“I’ve learned that giving up is not my choice,” says Ngam chef-owner Hong Thaimee as she reflects on the journey that brought her from Chiang Mai to owning New York City restaurant Ngam (99 Third Avenue, 212-777-8424).
The seed for her international lifestyle was planted when she was young: After a friend moved to the Big Apple, Thaimee realized there was a world outside of Thailand, and she obsessed over exploring it, learning English and doing a cultural exchange in Portland, Oregon along the way. After a career in modeling and corporate social responsibility with a pharmaceutical company in Bangkok, the tsunami hit the southeast part of her country, and she headed down to help. There, with newly found faith, Thaimee was forced to re-examine her goals, and she rekindled her desire to move beyond southeast Asia. She loved cooking and making people happy, she realized, so after traveling the world, she decided to come to America and try to start a Thai food company.
A mentor encouraged her to learn to become a chef, and she pondered whether to go to culinary school or enter the kitchen. Her fate was sealed after an interview for a hostess position at Jean Georges’ Spice Market — during which she frankly admitted she’d rather be in the kitchen — and she was placed on the line, which she says was like “walking through fire.” She proved herself to the chef’s right-hand man Greg Brennan with a dish of revelatory pad Thai, and she was soon exploring the idea of opening her own spot. After a year at that restaurant and a subsequent year at Perry St, she departed, securing the lease for Ngam — only to have her investor back out after the deal went through.
“I had two choices: quit or look for a way to make things work,” she recalls. Bent on not giving up, she moved forward, scraping together the funds and editing her build-out to accommodate the new smaller budget. Two years later, Ngam turns out many renditions of her famous pad Thai as well as a number of other dishes Thaimee says come from her heart.
In this interview, she weighs in on the concept of authenticity, what she hopes to accomplish in her upcoming cookbook, and why worrying about the review cycle means you’re doing it wrong.
Let’s explore the idea of authenticity. How does it play out here at Ngam? How does it play across New York?
For me, becasue I was born and raised in Thailand and my cooks are Thai, when it comes to recipes, all sauces are as Thai as one could make it. But we brush it up and make it more up-to-date. Take our pad Thai. It’s the national dish of Thailand, and it has a long history. It’s made with fish sauce, tamarind, and palm sugar, and it has to be sour, salty, and sweet, but not sharp sweet because it’s from palm sugar. I keep all elements of true pad thai and make it more health-conscious and local. That’s where I get zucchini pad Thai or papaya pad Thai. Authenticity is in the heart. I grew up with it, I lived with it, I breathe with it. It can’t get more Thai than this.
Any big lessons from your time with Jean Georges?
I’ve learned so much. It was so hard. They gave me the eye to see what it’s like to be a professional — what it’s like to be smart at what you do. You do 900 or 1,000 covers a night there. You have to be smart about what you do. You have to have the mindset of a warrior. You have to deliver — no excuse. It’s the best experience one could have if you want to be serious. We’re here to serve, and there’s no excuse.
Do you have a regional affinity?
I love food in general, so it’s very difficult for me to choose. My mother’s side of the family is from the south, so we vacation in the south. My grandma would make things from the south. My dad’s side is from Chiang Mai. And we have family in Bangkok. So we do everything.
What do you think about the explosion of northern Thai food here?
Happy! It makes me feel excited that people get excited about what I grew up with.
Any thoughts on Thai food in NYC and where it’s heading?
I’m hoping that people will know that Thai food is not difficult. It’s so straightforward. I think that’s what I’m here for. It could be part of your daily life.
Thoughts on women in the industry? You’re the majority owner of your business, and you’re from Thailand, so you’ve had a really unique experience opening a restaurant here.
I never give up, and I think I got here because of determination, not because I’m a woman. Everyone has so much to offer. You are your biggest enemy — doesn’t matter who you are. You gotta fight with yourself. Everyone finds it hard to raise funds. I never took it that I couldn’t find funding because I’m a woman, and I find it hard to believe that it exists in New York City in 2012. The city is ready to accept new talent. Is it hard as a woman chef? It’s hard in every industry. Is it intimidating? At first, yes. When I first started, no one took me seriously. But it’s not their problem. It’s my problem. I’m not going to let anyone control who I am.
