Thomas Tan could have been a minister. Or an ambassador. Education and industrialism were prized in his affluent Cambodian upbringing in the 1960s, and his family were well-connected. But, like millions of other Cambodian people, his life changed forever when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh forty years ago in April 1975.
Ruled by the despotic leader Pol Pot, the communist regime inflicted a brutal genocide upon its people to create an agrarian society. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died.
Intellectuals, minorities and city dwellers were purged along with their dreams, knowledge and culture. A generation of talent was lost; ways of living obliterated; recipes taken to the grave.
Thomas was lucky. He had arrived in the UK from Phnom Penh in 1969 but, like so many others, his compass was crudely altered, forever.
Today Thomas runs Lemongrass, to his knowledge still the only Cambodian restaurant in the UK. Sat on underrated Royal College Street near Camden Road station, it looks fairly inconspicuous at first glance. But the food is why people come. And as owner and main chef, Thomas has built up a loyal following.Initially opening the site as an early Deli France franchise, in 1988 he reinvented it as a Cambodian restaurant. His former careers in accountancy and marketing mean he’s a canny businessman. He’s equally philosophical and an engaging, funny subject. But he’s also honest about his limitations.
“I’m not a trained chef,” he says, “but because of my interest in cooking, I translate what I know into this restaurant. It’s the way we used to eat at home.”
The small menu at Lemongrass is composed of Cambodian dishes, only the popular Chinese crispy duck being an anomaly. Khmer cooking has long been heavily influenced by Thai and Vietnamese cooking (the remnants of French colonial times and later the Vietnamese occupation) but core ingredients include lemongrass, ginger, basil leaves, palm sugar, and the pungent fermented fish paste, prahok. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and star anise are prized, and noodles and rice are plentiful; there are curries, stir-fries, soups and salads too.Everything sounds tantalising. There is Lok Lak Steak, Garlic Lemon Mushrooms, and Fish Amok: all composed of quality ingredients from fresh fillet to fragrant herbs. “This is not greasy or starchy food,” Thomas says. “It’s mild and tasty.” He cooks everything fresh onsite, every day, with only one assistant. Some nights are quiet, other times you might be turned away. If it’s a busy night and you have to wait, then so be it; only the best stuff makes it to the table. “I’m very particular with my food,” Thomas says. “If it’s not right, I would rather chuck away the dish and cook it again, which is sometimes why customers complain they have to wait. But we have our regulars – and they know.”
And they are the heartbeat of this restaurant, so what Thomas serves surely must be good. However, authenticity in Cambodian cooking is a hot potato. Recipes often handed down the generations verbally were lost during the war, so an insecure authority persists when it comes to food knowledge. Some online comments have questioned the authenticity of Lemongrass’s food, so I put the question directly to Thomas.
He’s extremely polite about it. “Once we explain it to customers they understand,” he says. “Some say, ‘Lok Lak steak is never like this in Cambodia,’ but they don’t know that the real Lok Lak steak has to be fillet steak and cooked with butter. When you go back to Cambodia now, a lot of people cook with oyster sauce – Chinese oyster sauce.” He sounds incredulous. “It’s so different you see.”
Thomas’s perfectionism is a family trait. “My father always dictated to the servants how to cook the food. If it was not cooked well, he would throw it in the bin.”
His father, a businessman, aspired for him to learn English and Chinese, which is why Thomas came to the UK, but he also believed cooking was a necessary skill. Aged nine, the young Thomas had to prepare lunch for his father every day. Does he think that were his father alive today he would be proud? “Yes.”The restaurant has seen good times and lean times, and not everyone has been loyal. When Thomas introduced a smoking ban in 1998 – a decade ahead of the law – he lost nearly all his customers overnight. “We had to start from zero, which was a very bad period,” he says.
But the long-term popularity of the restaurant has ensured. Despite the UK Cambodian population being a tiny 600, Lemongrass’s reputation has flourished, an example being the many French and Italian tourists who hear about it in guidebooks.
As to the future, Thomas is open-minded. His son – from his marriage with first wife Marilyn – is currently at university, but Thomas would welcome him running Lemongrass one day. Investors are routinely turned away, although he admits there is “always a price for everything.”
He’s keen to keep the control but might open another restaurant in the future. As to the life fate has chosen for him, Thomas says he has no regrets: “I do like it very much, I hate to say that but I admit it,” he says, laughing.