After a career-long education under one of the world’s biggest Thai authorities, David Thompson, Annita Potter is quietly figuring out her own cooking style at Viand in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. We recently caught up with her to discuss her career, Thai cuisine, and what guests can expect at the new restaurant.
Annita Potter doesn’t take the obvious path.
When she finished training as a chef, two decades ago, her friends headed to the UK – and she chose not to follow. “I didn’t want to go to London and be like everyone else,” she says. She redirected her plans to Paris. “When I got there, I stupidly realised I should’ve learnt French!”
London ended up calling eventually, when she joined David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant – the first Thai restaurant in Europe to gain Michelin-star status. It wasn’t the most welcoming workplace. “That was a male-dominated kitchen,” she says. She was given testing tasks, like peeling incredibly tiny Thai garlic. “I remembered David walking by me and going, ‘they really don’t like you, do they?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
Thompson, the author of award-winning books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, is considered an international authority on the cuisine, and Potter’s knowledge of Thai food – which was non-existent until her late twenties – expanded vastly, gaining more dimension and nuance with every Thompson project she worked on, including his blockbuster re-entry onto the Sydney restaurant scene with Long Chim in 2016.
After a decade under his wing, she launched her first full-time solo restaurant this year – Viand in Woolloomooloo – where she serves wafers of coconut-braised chicken and monkfish and green onion dumplings with roasted chilli dressing. You can expect sour orange curry with silver perch, snake beans and betel leaves or a curry flavoured with free-range Maremma duck, kipfler potatoes and golden shallots. But she’s steering around the most obvious choices and keeping her menu free of an expected Thai dish like green curry. Viand is meant to surprise you, and test your expectations of the cuisine. Which can be “disappointing”, she jokes, “because I make a good green curry.”
You grew up in a family with Italian and Croatian roots. Was food a big part of your upbringing in Perth?
There was always something that was growing. My nonno would walk around with lollies in his pocket, to get us to go in the garden and do stuff. His garage would be full of pickling olives and wine he had made. It was just life and I didn’t know any different.
There were strange things my father would cook. There’d be strange dinners of dumplings for dinner and dumplings for dessert.
You’d make these parsley dumplings, and you’d drop them into the stew. As the stew cooks, the dumplings cook as well, you’d have these layers of dumplings on top.
But for dessert, he’d cook a sweet version of it. You basically felt like you were a solid by the end of the meal.
You’ve spent much of your career cooking Thai food at David Thompson’s restaurants. What do you remember from your first encounter with the chef, in 2011, during his guest dinner at Star Anise in Perth?
There was something that he had brought over from Sydney that he was fermenting and drying on the roof of the restaurant. It didn’t make sense to me – food doesn’t get dried on a roof. You put it in a fridge.
Do you remember how he used this roof-dried ingredient?
He does this dried beef – you marinate the beef, you smoke it and you let it dry. He pulls it apart and deep-fries it.
For you, Thai food was a revelation. What was it about the cuisine that struck you so intensely?
I don’t think it was the food itself, it was what it did to my brain. Flavour combinations you haven’t had before: the combination of something salty and really sour at the same time. Or something really sweet and spicy at the same time. I think the whole thing was brand new. I had no idea about any of this food – how to have it or put it together.
You were determined to work at Thompson’s London restaurant, Nahm. Was it a challenging workplace?
It was a boys’ kitchen and heavily competitive. You learn how to survive [laughs]. They would hide shoes, they would hide knives, they would smoke chillies and hide them around the kitchen and smoked chillies in a wok gets into your lungs and makes you cough – it’s so painful. They’d stick scud chillies in your dinner without you knowing. But you survive it and you become stronger for it.
“[Nahm] was a boys’ kitchen and heavily competitive… But you survive it and you become stronger for it.”
You turned down a job in New York to work at Nahm. But you only got to be at Thompson’s London restaurant for a year.
He closed it at the end of 2012. Which was really disappointing. He told us all in September, halfway through the year, just to give everyone a heads up. ‘What do you mean, I’ve just come all this way?’ I said. ‘And now you’re closing up shop?’ He said: ‘where do you want to go, who do you want to work for?’
And what did you say?
‘You! That’s why I’m here. And now you’re shutting the bloody restaurant.’
So, he sent you to Hong Kong to work on what was meant to be the first Long Chim restaurant. Except, there was one problem with the site.
One of the sides of the building walls fell down and it took a couple of years for it to get restored.
You also cooked on one of his luxury cruises along the Mekong.
There were weeks where I never got off the boat, which was strange, weird and exhausting. It’s not my thing — I know that now. I’d prefer to be in a restaurant, on land.
