Nawamin Pinpathomrat crab-danced his way into the hearts of MasterChef fans everywhere last year with his affable manner and supreme culinary talent. Not only is he an excellent chef, Nawamin is also a doctor and medical researcher at Oxford University working on finding a vaccine for tuberculosis. He’s making an appearance at this year’s Didcot Food Festival, where he’ll be showcasing his command of Thai cuisine and his particular love for one ingredient – crab. We caught up with the young culinary star to discover how he juggles food and his research, his earliest cooking memory and his favourite places to eat out.
How has your life changed since you were on MasterChef?
When Gregg Wallace and John Torode said, ‘this is going to change your life’ I was like, ‘this is not going to change my life, I’m a doctor and also I’m a medical scientist at Oxford University’ – I have my own career you know? And then literally the first day after MasterChef finished I got a ton of offers and now, a year and half later, I’m still working in the food industry. So it’s completely changed my life – they were right!
What first got you into cooking?
I think I started cooking when I was about five years old. My grandma was the first person who taught me to cook, so I just grew up playing in the kitchen. Making curry is something I’ve been doing since I was very young – I’m always telling people that I’m not actually a chef, I’m a home cook and I love to cook for people I love.
Do you find it difficult to balance your scientific work with cooking or do you find them complementary?
Being a doctor and being a chef are very similar in a way. When you are working as a doctor and you’re helping people, when they’re getting better and healthier, it’s so rewarding. It’s the same as being a chef because when people eat good food, they’re happy, and as a chef it feels so rewarding to see them having a lovely evening. Also, by having a medical background I can juggle many things at the same time and it’s the same being a chef – you have four pots on the hob, two things in the oven and something in the deep fryer and it all has to come out at the exact right second so things go out hot.
Thai food is really popular in the UK. What’s a good starting point for people who want to cook it at home?
I mentioned this to my fellow MasterChef contestants – if you want to cook Thai food, what you need is literally just lemongrass, fish sauce and maybe a bit of Thai basil. If you make a quinoa salad and you add a slice of lemongrass in there with a bit of Thai basil and fish sauce, you can call it Thai quinoa – just don’t tell my grandmother ok?
How does Thai food vary across the country?
Thailand sits in the middle of all our neighbours – you have Malaysia in the south, Burma in the north, Laos on the northeast and Cambodia on the east side. This is why we get all the different influences. So the food in the south is quite similar to Malaysian food, it’s quite spicy and we use a lot of seafood because we have two oceans. If you go to the north we get the influences from Burma and Laos – you’ll get raw shrimp or beef that’s been cooked with herbs and things. Food from the central area is a lot of coconut-based curry because we have a lot of coconut trees. That’s why the food in Thailand is so varied and that’s the exciting thing about Thai cuisine.
You have a pop-up restaurant, Crab Anatomy, based on one of your most successful dishes from MasterChef. Can you tell us about that?
So ‘Crab Anatomy’ is the dish I cooked before the grand final of MasterChef. If I’m completely honest with you, I was actually struggling with how to come up with new dishes in that round. We had been in the show for months – I was like, ‘I have this lovely recipe from my grandad, the crab curry, but how can I present it?’ I went on Google to find out the difference between Cornish and Thai crab – I’m pretty geeky so I searched ‘crab anatomy’ and it came up with a picture of the anatomy of the crab, labelling different parts. I thought, actually, I could present the curry like this. I dissected a crab, cooked each part differently and put it on a dissecting board. The judges absolutely loved it and said they’d remember the dish for quite a while. This is why I wanted to turn this dish into a pop-up. I love eating seafood and I want to support local fishermen, local fishmongers, local potters and farmers. I don’t want to import everything from Thailand, I want to support and use amazing local produce and use my Thai flavours to enhance these products.
Do you get the chance to eat out? If so, where do you go?
I love eating out – even though I’m cooking quite a lot for other people these days! People probably want to know where to eat Thai food in Oxford – I would say my favourite is Bangkok House on the way to the train station. It’s very good, very authentic – I think it’s quite underrated. Another place I need to mention is Oli’s Thai. A lot of people ask me to comment on how the food is at Oli’s Thai – I’ve been many, many times and the lady who owns the place is actually from a place not far from my hometown. Their duck Panang is absolutely amazing. They have six or seven dishes on the menu so they execute every single dish very well. Another place I have to mention is my favourite café, Barefoot Bakery in Jericho – my favourite is their rhubarb cake.
Catch Nawamin at Didcot Food Festival on Saturday 26 October. For the full line-up and tickets visit didcotevents.co.uk