Luke Farrell

Luke Farrell

Luke Farrell

Chef Luke Farrell introduces Londoners to the lesser-known herbs, roots and pastes of southern Thailand, using plants which are grown in his tropical greenhouses in Dorset at his restaurants Speedboat Bar and Plaza Khao Gaeng.

When we think of Thai food, we might imagine bright, fiery curries, the sweet-savoury harmony of pad Thai or steaming spoonfuls of hot and sour soup. Few people in the UK are strangers to the cuisine, but most remain familiar with restaurant menu staples and know less about its regional fare. That’s something chef Luke Farrell is hoping to change. Having spent fifteen years in Thailand and working in kitchens across Southeast Asia, he is now introducing Londoners to southern Thai flavours which are less often found in the west.

His restaurants, Speedboat Bar in Chinatown and Plaza Khao Gaeng, off Tottenham Court Road, may be in London, having been launched in partnership with JKS Restaurants, but a big part of what makes them so unique is 124 miles away in Dorset. Over the years, Luke has acquired and cultivated hundreds of seeds and plants from Thailand, making use of his lepidopterist father’s butterfly farm, Ryewater. And what began as cuttings brought back in a suitcase has grown into what Luke describes as a ‘living library’ of Southeast Asian plants.

Today, produce from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, India and China is pollinated by hundreds of butterflies and watered by tropical rain showers. There are varieties of basil (including clove basil, bunches of which are a common sight in Thailand, Luke says, but rarely found here), sichuan pepper and galangal, but they are just a fraction of his plants, which would lose their scent and flavour if they were imported. ‘We use a special soil mix which didn’t come from Thailand, but which we made to approximate the Thai jungle soil,’ he says. ‘When we procure plants, we often get roots and soil with them, which helps with all the lovely microbes and nutrients needed to grow these wonderful plants.’

While Luke’s early family life first planted the culinary seed (his mother, he says, was a keen cook and perfectionist, while his home was ‘set up around the kitchen’), his father’s work, including with the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, exposed him to Southeast Asia’s vibrant cooking. ‘Penang is, for Chinese, Malay, Nyonya, Peranakan and Indian street food, a mecca,’ he enthuses. ‘That’s where I fell in love with it. I had my first fish head curry in Penang, before I went to university. That was one of those moments – I thought ‘god, if there's food like this, I've got to be involved with it’.’

Having worked at Spanish Italian restaurant Salt Yard while at university (its co-founder Simon Mullins has remained a source of guidance, he says), Luke returned there after graduating, before moving to the group’s now-closed Blackfoot Butchers and, when that shut, taking over its lease and opening banh mi pop-up Viet Baguette. A stint at Trishna (inspired in large part, he laughs, by a desire to get his hands on their crab recipe) followed, but soon he was flying back and forth between Thailand and the UK, his understanding of regional cuisines – and his greenhouses – blossoming.

A commitment to cooking with Southeast Asian herbs might have first inspired his cuttings, but they soon piqued the interest of influential chefs, many who were at the time struggling to get their hands on Thai produce. It was, in fact, his father who took the first box of chillies, Thai basil and holy basil into David Thompson’s Nahm. It resulted in a flight to Bangkok to meet David’s head chef, Adam Lee Cliff, and a trip to a Thai plant market to stock up on herbs, papayas and makrut limes. Since then, Luke, who also sells hand-hammered woks, has supplied the likes of the Thai embassy in London, Kiln and The Begging Bowl.

It was during the pandemic, while Luke was in Thailand, that Karam Sethi, food and creative director at JKS Restaurants, who he had previously worked with at Trishna, reached out with an opportunity to open a concept in Arcade Food Hall, on Tottenham Court Road. Initially, they discussed a satay idea, but eventually settled on two concepts – street food kitchen Bebek! Bebek! inspired by the night markets of Indonesia, and Plaza Khao Gaeng, his southern Thai restaurant on the hall’s mezzanine.

Translated as ‘curry over rice’, Plaza Khao Gaeng combines fresh produce from Luke’s greenhouses with authentic Thai curry pastes, creating curries thick with fresh coconut milk and fermented fish and fiery stir fries. ‘It feels like something that London hasn’t seen quite so specifically before,’ he says. ‘Okay, you have northern Thai restaurants, you’ve got Thai restaurants, but we wanted to focus in specifically on a region that hadn’t been explored to use my vegetables and herbs, which you can’t do southern Thai food without.’

Thai food can be searingly hot, and southern cooking is no different. Luke says there is a way through the menu for those less keen on heat – cooling herbs and rice, for example – but that including spice is crucial to accurately reflect the cuisine. Those nervous of spice might fare better at his third JKS venture Speedboat Bar, which, on Soho’s Rupert Street (in the home of his 2021 Viet Populaire pop-up), is inspired by Bangkok’s Yaowarat Road, where Chinese and Thai food meet. It’s a menu of wok-fried stir fries, drunken noodles and Tom Yam Mama noodles soup. ‘It was almost like a counterpoint to other Thai restaurants that were focused on countryside dishes,’ he explains. ‘Where I live in Bangkok it’s Thai-Chinese food, it’s that super-fast wok-face cookery. Again, it’s something that I hadn’t really seen focused on in London restaurants.'

Luke doesn’t claim to put his own spin on southern Thai cooking; instead, he embraces that he is mirroring what he has seen. ‘We are in the business of copying Thai food as it is in Thailand, as closely as we can get,’ he nods. ‘There’s a creativity in that copying. It would be a huge disservice to the people I’ve learned these recipes from and the cuisine in southern Thailand to do it any other way. It’s important to have the cuisines of different countries fairly represented in London, as if you were transplanted from one country to another.’

His dedication to engaging more people with southern Thai food is evident, his knowledge impressive. In many ways, it is a labour of love – though his greenhouses now mainly supply his own restaurants, he still helps those who share his fascination with lesser-known produce. ‘Because I’m not Thai, this is my exploration and understanding of the cuisine,’ he smiles. ‘But in order for it to happen, it brings in lots of parties in Thailand and chefs from Thailand who are as homesick as I am for their food. It’s an atmosphere of learning. I’m not putting my own spin on it – I’m doing it as I’ve seen it.’