You must have had access to some great ingredients, given your location and access to markets?
Seafood was amazing. The live prawns jumping out of a bucket of water. That was something I’d always get.
You came back to Australia, in 2016, to launch Long Chim in Sydney. What was that like?
Full on. There was a lot of pressure. This is David’s first restaurant back in Sydney since forever … Knowing how much press was around the whole thing … I think we had the Gourmet Traveller awards on our first night. There wasn’t much of a soft opening – it was basically opening to the whole of the Sydney food scene. There was a lot of pressure. It was tough.
I don’t think I’ve drunk more in my life. I basically slept two hours a night. I’d come home, completely wired, completely exhausted, drink and then pass out and get up and do it all again. I didn’t have a day off for several months. It was non-stop.
What do you remember cooking from the time?
We did have a squid dish: little cuttlefish or squid, green peppercorns, every kind of chilli you could find, stir-fried. Repetitious pad Thais, Jesus Christ. I hate cooking pad Thais.
People even tell me now how ridiculously hot the Thai food was when Long Chim opened. I know it alienated a couple of people because of the heat.
There was no toning down of anything. He’s very true to it. There are some dishes that you don’t tone down, because that is the dish.
His food is full on and I think that’s what makes his food incredible.
When did you decide to leave Thompson’s restaurant empire and start your own thing?
It got to a point after Hong Kong [after Aaharn opened in 2018], I thought to myself, I’ve been working for you for so long, I either stay working with you for the rest of my life or I leave, and I leave now. It was a ‘get out now’ moment. Ten years with someone, it’s a long time.
“I don’t want to do green curry, I don’t want to do the other things everyone else is doing and everyone else expects a Thai restaurant to do, because it will pigeonhole me.”
So what inspired you to start Viand, which began as a pop-up at Almond Bar in 2020?
It was also me coming back to Australia and realising I was unemployable. I’ve just spent the better part of my professional career working for the best Thai chef on the planet. Who am I supposed to go work for now? [Viand] was basically just me. I had no ability to do a la carte. There were nights when there were only two tables in there and there were nights when it was full.
The permanent version of Viand was meant to open in Woolloomooloo in 2021 – but the mid-year lockdown happened.
It took us a year to open. I sent [designer] Ab Rogers an email [about the restaurant layout], knowing full well I couldn’t afford him, it was well above my paygrade, the son of Richard Rogers, rock star in himself. He came back and said I’ll do it. I still can’t believe he said yes.
You had strong ideas about what Viand’s cooking style.
I don’t want to do green curry, I don’t want to do the other things everyone else is doing and everyone else expects a Thai restaurant to do, because it will pigeonhole me. So that’s why I steered well away from that and am now still steering away from those things. Because you can get those things elsewhere.
I also don’t want people to compare me to the one they’ve had around the corner for 20 years and they love and then come here and say, ‘it’s not that good.’
What are some dishes that represent the style of Viand?
So there’s a northern boiled curry I’ve got on currently. It’s made from the whole pork belly, ribs and all of the flats … Shallots, pickled garlic, no coconut milk, lots of tamarind and fish sauce, a little bit of sugar.
I’ve never seen Chiang Mai pork curry on offer in Sydney [but I have one with shredded ginger and pickled garlic at Viand].
My pescatarian menu has a jungle curry of tiger prawns with long-leaf coriander and deep-fried shallots.
What about your crab dish with puffed tapioca, pickled leeks and river tamarind?
It’s a similar dish to a dish that David taught me at Nahm in London. There are a couple of things on the menu that I see as odes to David and his teachings. It’s basically all where all my experiences come from, especially with Thai food.
It’s a split between spanner crab and blue swimmer crab. I like them both, I can’t pick between them, so I just put them together.
[There’s] pickled garlic, but also these little pickled leeks as well, which are a little bit sweeter, and green chilli dressing. I put finger limes in it at the moment because they’re amazing, like all citrus is. And doing it with puffed tapioca is a point of difference to doing puffed rice.
The river tamarind comes from a tree around the corner, and it’s a tree that David showed me and he said, ‘you’re not allowed to tell anybody about this tree ever. It’s our little secret.’ I’ve never seen river tamarind in Australia, outside of Thailand.
It being around the corner, I want to use it. With the rain we’ve had, it’s grown too much. Sometimes the branches are a little too high for me to get. Sometimes there’s a ladder involved.
Do you think there’s a dish at Viand that fully represents you?
Not yet and I’m excited about developing that. I don’t think I’m far from it. At the end of the day, I just want to cook – I want to cook good food.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.