Sebby Holmes is head chef and owner of Farang, London’s most exciting Thai restaurant. Showcasing the finest fresh Thai and British produce through lip-smacking dishes that will knock your socks off, Farang is adored by critics and diners alike and has even received an official nod from the Thai embassy. Here, we speak to Sebby about how he forged his career in this incredible cuisine, his favourite Bangkok eats and how best to start cooking Thai at home.
How did your career in Thai cuisine unfold?
I was trained in British European cuisine, but my career in Thai food began at The Begging Bowl in Peckham, a restaurant owned by chef Jane Alty. It opened in 2012 and brought a style of food that hadn’t really been seen in London before, inspired by a chef called David Thompson. He used to run Nahm, the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in London at that time. A lot of chefs consider David’s book the bible of Thai cookery. Jane was his sous chef for many years and helped him to write that book. She was making her own coconut milk and curry paste, bringing everything in once a week from Thailand, and ensuring dishes were as spicy and sour as they should be – not just overwhelmingly sweet, which was a bit of a curse of Thai food of the late 90s. This experience led to an appointment as head chef of Smoking Goat in Soho when I was 23. It was a huge hit from the off, with queues around the block.
When did you open Farang?
I’d been at Smoking Goat for a year when my stepdad decided to retire from his restaurant, San Daniele, in Highbury, so I took over the premises on a pop-up basis in 2017 to have a crack at it myself. Six or seven years later, we’re still going strong, and still in the same location.
What are the central tenets of Thai cuisine?
We say a balance of the four ‘S’s’: sweet, salty, sour and spicy. A nam yum dressing is a great example of these elements working in harmony. The dressing starts in a pestle and mortar with coriander root and garlic pounded out to a paste, followed by chilies – long, red, green or birds’ eye, depending on how spicy you want it to be. Then er add a little bit of salt and a tiny bit of castor sugar, which act as an abrasive to get it into a proper paste and let the mixture out using freshly squeezed orange or mandarin juice, lime juice, followed by added palm sugar and fish sauce.
A dipping sauce – nam jim – is made slightly thicker and served with barbecued fish, for example. What you put inside can vary massively; rather than adding palm sugar, we’re using raspberries to sweeten the sauce right now.
How do you go about researching and creating your recipes?
As we like to say, at Farang “more is more”. I hold my loyalty to flavour not acute authenticity, but I’ve picked up a lot of incredible recipes along the way. Hanuman is a Thai food master who translates ancient Thai recipes, cooks them and publishes them online. He also hosts cooking classes in Thailand. A subscription is quite expensive, as much as a thousand pounds a year, so it’s not free information, but it is a vast source of amazing recipes and a good place to start experimenting. That said, a lot of what we do is based on just cooking it again and again with the team at Farang and then trialling dishes as a special. If they sell well, we put it on the menu – we let the customers decide what’s best. We try to keep things fresh and new, but at the same time, sometimes when you go to a restaurant, you know what you want to eat, and you want to see it on the menu. If we took the gai prik off or the crispy sea bass or miang, people would get angry – we’ve tried it!
Which are your signature dishes?
It must be the gai prik, which translates as ‘chicken spicy’. That’s a winner because everyone loves fried chicken, but most people don’t spend two days making it before they serve it! The miang is the first thing that goes out; it’s a good start to get the palate going but also makes a great finish. It’s been on the menu since we opened.
Can you explain the miang in your own words?
Miang translates as ‘one-bite wrap’. It’s a mix of things served in a betel leaf, and the idea is to just put it all in your mouth at once. The filling is a savoury caramel of tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce with toasted coconut, peanuts and fermented shrimp paste. This is bound with coriander, seasonal sour fruits and a good hit of bird’s eye chilli and diced lime, complete with the zest to add some bitterness. We’ve counted about 47 ingredients in our miang now, with the idea that all the flavours work in harmony for the perfect mouthful.
Where do you source your ingredients?
