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A chef's life - down, up, and down again

"He became an apprentice chef to answer a simple question: did food exist that was better than that which he’d eaten?" Stephen Downes

This is a first recipe post although I don't think this is going to be much about the first recipe in question - Yam Goong - Salad of lobster with mint and lemongrass.

It's a Thai recipe from this man - Mogens Bay Esbensen - the man credited with introducing Australia to thai food - before David Thomson or Charmaine Solomon or the hundreds of Thai restaurants that now populate our suburbs.

No, I got distracted by his life story. Which is rather sad. Herewith a brief summary.

It began at birth (1930 - a Denmark farm) - with his mother dying a very short time after his birth - in his words - she never left her bed, leaving him with a father who was, shall we say, unsympathetic. At an early age he was sent away to boarding school. The food, therefore, in his early life had been terrible. Hence the quote at the top of the page.

Eventually he joined a Scandinavian airline as a food steward in order to see the world. He was posted to Bangkok for a year in1959 where he fell in love with Thai food. He returned to Thailand and lived there for 17 years, during which he worked for the Rama hotel, helping to set up a resort, had his own successful restaurant which he eventually sold to his business partner to set up an orchid farm. This was a disastrous failure which lost him all his savings.

Consulting to the Hyatt chain he went to Sydney which became his new home, where he helmed the very successful Pavilion on the Park with Damien Pignolet and Butler's. A trip to Port Douglas found him falling in love again with a place, which led to leasing/owning - I'm not sure which, the Nautilus restaurant - arguably Port Douglas' best.

Such was his love for the tropics that he purchased a property in Cardwell which became his home. But then disaster again. An illness which prevented him working, so much so that he lost his businesses and his home, in spite of successful surgery.

“I couldn’t face the music in Australia. I felt ashamed at how it had gone. And I thought, `How can I have a good pension and health care?’ It’s important when you’re sick and old." Mogens Bay Esbensen

"Supremely important in the development of Australian cooking, Mogens had left no trails, it appeared. Just vanished… Some years ago. Then someone had heard he was either alive or dead – it was hard to be both, my informant conceded – but back in Denmark; he was either in or on his native soil." Stephen Downes

Downes discovered that he had returned to Denmark, where he now lives - if he is still alive (94) - on a small island called Læsø, between Sweden and Denmark, in a very modest fashion. Restaurant critic Stephen Downes sought him out and published his interview, in his book Advanced Australian Fare.

A rather sad story. There appear to have been no important friends, lovers, companions in his life. And yet it would have been a life of magnificent highs as well as the dreadful lows. What is best I wonder - a life like that or one on a more even but uneventful level.

So what was his legacy? I looked at a couple of articles on the history of Thai food in Australia, and none of them mentioned him. Maybe it's because none of his Australian restaurants were overtly Thai. It was others who began the Thai restaurant phenomenon, most notably David Thomson who often gets the largest credit.

Even in his most well-known book Thai Cuisine - my first recipe book - Esbensen admits:

"It is my interpretation of the Thai style of cooking; some dishes are classic Thai the rest are my own, adapting the exotic requirements of Thai cooking to suit the Western palate." Mogens Bay Esbensen.

Thomson on the other hand is a purist. I picked up his major tome Thai Food from our street library and am still very slowly wading my way through it. It is super authentic and super offputting. A classic but much as I am mildly obsessed by food it's a step too far for me. Too difficult and too many ingredients that are hard to find.

I think the late 70s and 80s was a time of great experimentation in Australian restaurant kitchens. Australia turned to Asia in all manner of ways and Australian/Asian fusion food began to take centre stage. None of Esbensen's Australian restaurants was a Thai restaurant, but they would have had elements - an overall philosophy, rather than particular dishes - "the flavours fresh and unspoiled." ; "The intricate flavours and delicate use of herbs."

"At the Pavilion and Butler’s commentators and critics described his cooking as “nouvelle”, a term he ridiculed. 'Cuisine is always, if you cook like that (from fresh ingredients) always nouvelle.'" Stephen Downes

Thomson's book, as I said, is full of tricky ingredients. Esbensen's is not, although maybe back in 1986 when it was written it would have been difficult to find, for example, lemon grass. These days not, as a direct result of his advice that

"that those of us who love to cook and experiment with new dishes should keep asking for rare and exotic ingredients. This will eventually create a supply." Mogens Bay Esbensen

His recipes are short and pretty easy to make. It's arranged as a collection of meals that he had experienced, with a short introduction to each. All the classics are there, as well, as those of his own that he inserts here and there. He wanted us all to have a go and to substitute Australian foods where the original was unavailable, although I was somewhat taken aback by this: "Don't use green peas. They have no taste or texture." As a substitute for chickpeas that is. Chickpeas may well not have been readily found on your supermarket shelves back then.

Nevertheless I think I shall be ruthless and add this one to the street library. After all I did vow to declutter this year. And even if a hardcover used copy would set you back $60.00 I'm not going to sell it. Books should be shared and passed from hand to hand.

"In my profession, I feel that if you have knowledge it is essential to share it with others. There can be no secrets." Mogens Bay Esbensen


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