The Night + Market chef opens up about his failures, restaurant philosophy and new cookbook.
After trying to revamp his family’s longtime Thai restaurant to little success, Food and Wine 2016 Best New Chef Kris Yenbamroong decided to launch a totally fresh concept next door. It would be his concept: raw, urban, casual. It would be called Night + Market. At first, it didn’t do so well. “Every day I was cooking as if my life depended on it,” he says. “I was angry. I was desperate.”
Some nights three people would come in; other nights, twenty; other nights, five. Yelpers liked it, but it wasn’t getting the critical attention that Yenbamroong knew he needed to make it the kind of restaurant he envisioned. Finally, about eight months after opening, he saw that food critic Jonathan Gold (then at L.A. Weekly, now at the L.A. Times) was speaking at a panel. “After he finished, I kinda bum-rushed him and gave him my card and said, ‘Hey, you know, you should drop by.’” Gold took the card, said he’d heard of the restaurant, but didn’t say much else. A few weeks later, a review dropped. Gold admitted he’d dismissed Night + Market as “as a tired gimmick” when it came out, but was seduced by tapas-style grilled pork shoulder, crispy pig tails and curried crab. It was delicious Thai food to facilitate drinking. (That’s literally the subtitle of his new cookbook, Night + Market, as well as his restaurant philosophy.)
Crowds didn’t swell overnight, but things were on the up and up. Now, almost exactly seven years in, Yenbamroong is opening his third restaurant in Venice next month.
Over the years, the chef has grown more confident in his style and feels he has less to prove. “When I was starting out, I had a really heavy hand with everything," he says. "In Thailand, that’s like the mark of an amateur." Yenbamroong says his chef friends agree. “Recently, my friend Peter Meehan [the former editor of Lucky Peach] came in, and he said my cooking has become more restrained, more self-assured. He’s someone I really respect, so that meant something to me.”
“I don’t want to blow people’s minds every second,” Yenbamroong says. “Especially these days, a lot of attention is given to how over-the-top and crazy stuff is. Honestly, I’m just interested in being a good neighborhood spot.”
Although Yenbamroong was born in the States, he spent part of his childhood in Thailand, at one point going to an elite international boarding school there. “My family didn’t have a lot of money, but I had this rich uncle who paid for it,” he says. “It was a special time in Thailand, there was a lot of money, it was just becoming this more developed country. And there was a lot of freedom. I think I learned to drive when I was like 13,” he says.
It is some of this ethos of Thai culture that Yenbamroong tries to capture, both in his restaurant and with his cookbook. “Living there, I was really interested in meeting working-class people, the groundskeepers, that kind of stuff,” he says.
As a teenager, for example, he’d go to the Red Light District to sip beers. “Strip clubs were one of the places you could order alcohol when you were like 15 or 16. When everything is so available, it really becomes about just drinking a beer,” he says.
Malls, too, were and still are a quintessential part of urban culture. “If you watch travel shows, they’ll probably never take you to a shopping mall,” he says. “But there’s free air conditioning there; it’s a good meeting place; the food courts are really good there. It’s not like here. It’s where people actually hang out.”
There’s a recipe for Bangkok mall pasta in the book: it’s angel hair pasta glazed with soy sauce and oyster sauce, salty with anchovy and brightened with basil. (Find the recipe here.) “It’s one of these dishes that was invented in the ‘90s, and spaghetti isn’t a native Thai thing,” Yenbamroong says. “But it’s put together in a way that becomes Thai. It’s the same way you have mayonnaise in Japan that’s not Japanese, but now it’s just a part of the culture. It’s just one of those weird city foods.”
All the recipes in the cookbook are the actual ones used at the restaurant. “We have 400 covers a day, and we only have like 45 seats,” Yenbamroong says. “That’s a lot of turns. So in order to do that with a small kitchen, you have to make it pretty simple and as efficient as possible. And we put it in the book that way.”
The book (and the restaurant) isn’t about cooking in Thailand, he says. “It’s about cooking Thai food in the United States.” With these recipes, you should be able to get most of the ingredients at Whole Foods. “And if there are some you can’t find, I want you to make it anyway.” The book is meant to be dog-eared, thrown in a backpack and used in the kitchen: it’s not aspirational. “It’s meant to fit into your life, not the other way around,” he says. “It’s about doing something even if it’s not perfect, even if you don’t feel ready.”
That manifesto has worked for Yenbamroong, with great success.