But I’m excited to see more of us out there. We have so much to offer.
Up next, Thaimee talks about her goals and her cookbook.
You’re working on a cookbook. Home cooks in this country often see Thai food as very exotic. How do you approach writing a book for someone who hasn’t done this at home?
To be able to write a cookbook is such an honor. I take it very seriously; the message I’m giving is not for the sake of vanity. I’m giving my audience the opportunity to see me as a friend or sister. I’m introducing my culture and food through something simple. I conduct a cooking class once a month here. I’ll do something, and people say, “Really? That’s it?” Yeah. That’s it. That’s what I’m hoping to do in the cookbook.
Talk to me a little about your love of the markets.
I was in Thailand, and I got to know this market through my dad. It was a forager market. I thought, if I were to have a cookbook, I would want to talk about this forager market. I took my team there. It was so awesome. Just mindblowing. I hope we can share it soon, but you have to wait until spring 2015.
What are your thoughts on the review cycle?
If you want to work for the sake of getting good reviews, you are not going in the right direction. The reviewer is a pro; they do this everyday. They know.
I was on Iron Chef battling Bobby Flay. Being on that show is like, how did it happen? But I was cooking [at Ngam], and the server came back and said, “Table 30 wants to see you; it’s a dad and his five-year-old son. He says he saw you on iron chef, and he wants to see you.” So I go out and the dad says, “This is Chase. He saw you on Iron Chef. We were here on Sunday, and it was your day off. He begged me to come and see you again because he’s your biggest fan.” That was a beautiful moment for me.
What about goals?
Be a better person. I kid you not. I’m a very ambitious person. I left Thailand six years ago. But Mother Teresa talked about doing small things with great love. That’s how I see it. It doesn’t matter how successful I am — life has its beauty. I focus on how can I be a better chef, how can I be a better boss, how can I be a better wife, how can I be a better friend. I let life take care of itself.
What about another restaurant?
Of course. It will happen when it happens. But I don’t think I will stop here.
On the next page, Thaimee divulges favorite Thai dishes — and where to get them.
Where do you go for a drink?
Angel’s Share — sometimes we work long hours, and it’s a hidden spot, so you can’t go wrong. I order the Serenity. It’s lychee-flavored and so good.
Best Thai restaurant that’s not this one:
Depends on the dish I go for. I love kuay tiew, which is pretty much Thai ramen. I really like it at Sri Pra Phai. Ayada has this papaya salad with fermented crab. I like Somtum Der for spicy soup.
Favorite special occasion restaurant:
I love Blue Hill. Ah!
Favorite neighborhood restaurant:
I live in Dumbo, and I really like Vinegar Hill House.
Best neighborhood in the city for food:
The East Village is amazing and also Chinatown.
Who would you most like to cook for?
Rafael Nadal. Oh my god! I’ve been saying this with every interview. I hope it will get to him soon! I’m a tennis fan, and he plays so well. I would love to cook and have a chat with him.
Who would you most like to cook for you?
Michael Voltaggio. In LA. Oh my God, my heart is beating so fast. This is so personal.
Dish you could eat forever:
Growing up in Thailand, we ate paste — shrimp paste, chili paste (nam prik). For me, rice, boiled eggs, nam prik, and vegetables — I can eat it every day.
Something you love about NYC restaurants:
You can never get enough of them. It’s amazing and inspirational.
Something you think is weird:
Why do people have to be so pretentious when it comes to restaurants? I guess we all have to be pretentious once in awhile.
Person that doesn’t get enough credit:
Dishwashers and delivery boys. On rainy days and snowy days, delivery boys still show up and deliver our food to our customers.
Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten:
Oh come on, I grew up in Thailand. I eat quite Thai. Foods that are shrimpy and fishy. Sour green mango dipped in fermented shrimp paste. I’m salivating. It’s so good.
Anything in your story that’s been overlooked?
When I started, the media would say, “Oh she’s a model chef, a fashion chef, this and that.” It was wonderful, but the true turning point was when I was on Iron Chef. Then they said, “Oh, she can cook!”