New York City's Vong restaurant succeeded uniquely in fusing Thai and French cooking. It's easy to admire the formula, but not quite so simple to copy it. Lemon grass, chillies and coconut milk form the basis of a good Thai or Malay soup or curry, but turning them into a Western-style sauce calls for special skills.
First, the chef has to know all about the ingredients and how they balance with each other. Next, he has to have the technical knowledge to ferry them across the cultural divide. Then, he needs to reformulate them in such a way that they are accessible to the Western palate. Finally, he has to suit the sauce to the piece of meat, fish or poultry that is central to the "main course" concept.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten cracked it. He cooked in three-Michelin-starred restaurants: Bocuse, Auberge de l'Ile and La Napoule in France. He then shifted his focus to South-east Asia, working in Thailand and Singapore before, at the end of the 1980s, launching his Franco-Thai concept on the one city that was likely to greet it with an open mind - New York.
When Vong II opened in London in 1995, it was a straightforward clone, recreating the Manhattan magic. Tim Tolley, the current chef, is happy to claim Vongerichten as his godfather. He's also confident enough to develop his own dishes, reflecting the spirit of what he has learnt.
The trick is to synthesise an authentic Thai taste, tone down any rough edges, and give the sauce a smooth, emulsified texture. It's the tried-and-tested French gambit of refining a regional, rustic dish for sophisticated city slickers.
Photo © Sam Bailey