Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie, Som Saa Restaurant (London, England)

Cooking has always been a love affair for Chef Andy Oliver and after completing university, he found a job in telecoms but it is not until in his mid twenties when he started taking food seriously. After getting through to the finals of Masterchef UK 2009, he started doing stages at lots of different restaurants in London but the one that blew him away and caught his eye was Nahm, a Michelin starred restaurant run by legendary Thai chef and expert, David Thompson. This is where Andy met Mark and after clocking hours in Nahm, Andy found himself spending two and half years in Bangkok living and working in the kitchens of Bo.Lan where he further researched and gained a better understanding of the country’s cuisine.

Mark Dobbie started cooking at the age of 15 and ended up spending time at one of Australia’s most famous food institutions, Spirit house where it is renowned for it’s take on Thai food. Following his time in Spirit house, Mark then moved to London to work at Restaurant Nahm and after Nahm London closed to move to Bangkok, Mark went on to America to work for another legendary Thai chef who specialises in Northern Thai Food, Andy Ricker and he was part of the team that earned it a Michelin Star.

Both Andy and Mark co-owns and runs one of London’s most awarded Thai restaurant, Som Saa in the bustling parts of Spitalfields.

– QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH ANDY OLIVER AND MARK DOBBIE –

1- How do you define your style of cooking and philosophy behind your restaurant, Som Saa?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

At Som Saa, we try to cook food as you find it in Thailand, using the best of British and Thai ingredients. We make as much as we possibly can in house – from curry pastes and coconut cream to plaa som (rice fermented fish) and Northern sai oua sausage. We cook food from around Thailand’s regions and often lesser known dishes, either because they are regional specialties or because they are older recipes which are no longer as commonly found.

Fundamentally though, our aim is simple: to run a warm and welcoming restaurant, that serves delicious Thai food with great service and good drinks to match.

2- What will/should your diners expect when dining at Som Saa?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

Som Saa is located in a former fabric warehouse in East London. The setting is relaxed and casual but we’re serious about the food and drinks. We have a bar, and there’s great wine list and an exciting selection of Thai ingredient-led cocktails. When it comes to the food diners can expect uncompromising flavours and both set and a la carte menus on offer. Our servers will be on hand to help guide customers in ordering a good balance of dishes.

3- When and how did you know know you wanted to become a chef? Who and what inspired you to cook? 

Mark Dobbie– 

I started cooking at around 15 years of age via a school based apprenticeship in Brisbane, Australia. After bouncing around a few places I began cooking with Kelly Lord who eventually moved to the Spirit House on the Sunshine Coast. I followed Kelly. I feel my time there shaped a lot of what I do today. From the introduction to a specific cuisine that I have now pursued for over a decade, to the culture we have in the kitchen and restaurant – that all stemmed from Kelly and the Brierty family who own and operate The Spirit House.

Andy Oliver- 

I started cooking from a young age but not professionally. I only realised I wanted to be a chef in my mid-twenties; a love cooking and eating just slowly drew me in. In terms of who first inspired me, David Thompson’s name has to be at the top of the list. He introduced me to a type of Thai food that was all at once exciting, complex, beguiling and confusing. Like for many others, working for David was a turning point for me.

4- It can be a challenge to educate diners about what Thai food is/how it should taste because diners might not know the effort and time that goes through into making pastes and dressings as well as understanding the flavour profiles of different individual dishes.

People also tend to think that Thai food and other Southeast Asian cuisines are meant to be cheap due to the reputation of Thai takeaways offering cheap prices and the affordability when travelling to these individual countries. Has it been a challenge running a Thai restaurant in England and what would you say is the most misunderstood aspect of Thai food from a chef and diners’ point of view.

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

We are quite fortunate to have adventurous diners here. Something that helped us gain a foothold at the beginning was that people were excited about the lesser know dishes that we were excited to make and research.

I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of Thai food like you mention is the amount of work that goes into it we have one person who spends about 4 hours every single day making fresh coconut cream. Canned coconut cream is available and we could cut costs significantly if we were to use that but the final product is never the same, that compromise is not worth it in our eyes.

5- Establishing a great relationship with your suppliers are crucial to ensuring seasonal and quality ingredients delivered to your door. How are the relationships between you and your suppliers?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

Finding the right suppliers and building good relationships with them is something that we’ve worked hard at since the very beginnings of som saa. As a result, we have now got to a position where we have a fantastic selection of suppliers, from specialists in highly seasonal UK game, our butchers and fish suppliers in Cornwall (a county in Southwest UK) to our specialist Thai importers. It’s been hard work to find them, and to work with them to find the right products for us, but now we have, they are a real asset and a big part of what makes Som Saa good.

