Chewing the Fat: Fish Cheeks
Chomwan Weeraworawit sits down with brothers Ohm and Chat Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks NYC to discover their motivation for opening a downtown seafood restaurant dedicated to the best part of the fish.
September 12, 2017
The fish cheeks are the most delectable part of the fish: delicate yet firm with just the right sweetness. There is also not much of it: a teensy morsel that, if you didn’t know about, you would miss. It is a delicacy.
In New York City, the offerings of great quality Thai food has become abundant: downtown alone there is the Michelin-starred Uncle Boon’s and the people’s fave Somtum Der. Cross over the river and you have Andy Ricker’s PokPok and the Thai restaurants such as Sri Prapaphai that existed before the Thai food experience included cocktails and a playlist that didn’t make your meal last longer than 30 minutes.
But in this great abundance there was a vacuum: no Thai seafood restaurant. The offerings of Thai seafood are rare, few and far between. By Thai seafood we mean those restaurants where you order Tiger prawns by the piece: succulent and perfectly cooked you pull them out of their shells and dip them into fragrant green seafood sauce. The Thai restaurant where you order crab fried rice and have it with fresh cucumbers and a squeeze of lime. The kind of thai restaurant where you need a side plate to put all those prawn shells and fish bones. That is what Fish Cheeks is, right smack in the middle of much coveted Bond Street. As far as NY real estate is concerned, this is golden: imagine being next to Mile End and Il Buco and A.P.C, across from Lulu Lemon Lab, just off the Bowery.
And the thing is, on a summer’s evening, looking out to the street from a long, raucous table upon which food is served family style, Fish Cheeks makes for a wonderful experience and one that beckons you back. Especially with its fresh seafood and, what can best be described as, the most earnest cooking. This was what brought me to arrange an interview with the chefs, Chat and Ohm Suansilphong: I wanted to understand what brought them to NY and motivated them to open Fish Cheeks.
Ohm and Chat Suansilphong. Photo by Thana Brick.
The brothers grew up in Sukhothai, our ancient capital that could not be anymore landlocked, where their dad was a chef and had a restaurant but then went to school in Bangko . Chat trained as a classical guitarist, having completed his bachelor’s degree in Music. He had even applied for and been accepted to do a master’s in classical music in North Carolina and was on his way there. There was, however, a decisive moment when he considered having a profession that he could do for the rest of his life and, despite his love of music, he decided that it would not be his profession. Rather, he saw himself owning a restaurant.
Of course, all children of chefs and restaurateurs are dissuaded by their parents to enter the F&B world, their parents knowing what a hard job it is; somehow though, that path beckoned and the brothers would not be dissuaded. Whilst Chat always knew what he wanted to do, the same could not be said for his brother Ohm. They grew up very close, and whilst Chat always believed he would follow his musical desires, for Ohm it wasn’t until after he graduated university that he would find himself in the kitchen. Working as a chef felt right and it was this feeling that would lead him on a journey to New York City.
The brothers actually had this “revelation” around the same time. Ohm was already studying Thai cooking while working professionally as a chef at Chef Vichukorn’s Sala Rim Nam—part of the cooking academy’s training. After some time, a fellow student mentioned applying for a job at Nahm. Ohm had not heard of Nahm before, vaguely perhaps of an Australian chef called David Thompson but had never really contemplated working for him. Nonetheless, he applied to be a cook there, was accepted, and today describes that experience as gaining another family.
Ohm Suansilphong. Photo by Thana Brick
Upon his return to Bangkok in 2013 with Nahm London closing, his path would coincide with Chef Prin’s. He describes his time working under Chef Prin with deep emotion and intensity: that of gaining a big brother. Prin was a strict boss but it was clear from the emotions that Ohm describes his Nahm days that he cared about and nurtured his team, and I found it most touching.
He also talked about when he felt that it was time for him to leave to work in Australia at David Thompson’s Long Chim. With Prin’s and David’s blessing, he would leave to work there for two years, the first time away from Thailand and home. And then after two years, he realized that, while the experience was invaluable, it could not be his life forever.
Ohm’s time in Australia coincided with Chat’s decision to move to NYC to go to culinary school and pursue his new dream of opening a restaurant. Their parents had already immigrated to the USA and were living in North Carolina: effectively they would be rejoining their family, even if they weren’t going home.
With Ohm learning the ropes back of house, Chat embarked on a journey to figure out how to run a restaurant and, after cooking school, he worked front of house at Bao Haus. It was here that he would meet Jenn Saesue, a NY-born Thai who would become his future partner in Fish Cheeks. The two pretty much did the grunt work in learning the ropes so that one day they would be able to open their restaurant.
Whilst working jobs at night, they spent their days business planning and scouting their location. As Jen put it, “We spent a year looking for a spot, not above 13th—definitely downtown— and not in Brooklyn.” Having grown up in the city, she knew exactly the vibe they were looking for. Let’s face it, NYC is an island and the thing is, rent can be astronomical. The idea that they would have a restaurant on Bond Street was a dream. In fact, Jen didn’t quite believe her broker when he told her that they found a spot on Bond Street.
Jenn Saesue. Photo by Thana Brick.
And it so it happened. Their restaurant would be on Bond Street and they would have exactly two months to do get their permits, and do the build out before they had to open. Imagine paying rent and over costs without any revenue? So that’s what they did: they grinded it out, NY-style, collaborated with a friend on the décor, hired a restaurant PR, and they were open.
Fortunately, they opened their doors with Dad helping out in the early days. The recipes were Oh’s creations with Dad’s help. Everything else, such as training the staff and coming up with the dishes, was all very spontaneous and totally organic. After all, a lot depends on market availability. That’s the thing with seafood, unfresh seafood could be a disastrous health hazard. So off they went Fulton Fish Market where they would find their supplier. That’s the beauty of NYC, there is a community once you tap into it. And they would create that, the four of them.
Fish. Photo by Thana Brick.
Today, September 12th marks the restaurant’s one year anniversary. And one year of a dream in the making. Feeding people great food and wine with the sincerity of cooking Thai food that isn’t mediocre, that isn’t just phad thai. To paraphrase Pete Wells of The New York Times, it’s not about dazzling you with sensational dishes but what the brothers and Jenn do is give you a neighborhood restaurant with great seafood that you can eat every day.
When I asked why the menu is so small, the answer was that it is ever-growing: they want a tightly curated menu so that they can oversee the quality and make sure the ingredients are fresh every day. Think lobster rolls, but instead of that you have perfectly prepared Thai-style crab fried rice and steamed fish. Rather than a crudo, opt for the goong cha nam pla or shrimp carpaccio. Fish Cheeks has managed to crack the secret of the seafood sauce, the heat is strong but fresh, and prepare a perfect creamy crab curry as comfort food.
I ask Ohm whether he sees himself in NY forever. He responds with some nostalgia and tells me how much he misses home. This is an experience and he’s proud of it, but he knows he wants to do more and to learn more, and that path will eventually lead him back to Thailand. As for Chat, he sees this as the beginning: their dream for now, but having run the restaurant for a year now, he feels he’s found his calling: that, like their dad, they will be in the food business for a long time. And for now, NYC is home.
The Suansilphong brothers and their partners in Fish Cheeks, Jenn Saesue and Pranwalai Kittirattanawiwat. Photo by Thana Brick.