Chef Terje Ommundsen has turned his obsession with Thai food into a thriving business in Oslo. To mark the 10th anniversary of THAI’s operations to the Norwegian capital, Ommundsen is creating a special menu for passengers on board TG955 from Oslo to Bangkok this month.
Were you self-taught or did you undergo training?
I started as an apprentice at Bagatelle restaurant in Oslo which, at the time, was rated as the best restaurant in Scandinavia, with 2 Michelin stars. I then worked in different places including California, Sydney and Oslo, and I spend almost 5 years at Statholdergaarden (1 Michelin star) as pastry chef.
When did your obsession with food begin?
I grew up in southern Norway, with a father who ran a grocery store, a grandmother who cultivated most of the vegetables and fruits we wanted, from asparagus in spring and strawberries, peas, cucumbers, different kinds of tomatoes in the summer to corn in the fall, pears and apples. My other grandmother was raised by the sea. She and her mother had their own spots for catching lobster. My uncle was a fisherman fishing for eel and crabs. So, I was surrounded by good produce growing up. I have always liked to cook, and I got my first cookbook, the Mickey Mouse cookbook, when I was eight years old, which I got all the recipes for my first dishes from. I’ve still got the book, and it looks well used.
Of all the cuisines, why Thai food?
My fascination with the intensity, the freshness and the balanced flavours was what swept me away. I believe the Thai kitchen is one of the most complex kitchens of the world, and because of all this it made me want to start to work with it. I was taught how to make curry paste and nahm prik (chilli dip) by an older lady at Baan Suan restaurant, outside Chiang Mai, and this was the start of my career in Thai food. We opened a few months after my stay there.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I love to travel, and it all comes through travelling. Seeing new regions, new people, new food and different types of cuisine depending on the region inspired me. I also find great inspiration in street food. It’s amazing to see people specialising in a specific dish and becoming very good at it. The pleasure and pride they take in it is inspiring.
How is it being a Norwegian cooking Thai food? e.g. being known as “the westerner who makes kanom bueang” (Thai crepes)?
Most people, whether Thai or not, were skeptical about me cooking Thai food in the early days of Plah because we are so lucky here in Norway in that we can get all the Thai ingredients we need. I have managed to maintain the authentic Thai flavours, but I still need to go to Thailand at least a couple of times a year to breathe in the smell, flavour and find new inspiration. Since I’m not born in Thailand, I had to learn about all the new tastes I wasn’t used to. It’s not something I have from chilidhood, so I have to work harder to maintain my palate.
What does Thai food mean to you?
It is all about balance, good ingredients, and freshness.
Thai food is also about family-style serving, and to share good food with family and friends
What are the ingredients you can’t live without?
Fish sauce and lime, a sharp knife and a mortar and pestle.
Tell us a little about Plah, Ahaan and Plah Home and the inspiration behind these three restaurants.
We started Plah in 2004 and have been developing our kitchen all of these years. We wanted to make a modern Thai restaurant that combined the great flavours of Thailand with the best produce from Norway. In 2012, we opened Ahaan where we wanted to have an authentic, family-style restaurant. The philosophy is the same at both places - fresh and high quality produce is the most important thing. Plah is our flagship fine dining restaurant, the place to celebrate and treat yourself to a hearty Thai meal. Ahaan is a place you can eat at once a week as it’s casual dining. Plah home is everyday eatery and takeaway. To run a fine dining restaurant is hard and you have to think of new ideas all the time, and with only 35 seats, it’s a good combination to have a bigger place next door.
What was the aim of your latest cookbook, Thai-obsessed?
My first Thai cookbook was an introduction for Norwegian people who want to start making Thai food, and how to use Thai ingredients. This is a best-selling Thai cookbook in Norway, so my next step was to make a more advanced cookbook. I told my publisher that I wanted to make a book about the street food of Thailand, and he approved. I guess he thought that this book would involve simple food because it was about street food, but as I dug deeper, I realised that this would be a book for advanced cooking, because street food is not as easy at all. It’s complex, and it takes a lot of preparation, even if it is served and made to order on the streets.
What is your next goal? (e.g. travel around Thailand to learn even more about Thai food and discover new dishes from lesser known regions ?)
When I travel to Thailand, I always spend some time in Bangkok to see and learn about the developing trends of Thai food. But my best food experiences are when I travel to the outskirts of the country where I meet different people who have been making traditional Thai food for generations. That’s what truly inspires me.