In Convo with Chef Hong Thaimee
2Mag Managing Editor Trevor Ranges caught up with Chef Hong Thaimee, co-owner and chef of New York’s Ngam restaurant to talk East-meets-West cuisine, pavlova, and her new Brooklyn eatery.
September 07, 2017
Trevor: You just wrapped up an “East meets West” eight-course dinner here at SO. What was that experience like for you?
Chef Hong: It’s such an honor [to cook at this event] because I started my chef career not here in Thailand but in New York City. Way back when in 2006, I was an executive in a pharmaceutical company and I felt that it was not my calling so I quit my job and my comfortable life and I left to pursue my dream. And I left for New York City. Ten years passed, and a couple of restaurants in my pocket [laughs] and a cookbook, and I got invited by Sofitel Bangkok to do a collaboration with [Park Society’s chef de cuisine] Joost Bijster to do “East meets West”.
And this is really the first time I really cook in Bangkok in a restaurant. And what it means is such an honor because not only such a warm welcome but so much love because they taste my food and say, “Oh my goodness, so amazing,” and that means that, as I am Thai you know, the most critique would come from those who know Thai food best, which is my fellow Thais, right, and for them to appreciate my creativity and flavors and enjoy what I have to offer, I found it very accomplishing. I feel really accomplished.
What exactly inspired the menu for this event, as I heard it was a bit more extravagant than the menu at Ngam, where you serve “comfort food”; how did you approach an event in a more upscale environment?
As a chef, I look at myself an artist. The kitchen and the stove and the plate is like a blank canvas. And, with that, I understand flavors now. Because I grew up in Thailand and I got a chance to be educated abroad and then live abroad for so long, cooking in New York City for so long, I understand what’s missing in between. So I think of myself as the bridge. As far as my first restaurant, Ngam is modern Thai comfort food but I know I also have a passion for any type of Thai cooking; that means I can do street food, I can do fine Thai dining, things a little more upscale, just because I don’t limit myself in a small box. I’m an artist and I’m here to serve.
So what inspires the “modern thai comfort food” menu concept at Ngam?
I grew up here in Thailand. And growing up here, the best part [of the cuisine] is all the flavors, right? My mom and my grandma cooked good food every night. By 6:30 we all gathered together in the dining room and had food. And so I just brought the flavors of my childhood and modernized it and made twists into it. Made a modern version of my childhood memories.
For example, I have krabong pumpkin fries that are in a red curry and coconut batter. It’s like Chiang Mai street food that you can find in the morning market but then I brought that to New York and I named it Chiang Mai Fries, but instead of regular pumpkin I put in sweet potato because everyone in America loves sweet potato. And do the same ingredients, same batter, and serve alongside with a homemade red curry mayo and cut the fatness with a peanut relish.
Can you get the right ingredients…
Actually you’d be surprised.
But you make zucchini noodles too, so how much do local or seasonal ingredients influence the menu or your cooking?
Almost like five-hundred percent! [laughs] When I opened Ngam, I didn’t think we opened a Thai restaurant; we opened a restaurant that serves Thai food. And with that we have to pay respect to our customers, right? We know that New York is the top of the world when it comes to restaurants and trends. And I know that people love to eat local, with local and seasonal ingredients. So I made an investment to beautiful, locally sourced ingredients.
But then you call your somtam “authentic” and it features apples and pears… Is that what people want, or do you think you could make authentic Thai food and would there be a market for that too?
That’s just a play on somtam because you understand that some people put ponlamai (fruit) here [in Thailand]; somtam is just a technique. For me, I just add on the idea, because people [in New York] don’t understand the idea behind papaya salad. It’s not that I’m being modern, I’m just making somtam with seasonal fruit. As for authenticity, oh my god, my pad thai is super authentic because I even name it on my menu “old school pad thai”. And my pad thai sauce we make a fresh batch every morning with real tamarind, real palm sugar, etc.
At the same time, I don’t know why more people don’t make krapao tacos, I would love a krapao taco…
That’s what I do! Yeah! But the thing is, you live here so long that you know what krapao is; what I try to do is, I’m educating people and introducing people to what is real Thai food by making the name much more approachable for people to understand. For example, sai oua (Chiang Mai sausage), but for farang I put it into a Thai burger and when people taste it, it’s a sai oua burger; that has been my job and that is how, as a chef and as a Thai, I pretty much position myself as a bridge between the two cultures. I understand what it’s like to have authentic Thai flavors and I understand what a westerner looks for and I try to introduce that into each bite.
What do you make of the idea of “fusion” in this day and age?
