In London’s restaurant landscape, Andy Oliver, the co-founder of the celebrated Thai restaurants som saa and the newly opened Kolae, has been redefining what it means to serve Thai cuisine in the UK. Andy met co-founder Mark Dobbie in 2009, and the pair embarked on a journey that would see them exploring the depths of Thai culinary traditions, from the streets of Bangkok to the vibrant markets of Southern Thailand. We sat down with Andy to delve into his culinary journey, the inspirations behind Kolae, and the challenges and triumphs of bringing Thai flavours to the forefront of London’s dining scene.

Can you walk us through your journey from working at Michelin-starred restaurants to co-founding som saa and now Kolae? 

Andy (left) with co-founder Mark Dobbie 

My first proper full kitchen job was working at Nahm – David Thompson’s Michelin-starred Thai restaurant which back then was situated in Hyde Park Corner. I had a love of Thai food and a lot of curiosity but it was very green; it was a tough kitchen and a bit of a sink or swim moment. I spent most of the first year pretty much underwater. But I ended up spending 2.5 years there (where I met Mark, my friend and som saa co-founder) before heading off to Bangkok for a stint at Bo.lan. I then headed back to London to work at The Begging Bowl and an Alan Yao Thai concept, before starting som saa. som saa first began as a series of pop-ups.

The pop-ups then became a residency at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields, finishing with a Crowdfunding campaign and ultimately a permanent restaurant site: som saa in Spitalfields, which we opened almost 8 years ago now.

Along the way we always wanted to do a second restaurant; Kolae turned out to be a long project, taking us almost 5 years from setting the intention to finally getting the doors open in Borough Market last October.

What inspired you to venture into the culinary world, particularly focusing on Thai cuisine?

A love of food and eating primarily, and time spent in Southeast Asia – the mysterious and complex nature of Thai food got under my skin early on (and still excites me just as much now). But the London food scene has an energy about it and has been on a great journey the last decade or two. 

How did your experiences at Nahm, Bo.Lan, and The Begging Bowl influence the concept and cuisine of som saa and eventually Kolae?

Nahm started things for me, opening my eyes to a whole new world of Thai food, and David Thompson’s uncompromising way of cooking had a major impact on me.  Working at Bo.lan and living in Bangkok then really helped improve my connection with Thailand and tune my palette, Bo and Dylan’s level of skill and knowledge and ambition was also very inspiring. Finally, back in London at The Begging Bowl, I loved working with Jane Alty, seeing how she cooked really good Thai food back here in the UK and how much Londoners loved it.   

Could you tell us more about the concept of Kolae and how it differs from som saa? What motivated you to explore this particular cooking style from Southern Thailand?

At som saa we cook regional Thai food from around Thailand. In contrast, Kolae focuses both on the food of the South and grilled dishes – especially Kolae –  a Southern Thai technique of marinating in special coconut curry like sauces and grilling them over charcoal.  I’ve always loved the food from the South; it’s part of Thailand I’ve travelled to the most and starting Kolae felt exciting, and it’s the beginning of a journey deep diving into the food and cooking traditions of this one region.   

You recently opened Kolae in Borough Market. What led you to choose this location, and how has the reception been since the opening?

Borough Market is a dream location for us.  It’s somewhere we’ve had our eye on for some time.  We love the mix of customers you get here, the history and the energy coming from the place.  And it always felt like a Thai restaurant would be a welcome addition to the many great food offerings in and around the market.  

The reception so far has been great. We’ve had some lovely reviews, but most importantly great feedback from customers, with many of them already becoming regulars.  Borough Market is also a community – of restaurants, traders, locals and shoppers – and we’ve felt welcomed and part of that.   

What are some of your favourite restaurants in London?

I don’t eat out loads and haven’t tried as many new places as I’d like. My go-tos include Lyle’s, St John, Koya, The French House, and for Thai food, Kiln and Singburi.  

Where do you like to eat/drink post-service?

I’ve got a little two year old son, who gets me up very early, so nowadays I tend to keep the eating and drinking post service to a quick beer and plate of leftover Thai food.  

Food images credit: Ben Broomfield