Special mention has to also go to our Thai importer, who each week sources and delivers to us often obscure, artisan or highly seasonal ingredients, plus specialist equipment, plates and countless other stuff. Much of which we could previously have only dreamt of as being available to us.

6– Is it a challenge to find Thai ingredients in England? For instance, fresh Krachai, Kaffir lime. etc

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

It definitely has been in the past but rather serendipitously during our opening period we met a supplier named Tana who is now extremely crucial to the restaurant. He’s Thai and fortunately for us, enjoys the food. He really goes out of his way to find all the weird and wonderful stuff we pester him for from ma-leep and tua nao in the north to nahm boo-doo and satdor beans in the south along with all the flowers, vegetable and leaves for the restaurant, he’s our guy.

Unfortunately though, Kaffir limes and their leaves are banned from import so a few years back we began working with a farm in Spain and now get fresh leaves and when in season fruit straight from there.

7- Can you explain to us the creative process from when planning a dish – making it from start to finish?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie– 

For us the first stage of putting on a dish always starts with research – to try to discover and understand as much as we can about where it comes from, what traditionally (or commonly) goes in the dish, the techniques, and to find out as much as we can on the cultural or historical background and significance of the dish. It’s commonly the case that are various ways of cooking one recipe, often using quite different techniques, ingredients and regional or even hyperlocal variants, plus frankly there’s just a lot of different styles of Thai food out there. So trying to dig into some of this learn as much as we can is an important first step. Quite often we enlist the help of some extremely knowledgeable chefs and friends in Thailand, who know Thai food very well and can often help answer our questions or at least help us untangle the often knotted ball of information the you end up with by trying to research less known dishes.

The other major piece of the puzzle are the ingredients: what’s in season? what do we need to source from Thailand to make the dish properly? what is the appropriate meat or fish to use? Then the final layer is testing the dish and working how do we want it to look, to taste and how should it fit in to our menu. This process can sometimes require several iterations and tweaks before we’re finally ready to put the dish on the menu. We’re fortunate that there’s two of us running the kitchen, so there’s always a knowledgeable second opinion on hand to taste any new dish with.

8- Have you got a mentor or figure that you particularly admire/respect throughout your career as a chef?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- 

As previously mentioned David Thompson has been a major inspiration to both of us – as through his books, but also as a chef, a boss, a friend and a mentor. We also have profound admiration for Bo and Dylan who run Bo.lan restaurant. Their dedication to Thai food, to championing small artisan producers, to environmental causes and to their restaurant and all that it stands for is a constant source

9- Top 5 ingredients to have in your pantry.

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie-

  • Good quality palm sugar (unadulterated with additives or refined sugars)
  • Phrik laab (a complex spice mix from Northern Thailand)
  • Gapi (shrimp paste)
  • Small and large dried chillies (for curry pastes, roasted chilli powders etc)
  • Fish sauce

10- Top 5 favourite produce to work with.

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie-

It varies all the time and there’s so much to choose from, but right now:

  • Cornish seafood – like monkfish, mussels and crab
  • Wild game from Yorkshire – such as mallard (wild duck) and venison
  • The palm sugar we use – it comes from an artisan Thai producer and tastes floral and like butterscotch.
  • Lesser known Thai herbs – like cumin leaf, and sour ‘chamuang’ leaf
  • New crop jasmine and sticky rice – good rice is central to good Thai food!

11- Favourite kitchen Tool?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- 

That’s easy – the “krok” or pestle and mortar.

12- Have you got any advice to young chefs or any chefs that are dwelling into the world of Thai food?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- Thai food can be confusing, it often has complex flavours, multi layered seasoning and a dizzying array of ingredients and techniques. On top of that is often huge variation in the way it is cooked by different chefs – you can eat the same dish in different places and it will look and taste completely different.

So, the challenge is to create your own frame of reference i.e an idea of which way to follow, how to cook, how to season, what you consider “right”, “correct”, “your style”, “authentic” or however you want to describe it. We certainly don’t have all the answers but our advice would be read widely, and to travel to Thailand to eat the food – not just in Bangkok, but out to the regions and the countryside too. Slowly you can start to piece together the puzzle. We’ve been cooking the cuisine for more than 10 years and we feel we’re still just scratching the surface of what there is to learn!

