Hong Thaimee: Chef and Owner of Ngam

Courtesy of Hong Thaimee

Walking into Ngam is like coming home. A noisy, packed home, but the warmth from the open kitchen and welcome from the service provides the same sentiment. A neon “Love” sign hangs on one side of the exposed brick wall, representing Thaimee’s message to diners: “Hey, you’re loved. You know life is worth living.” Born in Thailand with an initial career in modeling, she later landed in pharmaceuticals working for Merck. But neither job gave her the fulfillment she sought. Thaimee then started from scratch and worked her way into some of New York’s best restaurants: Kittichai, Jean George’s Spice Market, and Jean George’s Perry St. In 2011 she opened Ngam in the East Village, with a menu that celebrates the flavors of Thailand and a mission to spread her genuine fondness of others.

—Diana Emiko Tsuchida

How did you come to find food, considering your fashion and modeling background?
I grew up in Thailand, where as we’d say was “yummy.” My grandma was an excellent cook. Even at school, all the fresh food and fruit stands I would get something waiting for the school bus on the way home, all those food memories growing up, I always enjoyed eating. And I always think cooking is a personal thing, because you can feed someone and that’s a human soul. So I basically studied to be a business person, I went to get my MBA and get some business management. And so my job in Bangkok I was a pharmaceutical sensibility manager for Merck, a big pharmaceutical company. But then I realized that life was so short and it should be full of purpose. I made a list of what I like to do, what I don’t like to do and say “How could I make my life for other people?” And I thought, “I love food.” People respond well to it and people love Thai food and back then, people loved Thai food but it was not well-focused. Because there would be international chefs that would Thai food to the next level. I was like, “I’m Thai and what other best person would there to be cook Thai food?” Said you know what? “I’m going to set up a business for other people by sharing food.” And so I left and quit my corporate job, started traveling, called the other friends that I know in New York City and I had to decide, how exactly do I do that? Because I didn’t have a kitchen background. I walked into Jean George’s Spice Market in Meatpacking and I asked to get a job as a hostess in hopes to be able to get a chance to work in the kitchen. And then he said “You’ve done so much, what exactly do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be working in the kitchen because I believe I can offer something to the restaurant.” And so the guy said, “Alright, okay, let’s see.” And back then I had no kitchen experience, all I knew is I had a chance, I have to fight my way to it. So I Googled and I studied the knife terminology, went to buy the most beautiful knife set, buy new clothes, make sure I look credible, and then I somehow got hired on the spot. And I started there. And I just worked my way up. That was five years ago and now I’m the chef of one of the most known restaurants in the East Village.

It sounds a little terrifying going from no cooking experience to working in a prestigious kitchen. What is the significance of the “Love” sign in your restaurant, Ngam?
Remember that I mentioned that I want to live life with a purpose? And I think that my purpose is to channel love to people, to let them know that they’re loved. To let them know that life is so hard, and if only I could be a small vehicle in a tough day to say “Hey, you’re loved. You know life is worth living.” And so I declare that so no matter what, no matter how hard my day would have been, I still would get up and go and fight for the day. And that’s why I declare that because I am motivated and operated by love.

I suppose this makes you feel like ultimately, you can’t fail.
I’m falling along the way, i’m not perfect. But because of love it keeps me alive, it keeps me alive, it’s the most powerful thing on earth.

Do you see that there is a transition to more women heading up their own restaurants?
I never take “no” for anything. In general I think there’s no men or women when it comes to pursue your dream as a passion, there’s no barrier. People should start to be true to themselves, more knowing to pursue who they are and what they dream of. And I think that for me I don’t see there’s a barrier or limitation when it comes to “there’s more women in the kitchen.” Yes it’s a new thing and there’s more but it’s because we are learning to be true to ourselves. Not because there were less women chefs back then. It takes a lot of courage.

Do you have young cooks that you mentor?
Everybody is on a learning process, including me. It doesn’t mean that I know everything. I find that it’s my goal in life–I have to be better than the version of myself yesterday. And so do I get a chance to mentor a lot of people? I do get a chance to mentor a lot of people. And my message has always been, if you have a dream, you have a passion, you have to fight for it. Because you have to live your life with a passion, you know, you were born for something. So either my cooks or my front of the house staff or even my customers–or anybody, and I conduct a cooking class as well and even my students when they come to my cooking class, that’s what I always say that’s what I always believe in because what happened to me should happen to everybody. It’s so rewarding. It’s so satisfying, when you fight for something that you believe in.

How do you use your cooking classes to teach this message?
That is the real time that we can have interactions with each other. And the class is very hands-on. I think my job is to bridge the gap of how you can cook Thai food in an American kitchen, and not Americanize it. In other words, how do you cook authentic Thai with the local ingredients you can find in America? The flavor’s there, the technique’s there, maybe the ingredients are different. But the dish is the dish.

Having just one restaurant is already a challenge, but do you have any plans to open more?
I do but I cannot predict the future. I look at everything as, “I have what I have today and I want to do what I do best today.”

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OtM logosThis story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.

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