Chef and restaurateur Sebby Holmes is behind London stalwart, Farang. From humble beginnings at London’s street food markets, his bold Thai dishes soon earned him a cult following, and in 2016, he opened the first bricks and mortar site in Highbury, North London. Most recently, Sebby – along with his brother Tony – have created Payst; an online shop selling Farang’s very own curry paste and dipping sauces, available for delivery across the UK. We chatted with Sebby about opening Farang, starting Payst with his sibling, and his loyalty to only using the best UK and Thai ingredients:

Could you tell us about Farang and Payst and how they both came about? 

Farang: In 2015 I was running Farang as a street food operation in both Canada Water (Street Feast, Hawker House) and Shoreditch (Street Feast, Dinerama).

At the same time my step-dad, Marco, decided to retire from his restaurant The San Daniele in Highbury and introduced me to the landlord, where I negotiated a short-term lease and opened Farang in the old San Daniele space – cooking whole roasted red curry chickens out of a busted-up pizza oven. 

The growth was insane and after a few months we were opening the restaurant to queues and had a series of amazing reviews. We quickly became known as the random Italian restaurant serving quality Thai food in Highbury.

After a year we were awarded a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide and have managed to keep it every year since. We have also been awarded a Thai Select award from the Thai Embassy which confirms the authenticity of our ingredients as we obtain fresh ingredients from Asia every week and make everything from scratch.

Payst: Payst had been a concept sitting on the edge of my mind for years. I recall thinking about it pretty much as soon as I began to cook Thai cuisine, the best part of 10 years ago. I have always found it strange, how such a widely cooked and popular part of the cuisine, the curry, has been represented in the supermarkets so poorly. To me, I consider the difference between a fresh curry paste and an ambient curry paste, to be the same as a fresh tuna steak, or a tin of tuna. So much flavour and freshness is lost in the pasteurisation process of ambient pastes to make them long-lasting.

There is definitely a place for these products but why not sell the real deal too? Imagine a world where you could only buy tinned tuna, or salmon or vegetables. For some strange reason, this is the world we are living in when it comes to Thai curry paste in the UK. Payst’s aim is to change that.

The idea of bringing fresh curry paste to the masses started a long time ago with me, but was constantly pushed to the back burner, as I was cooking 50-70 hours a week in Farang and managing the business on my days off. However, the pandemic gave Payst the perfect weather conditions for lift-off.

My brother, Tony, was temporarily made redundant from his job as an aerospace engineer, building engines for planes. Before this, we had been trying to build Payst on our days off so we took this opportunity for Tony to go full-time on it. From this, after years and years of thought, Payst London was born and Tony could finally put all those long years of his engineering degree to good use. He was offered his job back when things settled and happily told them to shove it. We hope to one day link his ability to produce vertical take-off engines, with his new role as director of the first wholesale fresh Thai curry paste brand within the UK. We haven’t come up with anything to date.

We started off making all the products in the back prep kitchen at Farang. However, we quickly realised that potentially catering for an entire country out the back of a busy restaurant in Highbury is a pretty dumb thing to attempt. We attempted it all the same.

We have now left the starting gate with a boom and are stocked in over 600 shops UK-wide. We can be purchased in Harrods, Selfridges, Daylesford Farmshop and we offer a UK-wide, next-day delivery service via our webshop. We are also available to purchase wholesale across Europe, Kuwait and Dubai.

We will continue to push ourselves out there and in the coming years hope to become a reliable ‘go to’ brand for the home cook with an interest in cooking fresh, tasty, high-quality Thai food at home.

Is there a particular region in Thailand that has inspired your menu?

No. The flavours of Thailand are my inspiration and trying to find the perfect balance between sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavours. Don’t get me wrong, when we make a red curry, we will make it correctly, using Thai cooking methods and techniques. However, we will be using the best ingredients we can get our hands on. Being located in North London, most of our produce is sourced from within the UK, to ensure we are using fresh, quality ingredients. I’ve always steered very clear of the word ‘authentic’, given the fact that I am British and quite naturally non-authentic. This is why I named my restaurant ‘Farang’, literally meaning, ‘Foreigner’. I and my team hold our loyalty to flavour, rather than authenticity.

Describe Farang’s food in three words: 

‘Contemporary British Thai’. 

Or a funnier one would be ‘More is More’ as we are renowned for being very garnish-heavy. Most Thai dishes included 20-40 ingredients in every dish.

Where else have you worked? Believe you’ve got a pretty impressive CV 

I started my trade when I was 13, doing work experience with my brother’s friend in pubs and hotels around the Oxfordshire area where I grew up. I instantly fell in love with food and carried on working, training in cooking British / European food.

I always had a passion for writing so whilst cooking at the weekends, I also got a degree in Journalism from Kingston University. When I graduated, I moved to East Dulwich in South London and started working at The Begging Bowl in Peckham. This was amazing, all the vegetables and fruits looked like aliens and whole pigs were going into fryers. After a few days here I knew that Thai cuisine was what I wanted to do. Head chef and owner Jane Alty was a great teacher and an awesome person and within a few years I was her sous chef.

After a few more years, Ben Chapman and Brian Hannon (co-owners of Smoking Goat, Kiln) got in touch with me via a mutual friend, Mr Andy Oliver (owner of Som Saa) and told me about a fun idea to open up an old Dive Bar on Dean Street in Soho, pumping out some funky Thai BBQ, cold beer and vinyl. I accepted the offer to launch with them as their head chef and The Smoking Goat was born. No need to explain the success of this too much as it speaks for itself but what we created there, was, and still is special and I had so much fun being part of Super 8 restaurants many moons ago when they started. Ben and Brian are true industry legends and they, along with Jane and Andy, gave me a turbo-fuelled push-start into the world of modern Thai food and hospitality.

What’s your favourite dish that you’d cook at home and why? 

Anything stir-fried with noodles, or anything curried with rice. Second to that any pasta.

Who’s the most interesting person that’s ever come into Farang? 

Over the years we have had some truly amazing people in the restaurant, working in the kitchen and dining at the tables. I have to give a special shout-out to Fay Maschler and Giles Coren for coming in and trying our food right at the start.

They shone a light on how hard we were working out of a broken-down old restaurant and got the masses coming and giving us a go. Now you’ll struggle to walk in without a booking and I managed to save up and renovate the room a little.

What’s next for you and Farang? 

Keep improving, keep looking at how to do things better, how can we work using fresh Asian produce as sustainably as possible, how can we make Farang a job that you never want to leave, and how can we make customers book their next meal before they have finished the first. 

After the last few years of the constant hospitality doom loop, I’m just going to focus on the restaurant in Highbury and the Payst brand being as good as it can be. When I get the head space for it, I would love to look into opening a classy British Boozer (pub), with high-quality Thai food.

Farang, 72 Highbury Park, London N5 2XE

For further information on Payst, see here