Like so many millions of other people, the horrific tsunami in Thailand changed restaurant owner Hong Thaimee’s life forever.
“I realized that I just wanted to dedicate myself to do good for other people,” she says. At the time of the 2005 tsunami, Thaimee was in her late 20s and was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life and did not feel fulfilled.
After the tsunami, Thaimee re-evaluated her life and the skills that made her—and others—happy.
“I always enjoyed sharing my cooking and watching cooking shows. I thought, ‘What if I just shared the best of my Thai cuisine with the world, and made it a business?’ I could generate money that could eventually go back to the community,” Thaimee says.
Thaimee soon moved to New York City to pursue her restaurateur dreams, even though she had no training as a chef at the time.
To learn the restaurant business, she applied for a job as a hostess at renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market restaurant in New York City.
After hearing of Thaimee’s aspirations to be a chef and her experience with Thai cooking, the manager interviewing her realized that she should not waste time as a hostess, but instead work in Spice’s kitchen as a line cook. Thaimee worked as a line cook and chef at Spice Market and Vongerichten’s Perry St. restaurants for two years.
Last September, she made the leap to executive chef and owner, opening Ngam in the competitive East Village in New York City.
With an investment of $250,000, her husband’s savings, and a Small Business Administration loan, the 70-seat restaurant opened, featuring an open kitchen with a 12-seat chef’s counter.
Thaimee designed the eatery herself, opting for an urban but comfortable feel. The restaurant features exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and a long communal table in the center of the building.
“People think of Thai food restaurants as cheap décor with modern Asian furniture. I wanted it to be different, and not a cookie-cutter restaurant. I wanted it to be a place where people feel comfortable and welcome, and not pretentious,” Thaimee says.
The business serves “modern Thai comfort food” based on recipes developed by Thaimee and her grandmother, as well as Thaimee’s unique take on traditional Thai dishes.
For example, Ngam’s pad Thai is made with shredded green papaya in place of rice noodles and the Kao Soy Beet Ravioli features a hand-made curry broth, chili oil, pickled mustard and a choice of grilled lobster or tofu.
Other innovative dishes such as Oyster Shooters with Thai Mignonette and Chiang Mai Sausage Burger with Cilantro Lime Mayo recently garnered Ngam a positive review in The New York Times.
“People told me that I would have to do cheap Thai food to make it in the city, but I want to do it right every time. For example, people said it was too expensive to do my own curry paste. I use fresh curry paste every day and Thai herbs cost me $40 a day,” Thaimee says. But she explains that her main goal is not to make money, but to make people happy with the food she serves and provide a decent living for herself and her 12 employees.
“I want to do it right every time. I want to make sure that the food excites people, pleases the eyes, and looks presentable. We should surprise people with the flavor and it should not be pretentious. It is not fine dining,” Thaimee says.
While her philosophies are noble, opening and running a restaurant has not been without its difficulties. “Our main challenge is that it is New York City; the competition is very high. We asked ourselves, ‘Are we fresh enough for the market and the neighborhood?’ and ‘Are we ready for the demand?’ ‘Are we ready to turn around when we make a mistake?’” she says.
Thaimee and her staff have had challenges along the way, and have made efforts to apologize for and correct them. For example, when it rains in the evening in New York City, Ngam can have 100 orders for takeout and delivery at a time. “Sometimes we don’t have enough guys to deliver in a timely manner. If we can’t deliver their food, customers say, ‘That’s okay, we love your food and we will come back,’” Thaimee explains.
Despite the growing pains that come with opening a restaurant, Ngam is projected to make $1 million in sales in the first year.
In order to share Ngam’s success with others, Thaimee wants to expand the restaurant’s charity work to include donating boxes of pad Thai to people in need at least once a month. Already, the restaurant has donated a percentage of its sales to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other organizations.
Thaimee is changing the world, one pad Thai at a time.