I feel like it’s already dated. I think fusion was a term in the ‘90s and early 2000s and I feel that the world is so much smaller now, people travel, there is no “fusion” anymore. I think it’s changed into “global cuisine”. Actually, if you look back at Thai eating culture: where did we get pad thai from? Where did we get noodles from? The Chinese or the Vietnamese… and now that has become the national food of Thailand. We have desserts inspired by the Portuguese. Where did curry come from? Indians, right? So the fusion started way back when.
What ingredients do you miss the most from Thailand or Chiang Mai?
Tua now. In Thailand… wait, let me bring my book… (Hong goes to the kitchen to retrieve a copy of her cookbook). Tua now is a Thai miso but in Chiang Mai what we do is have it in a dried disc (she opens the book to a recipe for khanom chin and a description about how tua now is found in Thai markets). It’s, to me, so amazing.
We know a number of chefs who have declined offers for prominent TV roles as they feel it would distract them from their passion. Does this type of celebrity appeal to you?
That’s a tough question [laughs]. I have to say there’s been a lot of offers for me to do, like, reality TV shows. Personally for me, it depends on my timeline. If I’m about to open my restaurant, I have to focus on what’s more important. I think celebrity as a chef is a wonderful thing but, you know, if you abuse it, it would not be good. And personally, for me to be a chef, I wanted to do it to love and serve people, and if a TV show would help me to love and serve people more then I would accept it, and if it meant to exploit who I am, I don’t think I would take it. In the process from your prior career to chef and then chef to restaurateur and then to appearing on TV with Bobby Flay (Chef Hong competed on Iron Chef USA), did all of those transitions occur very naturally for you?
I’m so blessed because when I started my career as a chef it didn’t come easy because I went to business school: I didn’t do culinary training. I applied to be a hostess at Jean-Georges and made my way to the kitchen and only after ten years of passion [laughs] I got some publicity and then a producer approached me—and the same thing for my book—and that’s how I got invited here to cook at SO (Sofitel Bangkok).
I believe in longevity and sustainability in the sense that I don’t want to have my career for only two years. As a Thai woman, I strongly feel that I want to do more than cook. I understand as a female chef, even not as a Thai, there is sexism against female chefs. I want to create a platform to speak for Thai women who have a dream, who want to have more in their life. I want to speak for Thailand, especially women, that we can do more, that we have more to offer than what is in the international market right now, you know, like sex tourism.
Two weeks ago, I ran into this big white dude who called me over to a table and said, “Hey I was just in Thailand and I had a good time. I go to Thailand every year.” And I asked him, “What did you do in Thailand?” and he said, “You know why I’m going,” and I felt so… it was like someone slapped my face. How disrespectful and demeaning. And I had to excuse myself and walk away. Before I left Thailand I always think that Thai people can do more. Thai women can do more. And i think that it partially drives me. What brought you to New York originally?
Passion. A dream. An aspiration to create a company to love and serve people through Thai food. It’s a big dream, huh? I thinks food has magic. It has power. We hear that you’re working on a new restaurant in Brooklyn: how will that concept be different from Ngam?
It’s going to be superfun. McCarren hotel approached me to do a project together. We believe that Williamsburg has the opportunity to serve good Thai food. One day in our management meeting I was just like, they have a rooftop, and a pool, and a kitchen in the basement, and I look at them and I go, ‘Why don’t we do a restaurant concept called Thai me up & Thai me down?’ because my last name is Thaimee, so it’s like a play on the word, right? So we can serve good brunch on the weekends on the rooftop or by the pool and then something fun in the basement. And we want to do some sort of experiment pop-up until the end of this year. And then with this pop-up I want to feature a lot more Thai food; for example, we might set up a Thai market one night. I can host cooking classes. … And I hope I can invite many more Thai and farang chefs to cook Thai food together. We kick start on September 7.If you could be any food, what food would you be?
Meringue. It’s fun to make. No. You know what pavlova is? Pavlova is meringue with soft cream and fresh fruit on top. What I love about pavlova is, when I was an exchange student in America, all the international students gathered together and my Australian classmate brought pavlova and I had it for the first time and the crispiness of the meringue and the sweet cream and the fresh fruit… that changed my life, I kid you not. After Thai food, it's pavlova. Because it’s graceful, beautiful visually, and the taste can be a variety. It's like a canvas. Be what you wanna be.Chef Hong Thaimee’s cooking book is called True Thai: Real Flavors for Every Table. Book a table at Ngam or learn more about her new Williamsburg restaurant at McCarren Hotel which is scheduled to soft-launch on September 7.