Making the leap from runway to kitchen is more common than you might think.
Some of the biggest names in tech, fashion and entertainment began in entirely different industries, taking the big risk later in life to start over. For many in the restaurant industry, the decision to pursue culinary arrived after they'd established themselves in other fields. Hong Thaimee, of New York's Thaimee Table (formerly known as Ngam), is a successful chef and restaurateur who began her professional life as a model, before pivoting to business for several years and then pivoting to restaurants.
"I was almost 30; I felt that I tried everything," says Thaimee, of her decision to move from Bangkok to NYC to start a career in food, despite no professional experience. "Life is too short. After the tsunami hit in Thailand, I realized I just wanted to love and serve people. And I wanted to cook Thai food for the world." In her twenties, Thaimee starred in several commercials that appeared throughout Southeast Asia, hosted a television show and received offers to act in Hollywood movies.
"I just felt that it wasn't for me," she says. Years later, when she left her job as a pharmaceutical executive to pursue food, she somehow landed her very first food job at one of the most prestigious kitchens in the country: Jean-Georges Vongerichten's now-closed Spice Market. (She spent the whole night before her first day googling "how to be a chef" and watching YouTube videos of techniques.)
"They were like, 'You’ve never worked at a restaurant, what would you like to do?' And I said, 'Listen, no one knows Thai food like me.'" Now, at her own restaurant Thaimee Table, she serves some of the freshest, most inspired Thai cooking in the city
Another high-profile figure to make the leap from modeling (and swimming) to build a restaurant empire is Franco Noriega of Baby Brasa, a Peruvian restaurant with one location in Manhattan—and another one on the way. He also has a chain of bakeries in Peru.
"Just being a model was too little for me," he said in a 2016 interview. "I really wanted to build something that could be much bigger, bigger than me even, that could transcend myself."
At Seamore's, Nolita's super-hot sustainable seafood restaurant, Michael Chernow (co-owner of The Meatball Shop) helms the kitchen, where his foodie-model wife Donna Hemmingsen Chernow—an ICE-trained pastry chef who's interned at Le Bernardin—is a frequent patron. Chernow, who told Eater she might open her own bakery one day, helped develop the menu at The Meatball Shop, and her culinary influence is felt at Seamore's, too.
In fact, her husband chats with her about several aspects of the restaurant, and the best-selling salad on the menu is her recipe that she's been making at home for the two of them for years: Kale and avocado with walnuts, roasted sweet potato, quinoa, sliced granny smiths, and honey-apple vinaigrette.
In honor of New York Fashion Week, which kicked off Thursday, here's a list of restaurants where you'll find former (and current) models making delicious food.
Thaimee Table, East Village.
The Person: Hong Thaimee
The Past: Commercial modeling in her twenties.
The Place: Modern Northern Thai cuisine.
99 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10003
Baby Brasa, West Village.
The Person: Franco Noriega
The Past: Underwear model.
The Place: Peruvian rotisserie chicken and small plates.
173 7th Ave South, New York, NY 10014
Tartinery, Multiple Locations.
The Person: Alicia Rountree, Co-Owner.
The Past (/Present): Model who has has appeared in major fashion compaigns and editorial spreads in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and more.
The Place: Artisan bread and casual French bites.
225 Liberty St, New York, NY 10281
Guyer’s, Upper West Side.
The Person: Cindy Guyer, Owner.
The Past: Former actress and model most known as the cover star of the Nancy Drew book series.
The Place: Small plates and wine bar.286 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10023
The Name: Donna Hemmingsen Chernow, Institute of Culinary Education–trained pastry chef who designed the restaurant's best-selling salad: Kale and Avocado.
The Past/Present: Model.
The Place: Michael Chernow's super-hot sustainable seafood restaurant.
390 Broome St, New York, NY 10013
Pearl’s Bake & Shark, Williamsburg.
The Name: Fallon Seymour
The Past: Runway model.
The Place: Carribean food in a fun, casual setting.
178 N 8th St, Brooklyn, NY 11211