13- There is a much greater coverage and understanding of Thai food compared to many years ago. With Michelin arriving in Thailand and more Thai restaurants featured on the Asia’s 50 best list. What are your thoughts of the Thai culinary scene in the upcoming years to come?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- It’s great it looks like it’s going gangbusters. It’s really exciting to see some of the chefs utilising spices and ingredients in a creative format and from where I stand there is still a whole lot of exploring available to them. We spent some time with Num from Samuay and sons last time we were in Thailand, he has a depth of knowledge of Thai cuisine, a thorough understanding of the history and access to local and indigenous ingredients you would be hard pressed to find in Bangkok all of that matched with his creative flare make for a meal that undoubtedly should be on the world stage. I hope to see restaurants like Samuay and sons, 100 Mahaseth and Le du keep pushing the envelope whilst staying true to the food and inspiring young chefs to do the same. Which I’m sure they already do I think the Thai culinary scene is only going to get better and better.

14- Where are your favourite restaurants to go to in London? Or anywhere in the world.

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- 

In London

Lyle’s, Kiln, Londrino, P Franco, 40 Maltby Street, outside of London Coombeshead farm, Penson’s, Inver, Igni, Uncle Boons and the Sportsman.

In Thailand

Bo.lan holds a special place in our hearts, and anywhere where David Thompson is cooking of course.

15- What are the future plans of Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Som Saa?

Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie- We are slowly working toward opening another Thai restaurant in London, we hope to have some more news on that in 2019! From there let’s see, it’s always been one step at a time for us.

16- Can you share us a recipe for one of your dishes?

Gaeng Kua Dtok Kajorn (Kua Style Curry with Winter Melon and Flowers)

Gaeng Kua Dtok Kajorn

                    ( Kua Style Curry with Winter Melon and Flowers)                           

  • 125gm Kua curry paste – see recipe below
  • 250gm Fresh coconut cream
  • 15gm Palm sugar
  • 15gm Fish sauce
  • A pinch of sea salt
  • 75gm Coconut milk
  • 3 Kaffir limes leaves, torn

Curry Paste

  • 30gm Shallots peeled and sliced
  • 30gm Peeled garlic whole cloves
  • 15gm Galangal peeled and sliced
  • 30gm Lemongrass peeled and sliced
  • 3gm Corinader roots, cleaned
  • 10gm Tumeric, peeled
  • 7gm Large dried chillies, Snipped and soaked
  • 1gm Kaffir lime zest, no white pith
  • 2gm Maldon salt
  • 3gm Dried fish (Plaa grop)
  1. Pound all the ingredients in a granite mortar and pestle from the hardest ingredients first with the salt to the softest. This should be pounded to a reasonably smooth paste.

Directions

  1. Put the 250g of freshly pressed coconut cream into a pot or wok and simmer over a medium heat until the cream splits into a crud and an oil. This may take about 10 minutes. Add the curry paste and fry for another 10 minutes or so smelling as you go. You will be able to smell the paste change as it cooks. The shallots will become less raw whilst the lemongrass and galangal will become more prominent around the same time the fragrance is changing you should be able to begin to see the colour of the paste change and the oil come to the surface.
  2. Now add the palm sugar then the fish sauce, cook in for another minute or two before adding the coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and half the thick coconut cream
  3. Simmer for 5 minutes more, before adding the rest of the cream.  Simmer again until the oil just begins to return to the surface.

Taste:  it should lightly seasoned – a fraction sweet and salty – but still have a lightness and a taste of fresh coconut cream / milk.

Vegetables / garnish:

Winter melon or gourds, braised squash of some sort – cooked in coconut milk with a little salt, plus banana shallot, pandan and lemongrass.

Red and green chillies sliced around the seeds

Kajorn flowers or kae flowers, makham thet, betel leaves, salak (snakefruit)

Finished curry:

  • should be a little rich but not too thick  
  • it should be seasoned and well rounded but with a lightness and a taste the cream / milk.  
  • it should have a little shine but not be oily.
  • It should be finished with some fruit, if salak is not available finishing the seasoning with tamarind is a good substitute
  • Garnish with julienne kaffir lime leaf and a splash of fresh cream

©Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie

– FURTHER INFORMATION –

CHEFS : Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie

Instagram- oliverandy & mark.dobbie  Restaurant- somsaa_london

Som Saa Restaurant

 43A Commercial St, Shoreditch, London E1 6BD, UK

https://www.somsaa.com/

©All images on this website are subject to copyright. Please enquire individual photos prior to using it for personal use.

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