CLIVE WARDOWNER-MANAGER OF TOM SAM HOUSE, HIS THAI HOME FROM HOME
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
When did you move here?
31st of December, 2011.
Where did you grow up?
In South Africa, but I was born in London. My parents lived in Strand-on-the-Green and when I was a baby they moved us to Johannesburg where I grew up with my two brothers. I'm the youngest.
I had no expectation of owning a restaurant.
Is your family foodie?
I wouldn't say that. My father is British and worked for the sugar company that sent him to South Africa where he met my mother. But my partner, Ray, is Thai and in Thailand food is the most important part of life. Life revolves around food.
What did you do before running Som Tom?
I worked in London in various 5-star hotels. I started off as a cleaner and over my career worked my way up to manager. But by the end, the more senior I got the more the job took me away from people. And working with people and getting to know them is what I love.
What led you to Som Tam House?
I had no expectation of owning a restaurant, but I was a customer here. Our good friends started Som Tam in '93 and ran it for 18 years. When they decided to retire they contacted us as they knew we were looking to buy a restaurant and, with my experience in hospitality and Ray's recent catering qualification, they had confidence we were a good fit. Ray has a day job but we run the restaurant together in the evenings.
What does Som Tam mean?
It's the name of a classic Thai dish, a green papaya salad. Thai salads are a bit spicy and I love spicy food.
Have you lived in Thailand?
The longest I've stayed in Thailand is 2 months, but I've never lived there. I've been many times with Ray to visit his family. Ray and I first met in London 27 years ago in Notting Hill outside The Gate cinema by a poster advertising a double bill of Pedro Almodóvar movies. We're both huge fans of Almodóvar and we got talking.
For a newcomer to Thai food, what are the classic dishes?
Som tam is a classic. The fish and chips of Thai cuisine is pad Thai, the noodle dish. And of course, the Thai green curry is a must.
What's the main difference between Thai and Chinese?
Obviously, both are Asian, but the taste sensation of Thai – with all the lemongrass and lime and fish sauce and galangal (like ginger) – it's incredibly intense. Much as I love Chinese food, once you've had Thai, Chinese is a little bland.
How much of your business is eat-in versus takeaway and delivered?
We only have 24 seats so we rely heavily on takeaway and delivery. Maybe two-thirds is eat-in and a third is delivered. Without it, a restaurant like this wouldn't survive.
Are online orders changing your business?
Online delivery is changing everything. People prefer the convenience. These days to stay in the game you have to have an online presence so we now use the online providers. But we still have our own delivery service, which is more personal and cheaper.
Is vegetarianism on the increase?
Very much. My brother has been a vegetarian since he was 15 and I remember when he came to London many years ago, we searched London for a vegetarian restaurant and found nothing. We ended up in a pub where all they could do him was a ploughman's lunch. I vowed that if I ever opened a restaurant I'd cater for vegetarians. Thai food isn't particularly vegetarian although they do have a festival where they avoid meat for a week. A quarter of my menu is vegetarian.
Any famous customers?
Yes, there are some very high-flyers, but I prefer not to namedrop. I like people to come here to relax and enjoy their private time.
Are you a good cook?
No. I don't need to be. Normally I eat here. I do a very mean Christmas meal. Ray has never complained.
What would be your death row meal?
Definitely a Thai meal. Probably a beef or prawn salad.
What's your best advice for an aspiring restaurateur?
I expected it would be hard work and long hours, but I didn't realise it would be a total time commitment. I work 6 days a week from 11 to 11 and give the staff a lift home every night. And because everything's fresh I have to go shopping at specialist suppliers all over London up to 4 times a week, usually after the lunch service. So I'd say don't underestimate how long it takes if you want things to be done right. It's hard to switch off.
Aren't you exhausted?
Yes. But it's extremely rewarding.
How and with whom do you relax?
With Ray. We love the movies and music, all kinds from classical to opera, and popular music from Queen to The Beatles. And I love tidying the garden. It's a nice way to chill.
Are you saying you're fussy?
I'd prefer perfectionist.
Thank you, Clive. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Headshot by Teresa Walton © teresawaltonphotos.com
Interviewed Feb 2019