I'm sitting 52 stories above the glittering, Seussian skyscrapers of Bangkok in one of the fanciest five-star hotels in town, but the food in front of me is coming out of an open kitchen that was cobbled together for $60. The six-person team is working at breakneck speed, ferrying plates from a makeshift grill oven via a sliding pulley system that looks like something MacGyver might rig up. Maybe it's the fact that the guests (including yours truly) have come to this BYO event bearing several bottles, but the vibe here is more dinner party than dégustation.
Not that the dishes couldn't hold their own on a more serious, stuffy sort of tasting menu. Chef James Sharman, a Noma alum who trained under Michelin darling Tom Aikens, swoops by my table and deposits a chicken leg cooked in fish sauce caramel, its claw artfully arched away from the lemongrass-brined breast and a chicken fat-cured yolk with the consistency of saline fudge. It's the gussied up version of the gai yang (Thai grilled chicken) found on practically every street corner here.
"We had a heated debate about what to use as a main course. Buffalo, water beetles, and fried grasshoppers all had their day," says Sharman. For the past month, he and his small crew have been roaming around the Thai countryside in search of ingredients and gastronomic lore. In the end, though, comfort food won out over showmanship, even if the chefs couldn't resist drawing on a few fine dining tricks from their pasts. "Eventually, we came to the simple conclusion that what we had eaten almost twice every single day was a more prominent figure in our journey than anything else."
Though the finished creation before me isn't exactly Thai, it's made with a profound love and respect for the local culinary culture. One Star House Party, a 20-month, 20-nation roving pop-up restaurant, may break all the rules—including its own—but makes a point of honouring traditions in its host countries. In the coming months, the ambitious destination hit list will see the team tackling the cuisines of Kenya, Oman, India, Iceland, and Nepal, on the barren slopes of Mount Everest no less.
I caught up with Sharman right before his Himalayan trek for a conversation about how a group of broke twenty-somethings quit their jobs, maxed out their credit cards, and started circling the globe in search of damn delicious eats.
MUNCHIES: First of all, welcome to Bangkok. Can you tell me a little bit about how this project got started? James Sharman: It was something we threw together with no idea of where it would go. It was just food that I wanted to cook in a flat that I got. That's why the name "One Star House Party." It's not very serious and I think a lot of stuff in this industry has a habit of taking itself too seriously. At the end of the day, we're entertainers and it's supposed to be fun.
So your first event was… We put together a pop-up in Hong Kong. I managed to scrape together enough money for everyone's flight and we rented this apartment and crashed there. For the first few days, we tried to hide the fact that we were living in the restaurant, because we thought that it was a little bit dodgy.
Seriously? It was fine at first, but once we started to get tired, the cracks started to show—somebody would leave toothpaste or shower gel in the bathroom. People were like, "Are you guys living here?" We weren't gonna lie, so we told them the truth and all of the pretences of how you should behave in a restaurant got sucked out the door. Everyone was just in our flat and it became wildly more fun.
I saw that you did another one in an AirBnB apartment, right? We change it every time. In New York, you can pull off doing it in an AirBnB, because they have such a strong infrastructure that you can put something together out of nothing. We landed not knowing a single person and opened three weeks later. Really, we were just going out to bars and meeting everyone we could find.
"Networking." [Laughs] For sure. We had to build most of our stuff, because we couldn't afford furniture. We bought these huge sheets of cork and old metal bars and made everything from scratch. We kind of fell in love with the it, so we packed it into an RV, drove to San Francisco and did the same thing there. And we haven't stopped since.
How did you pick the countries? It's a combination of mates that we have and food that we really want to eat. I was quite dogmatic in the beginning that we would search for ingredients that we otherwise might not be able to find. But what we were gripped by was the people we met in search of those ingredients. We realised we were discovering culture through food and not the other way around.
Tell me about some of the coolest people you've met. In Vietnam, we went to a harbour and saw this squid fishing boat with a crew of Vietnamese guys, none of whom spoke any English. We persuaded them to take us onboard for a case of beer. It was gold. The whole night was pretty amazing, but the best thing that happened was they rushed us into the galley at 3 AM and we all ate together. It was just rice, fish sauce that one of the guy's wife makes at home, and fish that they threw into a barrel. It was the most simple meal ever, but it was the most memorable meal so far in my life. No Michelin star can give you that, and it costs nothing. That's when we started to come to the conclusion that if we can try to deliver that feeling to our guests, then that would be richer, more memorable portrayal of our journey.
