THAI street food isn’t commonly found in Melbourne, but that’s about to change. Diane Leow chats to Simon Williams, ak.a The White Guy who Cooks Thai.
When I think about Thai street food, an Asian man clad in a thin white singlet, bermudas and flip flops comes to mind. He might even be wearing a straw hat to shield himself from baking in the sun. In one hand, a straw fan, used to fan away the fumes created by a makeshift stove. In another, quick hand movements flip chicken skewers grilling away on a bed of hot charcoal.
Simon Williams, the guy behind the newest food truck to hit the streets of Melbourne – White Guy Cooks Thai – looks nothing like this stereotypical Asian hawker I have in my head. Instead of a straw hat, he wears a fedora. White singlet is swapped for a yellow t-shirt, jeans and a suave brown blazer. In fact, he doesn’t look like a cook at all. He looks like a musician.
Simon does indeed play the guitar and drums, but cooking is his first love. He spends his days toasting spices and grinding fresh curry pastes in his kitchen and he’s proud to say there isn’t a single jar of pre-made paste in sight.
Unlike many professional chefs, Simon cooks at home too. His current go-to dish is Assam Laksa, although he also confesses to eating a lot of duck and lychee red curry and soft shell crab som tum.
While working at Simon Johnson’s Pyrmont store, Simon had the opportunity to meet top chefs like Christine Mansfield and David Thompson, who would conduct demonstrations and classes at the store’s cooking school. Thompson quickly became Simon’s biggest food inspiration.
“Obviously he’s published the Bible of Thai food cooking. I probably cook less spicy than he does, he’s sort of a traditionalist when it comes to his dishes, I am not so much,” Simon says.
White Guy Cooks Thai combines Simon’s French training with his love of clean Asian flavours. His menu changes with the seasons, but there are a few mainstays like a duck confit banh mi (Vietnamese baguette).
His eyes light up when describing this dish, “It’s a twelve-hour slow-cooked duck with the skin flashed off in the fryer and done as a banh mi”
Street food has always inspired Simon to cook.
“I spent a lot of time travelling around Thailand and I love the street vendors with their many dishes!” he says.
He counts Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos as his favourite Asian destinations, although China stands out in particular.
“I always thought China was going to be really unfriendly. It’s such an industrious crazy busy place, you just don’t think China is the sort of place where everybody stops you on the street and practices their English on you,” he says with a laugh.
During his travels, Simon had quite a few interesting delicacies including deep fried crickets, frog, and weirdest of all, dog curry.
I was in Lao last year and we got served a curry. We were in a rural village. The wife took a bite and asked, ‘What is this?’ The guy started pointing at a dog. Earlier in the day there were four puppies, now there were only three and we were like , ‘That’s not good. We’ll stick to rice’.”
Rest assured though, White Guy Cooks Thai’s menu will most definitely not be featuring crickets, frogs, or dogs of any kind any time soon.
For Simon, the idea of a mobile food van is far more appealing than an immobile restaurant.
“You can do festivals, you can street trade, you can do different events. The mix of clientele is a bit more friendly and wide. It’s just a bit more interesting,” he says.
There’s also the ‘thrill of the chase’. With food trucks becoming increasingly popular, Melbournians often track down trucks parked at various locations in the hope of having something special for dinner. Simon himself loves the food truck scene and often hunts down a particular truck for lunch or dinner.
He also admits to being a little bit of a control freak as he likes to know exactly where his food is coming from.
“All the other food businesses I’ve worked in, you have less control over the menu and the ingredients,” he says.
I actually don’t have set suppliers, I just go out and buy the best I can get. I get up early and hit the Footscray or Preston markets.
“You just get phenomenal quality. You can pick and choose between the different vendors to make sure you get the quality you like.”
Being environmentally-friendly is important to Simon too. He uses biodegradable packaging and cutlery for all his dishes and has endeavoured to fit out his van in the most energy-efficient way.
He also ensures the menu never gets boring. His business partner has a Middle Eastern background, so White Guy Cooks Thai isn’t strictly Thai. But that’s what makes it unique.
It is this commitment to quality ingredients, handmade pastes and good food that makes Simon really confident about White Guy Cooks Thai.
I’m pretty confident that the food’s as good as I can make it,” he says.
This confidence seems to melt away when I try to take a photo of him though. Game for a laugh, he tries to pose and shies away from checking if the photo is up to standard.
“That’s okay,” he says. “I trust your photography skills.”
This White Guy who cooks Thai certainly surprises on many fronts and I can’t wait to try that duck confit banh mi!
To track down White Guy Cooks Thai, visit their Facebook page.