We fly over Thai produce every week, so it is as fresh as can be. We order stocks 10 days in advance; it’s then handpicked from farms across Thailand, ends up in Bangkok on a Sunday and Heathrow on a Tuesday – which is why we open on Wednesday! Our meat and fish are UK-sourced. We buy dayboat fish from Cornwall, predominantly, and much of our meat comes from Swaledale in Yorkshire. They supply some of the best restaurants in the country. For anything else we use London-based HG Walter.
How did your relationship with the Thai embassy spring up?
The UK and Thailand have a close political connection, and the Thai embassy has been extremely supportive of a British guy cooking Thai cuisine – they’ve been to Farang many times and love it. The embassy presents something called the Thai Select Award, which is a seal of approval for the authenticity of your ingredients and your cooking knowledge. Each year you must prove your knowledge by naming every ingredient in a given dish and demonstrating how you’d make it – I’m proud to say that we’ve received it annually since we opened.
How often do you go to Thailand to research on the ground?
In the first week of January, I pay for flights to Thailand and accommodation costs for anyone that’s worked at Farang for a year or more. It’s a cool job perk, but unfortunately due to COVID, we haven’t gone since 2019. When we were out there last time we did an amazing tour of Bangkok, which is all documented on our Instagram and great if anyone needs inspiration of where to go and what to do in the city.
Where are your favourite places to dine in Bangkok?
Bo Lan was an amazing fine dining, tasting menu spot, but it has sadly since closed after 13 years due the pandemic. The chefs are a husband-and-wife team, who filmed a great Netflix show about Thai food. They have a slightly cheaper restaurant site now called Err, which is built around local ingredients and techniques such as fermentation. It’s well worth checking out. Samrub For Thai (Samrub Samrub Thai) is a restaurant in Bangkok’s Old Town that’s regularly in the world’s 50 best restaurants list. The co-founder and chef is called Prin Polsuk; he selects rare ingredients from source and cooks ancient Thai recipes. We had a mangosteen and prawn curry that was just insane, you could hardly feel your face after eating it. 100 Mahaseth (Si Phraya) is another standout choice. The food is amazing, made with all sorts of rare ingredients. We sat at the bar and chatted to the chefs as they worked – and they sent us off with delicious things to take home as well.
Where is Bangkok’s best street food?
Chinatown is fantastic to explore for food; if you’re a bit iffy about where to eat, you can always look for the little green dinner bowl signs next to the menus, which are symbols of approved quality and cleanliness for tourists. Jay Fai is incredible. The queue can be mad; it takes about two hours just to sit down because she cooks every dish herself and is about 80 years old. The crab omelette, which is rolled into a cigar and fried in oil, is pretty mega. It is the dish that won the world’s first street food Michelin star and made her famous. She wears proper ski glasses and cooks right in front of you. Chatuchak weekend market is really good for produce. It’s pretty crazy so you just have to embrace getting lost. We just walked around there forever buying incredible produce – you never see the same thing twice.
How would you suggest making a bit of Farang magic at home?
During the pandemic we launched Payst, a range of Thai curry pastes to use at home. This side of the business was always on the cards, but I’d never had time to do it. We make the range from the same fresh produce we use in the restaurant, with all those tricky to source Thai ingredients. Making your own curry paste from scratch is a labour of love; it takes about an hour, plus about 15 to 25 ingredients and a lot of hard work. A Payst curry is super quick: just pop a bit of oil in a pan, sear the paste, let it out with coconut milk and stock, then pop in your veggies and protein and simmer. Elevate the curry by finishing it with lots of fresh herbs like Thai basil. We now make six variations of Payst from our little kitchen in Highbury and the brand is stocked in the likes of Harrods and Selfridges, as well as more than 2000 shops across the UK. They are still the only fresh Thai curry pastes on the wholesale market, and we had added stir fry and dipping sauces to the line up too. Or why not jump into one of my cookbooks? Cook Thai is a cheffy book; there are some simple recipes in there but a bit more experience is required and some more unusual ingredients. If you’re having trouble sourcing anything, we can always order it in for you at the restaurant. The recipes in Thai in Seven use only seven ingredients, all of which you can buy in this country. We’ve also got some recipes up on the Farang website.