That's awesome. I have so many stories from Vietnam. We landed and spent $100 on these 40-year-old Russian bikes that were falling apart. When we got to Hoi An, we met these two sisters selling street food. They were hilarious, both in their fifties and basically like a sketch show. We managed to create this weird rapport and they invited us to come back at 5 AM the next morning. We were pretty much their commis chefs. We were sitting on the floor with an 85-year-old Vietnamese woman bashing up lemongrass. And it was the coolest thing. We built an entire dish out of that morning. Imagine sitting in our restaurant and we bring you a dish like that. It's the most heartwarming way to cook and eat, because it's something that's so fresh in our heads. It's such a vivid food memory and we try to do it justice in our own way.
I think that's something a lot of people can relate to. I've asked a bunch of travel writers what their most memorable meal was and no one's ever said, "Oh, I was in this Michelin three-star and I had some foam." Even though there's nothing wrong with that either.
Of course. Speaking of which, you got your start in ultra-fine dining. What was it like working at Noma? When I first got my job there, I felt like my life was over. Everything I'd ever worked for was done and I'd never achieve more satisfaction from anything else again.
That sounds rather bleak. It kind of was, actually. I mean, it was something I'd dreamt about since I was 16. I was enthralled with the food, but the reason why it was so great also became the reason why I couldn't stay that long. René [Redzepi] was the most incredible guy; he's so gripping and inspirational. Everything you have read about him is true. When he speaks to you, it's like he's reading a fictional novel. You have to realise, though, he's building something much bigger than a restaurant. There are so many things going on, but as a chef de partie, you're living life one sea herb at a time. I came to the conclusion that I could either wait for five years for the chance to observe what he was doing or I could have a bash at building something on my own. So I called up my friends and we put together all the credit cards we had.
And now you're on your way to… Everest Base Camp? It'll be a two-week climb. I hope that when we get to base camp, we won't have the same menu in our heads as when we set out. I mean, we're not going to be foraging for different types of basil up there—there's nothing. It's all about the sense of achievement when you get there. Like on that boat in Vietnam, there was this sense of achievement because everyone had been slogging away for hours and we felt like we'd earned it. It's like a blown-out sense of when you cook yourself a meal. There's a satisfaction because you've been part of the process of building it.
How on Earth did you manage to make connections over there? Most of us worked together in London at some point and a lot of the kitchen hands would be Nepalese. So there were all these young Nepalese guys and we would become great friends. I hadn't spoken to them for years, but I just called a few of them up a few months ago and was like, "Mate, I need a weird favour." And they were like, "Yeah, my uncle knows someone who's a sherpa."
That might be the craziest location for a restaurant I've heard of… ever. The ones we're nervous about are also the most exciting ones. For India, I think we're gonna try and do one on the train on the way there.
Say what? We did a trial run of it on the night train from Sapa to Hanoi in Vietnam. We made this dish where you line bamboo with a banana leaf, stuff it full of rice and loads of tamarind, and cook it over a barbecue. We took all our stoves, our condiments, knives, cutting boards, and we got quite a pumping kitchen going. Then we went around the train just chatting to people—we were so nervous. It was like being 18 in a bar and trying to talk to a girl for the first time.
Do you ever feel like you're making this harder for yourselves on purpose? You've gotta keep really flexible. We have all the stuff you need to build a pop-up restaurant in our suitcases. Mine has an induction stove, a blender, and a sous-vide machine, wrapped up in the four items of clothing that I have. We have a celebration every time we make it through customs. In New York, we got a cut-down fir tree through. I had these beautiful scallop shells we were going to use to serve a dish lined around the outside of the case and a Christmas tree inside it. It was the most ridiculous thing. Sometimes you just have moments where you think, What the hell are we doing? I don't think we'd come up with that kind of stuff if we had money and didn't have to do it.
Do you think you'd ever settle down and open a brick-and-mortar restaurant? I don't know. We're kind of commitment-phobes. I think you have a lot of restaurants where at first it feels right and when you go there six months later, it's just lost its verve. We get to live in the honeymoon period of every restaurant we open. We're also free from a lot of the issues that big restaurants suffer from, because it's not like we've got two or three stars and are freaking out about losing them. There's a lot more room to take risks.
It does seem to have evolved and changed conceptually quite a bit—not easy to do under more normal circumstances. It's funny all the stuff you pick up along the way that you would never have seen coming. I think the reason that we've been able to do this is we're just real people. Everyone asks, "How'd you become a chef?" I'd love to tell you that I grew up as a child tending our allotments and I worked through my teenage angst with a range of homemade jams, but that's just not the reality of it. Both my parents work and I grew up loving lasagna and fajitas. We're not the chefs that are completely immersed in ingredients. I mean, we love it, but we've learned that there's more in the relationships. If you can keep that kind of connection with the people you're eating with, you can create a more sincere experience.
Thanks so much for speaking with me.