Andy Oliver of Som Saa on crowdfunding and opening his first permanent restaurant

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Andy Oliver of Som Saa on crowdfunding and opening his first permanent restaurant

Related tags: Kaffir lime, Thai cuisine

Smash-hit east London residency Som Saa closes this month, but Thai food specialist Andy Oliver and his partners have already reached their crowdfunding target for their first permanent restaurant, also to be called Som Saa. 

How did you become a Thai food specialist?

I always liked cooking but, after university, I got a graduate job in telecoms. In my mid-20s, I realised that I needed to stop faffing and start cooking. I ended up on MasterChef in 2009 and got through to the finals. After that, I did stages at lots of different London restaurants. The one that blew me away was Nahm (the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, now closed).

David Thompson (Nahm’s chef-patron) is a genius. Anyone who works with him will have their ideas about food changed for ever. We were using ingredients and techniques that weren’t found anywhere in Europe. I was inexperienced but David realised how interested I was in Thai food and how much more I wanted to learn.

You ended up staying there a while…

I spent two and a half years there and then went to Bo.Lan in Bangkok. Living in a Thai suburb and spending a lot of time with Thai people increased my understanding of the country’s food a lot. Then I was approached by Alan Yau to test some of the dishes served at Naamyaa from a street food van and I worked there for a bit as a senior sous chef before going part time at The Begging Bowl in Peckham (a Thai
restaurant run by another Nahm alumna) while we worked on opening Som Saa. We tried to open a restaurant a few years ago but couldn’t find a site, which is how the Climpson’s Arch residency came about.

Who else is involved in the project?

There are three partners including myself. I met co-head chef Mark Dobbie when working at Nahm. He’s Australian and is extremely knowledgeable about Thai food having run the kitchen at both Nahm and Pok Pok New York (the Thai restaurant run by US chef Andy Ricker). Front of house is looked after by Tom George, whose CV includes Goodman.

Why do you think Som Saa reached its fundraising target so quickly?

There’s a huge appetite for authentic Thai food. For a variety of reasons, most of the Thai food served in the UK has been dumbed down, but people are now ready for the real thing.

Why did you go down the crowdfunding route? 

We’d been talking to a range of investors about our options, but it was (street food entrepreneur) Jonathan Downey who first suggested it. We had some money to put in ourselves and a few people were willing to back us but crowdfunding was identified as the best option. We reached £700,000 on Crowdcube in just four days. The target was £550,000.

What does Som Saa mean?

It’s the name of a rare Thai citrus fruit with an incredible fragrance that is used in older Thai recipes. It’s now quite hard to find in Thailand. It’s a metaphor for the restaurant. Our aim is to introduce people to new tastes.

David Thompson closed Nahm because of sourcing challenges. How easy is it to get the ingredients you need?

It’s a big challenge. We have to be creative and look beyond the obvious. For example, we source a lot of our fresh produce from suppliers that service the UK’s Vietnamese, Bangladeshi and Indian communities. They use a lot of the same ingredients as the Thais.

And you also work with growers…

About four years ago I started a project to grow fresh kaffir lime leaves in Spain, which is now literally bearing fruit. We now have 250 kaffir lime trees in Malaga. We’re also working with a chap in Dorset who grows brilliant organic south-east Asian produce in his dad’s farm including turmeric, wild ginger and som saa.

What about meat and fish?

There’s no reason to source from Thailand. British meat and fish is incredible. We’ve been working with game recently, which is a great fit for jungle curry. In Thailand, this curry is made with whatever wild animals are available so it makes sense. We also use some British vegetables. We’ve been working with Thai food so we know when the produce will have the right profile. For example, we serve British sour
plums with chilli salt as a snack.

How is the search for a site going?

It’s ongoing but we’re in advanced negotiations for a location in central London. The aim is to find somewhere with room for between 60 and 80 covers plus a bar. The real works starts now. We’ve done a residency but now we have to open a proper restaurant. That’s a huge job but one we’re super excited for. We’re going to keep a lot of the staff that worked for us at Climpson’s Arch – they’re willing to wait and come back.

How similar is it going to be to the residency at Climpson’s Arch?

The price will be about the same but there will be more expensive options. If people want to splash out on beef rib curry with salted beef and a nice bottle of wine, they can. At the residency we focused on food from the north and north-east of Thailand because it’s great but also because we didn’t have a huge amount of space for equipment. We only had a grill, oven and a pestle and mortar.

The idea behind Som Saa has always been to celebrate the diversity of Thai cuisine and, at a permanent site, we can do this. The two things that will make the biggest difference to the menu will be proper wok burners – which are a massive part of Thai cooking – and the means to prepare fresh coconut every day. This will allow us to cook a lot of central and southern Thai dishes as well as lots of coconut-based desserts.

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