Sydney-born Tom Halpin was sous-chef at noma in Copenhagen for four-and-a-half years. He's currently working as a consultant chef at Ad Lib in Bangkok. In January, he took part in Iron Chef Thailand—and he won. Here is how.
MUNCHIES: How the hell did you end up on Iron Chef Thailand? Tom Halpin: It's an amazing and crazy show. That's why I agreed to take part. Even though it is extremely commercial, Iron Chef Thailand has this childish twist. It doesn't take itself too seriously, even if the cooking is of a high standard. It's the only version of the show which reminded me of the original Japanese series. Another chef who worked at Ad Lib was an Iron Chef and asked if I wanted to be a participant. One of my mates—Hamish—was in town, so he helped me cook, as well as Sam Miller, whom I used to work with at noma.
You rocked a mean 'blue steel' look as you entered the kitchen stadium … I was fucking drunk when we did the show. I had finished off almost half a bottle of vodka before we started because we waited so long and I was so nervous. They wanted me to act all serious, and I'm the least serious person in the world. That blue steel look intro was done in the hotel, where I had to turn around and pose. Walking into the Kitchen Stadium, you have to answer all of these questions, and you have a pre-prepared response that makes you sound so arrogant. And you don't want to sound like a dick, but that's the character you need to play. The presenter spoke English, so I knew what he was asking me, but the Chairman spoke Thai so I had to remember what word he would say to trigger my response. And I forgot it, because I was pissed.
What was it like cooking on the show? Crazy. There were spotlights and smoke everywhere and it was burning hot. You're trying to keep a serious face, but all you want to do is burst out laughing. And it was so loud. There were five cameras ten centimetres from my face, everybody's screaming in Thai, and the Tannoy announcer sounded like something from Lord of the Rings. My siphon gun got stuck, which was a bit hectic. When the thing eventually unclogged, it exploded and painted the camera lens with beer batter. There was a blender that broke, and there were scallops and parchment paper that caught fire under the salamander grill. It was pretty wild.
For the 'secret ingredient,' you were given tinned mackerel. That seems a bit harsh? They have previously had shark, live stingrays, and giant eels on the show. The month before, they had a whole crocodile. That's the crazy shit about this show—you can get anything. I got tinned mackerel in tomato sauce. Then you have the curveball, which is an ingredient or piece of equipment which you have to use in at least one of your dishes, and they gave me instant noodles. I just went, 'Oh fuck.' I crunched up the noodles and put them on top of these little lardo-encased pillows with mackerel. It was good because we ended up taking chances with something that was very ordinary. They let you bring stocks and oils, but that's it. They go through all your ingredients beforehand and are pretty strict.
What was the best dish you cooked? That was the one where I used the noodles. I took the bone out of the mackerel, flaked the meat, and put that in with green beans, shallots and mayonnaise, and made a Niçoise-style salad. Then I wrapped that inside a layer of lardo, added nasturtium leaves on top, and served it with tomato consommé and kaffir lime oil. Whether I cooked that dish at Iron Chef or ate it in a restaurant, I would have been happy. It had really interesting flavours.
Was the mackerel any good? Nah, it was like dried sardines. It was nothing. For most of the dishes I had to put it in with a sauce or fry it. For the first dish, I made tempura and served the fish with fermented cep mushroom foam and thyme oil.
Your opponent Iron Chef looked like quite a serious chap … He is actually the sweetest guy ever, but he stares at you all the time. I couldn't work out how he did it. He told me, 'Tom, you have to realise that I'm not looking directly at your face. I'm looking at your shoulder or a point right behind you.' I was trying to look him straight in the eyes. His name is Ian Kittichai and he's probably the biggest celebrity chef in Thailand. His restaurants include Issaya in Bangkok and Spot Dessert Bar in New York. Some people said he had never been beaten on the show before, but I'm not sure.
How did you celebrate? The judging process didn't make much sense to me. You get scores out of 15 on your presentation, how you incorporated the secret ingredient, the curveball, timings, and taste. The judges talk about the food in Thai, so I was standing there having no clue what was being said. I didn't even know if they liked it or if they were even talking about me. I presented my dishes first, so I went out the back for an interview and necked a few beers. You are standing there waiting for the announcement and you start to think, maybe I have a chance of winning this. It was such a sweet moment when I heard we won. Once we wrapped up the shoot, we went back to the hotel where I work and got plastered. The next couple of days after that were a bit wild.
Makes sense. Congratulations, and thanks for talking with me.