitches about certain things, but really the only thing that’s upsetting is when someone comes expecting not to have a good time, or waiting to criticise it. If somebody is expecting to not enjoy themselves, it’s very difficult to make sure that they do. I think fundamentally, in any good restaurant, they are full of people that will do almost anything they can to make sure you have a good time, so when people come and don’t engage with the experience, try to order something that isn’t on the menu, don’t like their seat, can’t order the beer they wanted, they’re gonna have a shit time. You have to let yourself be in the experience, trust the experience. It’s like you can’t go to the cinema and choose a Disney film and then complain because it’s not an action film and there are no cool fight scenes. If you don’t enjoy it then that’s fair enough, but if you don’t enjoy it because you didn’t really give yourself the opportunity to actually try it, then that’s frustrating.
Mark: The vast majority of our customers are really nice people though. We had a following at Climpson Arch and a lot of people have followed us over from there. People are increasingly more knowledgeable. They’re interested in the food, and wanting to be challenged by eating more complex and exciting dishes, which is the kind of stuff that we enjoy cooking.
If there was any one person in the world you could sit down for dinner with who would it be?
Tom: My girlfriend.
That’s nice. But really, you can see her any other time…
Tom: You know, I probably would have said David Thompson, but I got to meet him a few months ago.
Andy: I wouldn’t mind a bit of dinner with David Attenborough. That would be cool. I watch a lot of his animal programs.
Tom: I’d really like to eat some Chinese with Fuchsia Dunlop.
Mark: Yeah, me too, I was going to say that!
You would choose to eat Chinese?
Tom: With her for sure. You know her? She was the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, and also, I think maybe the only female Westerner too.
Mark: She’s written a lot of interesting books, and she’s a fan of Som Saa. She’s visited us a few times, which is nice.
What would you choose for your last meal or drink on earth?
Andy: I think it would be fairly boring actually. I might just eat steak and chips, a couple of glasses of red wine. That would do me.
Tom: I think I’d have crispy duck with pancakes.
Mark: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Tom: It’s something that I liked when I was five and still do.
Mark: My choice would probably be a duck massaman that David once made. I had been working for him for a while and it still blew me away. Actually, I’m always a bit fearful of making massaman because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get any where near as good as that was. It was just… a really fucking good curry. It’s a real food memory that’s burnt into my brain.
So… a bit of a weird one… if you had to cut up a body, where would you start and why?
Tom: That’s a really weird one. You’re right.
Andy: You’re talking about a human body?
Tom: Would it be for the purpose of cooking it or dissecting it?
Either I suppose… but you are chefs…
Tom: I’m told that the thumb oyster muscle, is that what it’s called? That’s apparently the connoisseur’s choice for eating in the human body… so I’m told. I’ve never eaten one of course.
So perhaps just lop off the hand and get rid of the rest?
Tom: Yeah, why not.
Mark: I think it would be really tough… not good eating.
Are there any particular ingredients that make you want to gag?
Andy: No, not really, though I really don’t like marzipan.
Mark: I guess maybe some sort of extreme offal, like the insides of game birds with lots of rotten guts…
Tom: That sausage andouillette. That’s pretty savage. There’s this place near my previous work. They do a crispy fried pigs intestine, which is really good, but it also does smell a bit like eating shit as well.
Mark: It shouldn’t really smell like that though should it? If it’s cooked properly…
Chicken or steak?
Butter or olive oil?
Andy: Olive oil
Wine or spirits?
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Mark: (over my shoulder) Hey, Rachael, you want to chip in on this one?
Rachael: Obviously, to get to the other side.