Hong Thaimee on the Power of Resilience
EARLY SPRING, 2021
It’s not an ugly space that Thaimee LOVE, Hong Thaimee’s new West Village pop-up, is camping out in on Hudson Street. With its dramatically lit exposed-brick walls and plank shelving, it could be any sleek, aspirational restaurant designed within the last few years. Thaimee has imposed herself on the space—copious flowers, a long banquet table loaded with Thai spices, chilis, grains, and herbs—but this is a temporary perch. It became available when the previous restaurant here shuttered and vanished with all of its personal effects. Thaimee is thrilled that her landlord extended her lease through November.
Like most restaurateurs still operating in the spring of 2021, Hong Thaimee is living a peripatetic life. In the space of one year, New York City restaurants—and, especially, their business plans—have become quickly changing survival feints designed to accommodate quarantine closures, takeout pivots, rent pressures, changing occupation restrictions, on/off takeout liquor laws, postponed bailouts, cold weather, outdoor dining—you name it. As Fabián von Hauske Valtierra of Wildair and Contra put it in an Instagram post, “It feels like we’ve opened 7 restaurants in the last year.”
In addition to reduced indoor seating and a bustling takeout business, Thaimee LOVE–branded packaged goods are offered on shelves along those brick walls—Laab Seasoning, Thai Tea Powder, and Pad Kee Mao Sauce. Beneath, on a wall-mounted dining bar, an army of bags muster for this evening’s meal subscription service. Along with M. Wells, Contra, Atoboy, and others, Thaimee LOVE is participating in NYC’s Summerlong Supper Club, a program developed by Summerlong Wine Company in conjunction with ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants). Thus far, the subscription service has raised $1.2 million for participating restaurants by delivering inexpensive prix fixe tasting dinners. She’s also offering meal kits and virtual cooking classes, and, of course, there’s also catering for small parties, for which Thaimee and her small crew all get COVID tested. Through no lack of sweat, Thaimee is making it work.
In 2004, Thaimee was working in Bangkok as the corporate social responsibility manager for Merck Pharmaceuticals Thailand. While volunteering during the 2004 tsunami relief efforts, she saw an oceangoing ship that had been swept 10 miles inland. The surreal sight triggered an epiphany: “I thought, ‘Oh, shit … I could die tomorrow. And if I die tomorrow, I’d rather have something amazing going on today.’”
Truthfully—despite the plush job that her business degree had earned her—Thaimee was already miserable. Like many would-be chefs, Thaimee suffered in office environments: She didn’t connect with her coworkers, and her intense energy set her apart. Also, corporate culture conflicted with the values that she grew up with in Chiang Mai. There, her family prepared food for Buddhist monks daily, and, on birthdays, her parents took Thaimee to orphanages to donate her outgrown possessions. In the Thaimee family, charity was not an extraordinary, altruistic act; it was the everyday practice of living in a mutualistic society. This is what called Thaimee to the tsunami relief effort in the first place.
Thaimee weighed her options: She speaks flawless English, German, and Thai. Having worked as a model, she assessed that she was personable and fairly good-looking. (She laughs, “I mean, people seemed to respond well!”) She wanted to focus her unwieldy energies on something spiritually rewarding and she wanted to express herself and her culture. She enjoyed feeding, caring for, and serving other people. In Bangkok, she saw the global platforms of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson and thought, “Maybe I could to do that.”
These days, the veteran laughs at her 2007 self, but it is a testament to Thaimee’s determination that she moved to NYC alone and couch-surfed with a member of the family that had hosted her as an exchange student. Immediately, she spotted an unlikely way through the kitchen door: She applied for a hostess job at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market. She wore an elegant Norma Kamali wrap dress to the interview. Despite the get-up, she persuaded the interviewer to help her snag a kitchen job—not with Vongerichten yet, but still.
According to Thaimee, the interviewer said she was “crazy enough to be serious.”
Obviously, that first kitchen job was brutal. Despite having armed herself with a knife roll and comfortable shoes, Thaimee had never worked in a restaurant, never mind a kitchen, and relied on Google to understand basic kitchen terms like “ticket” and “mise.” She returned every day for inevitable abuse, figuring that “if they were yelling at me, they wanted me—because if they didn’t, I’d have been gone.” Eventually her hard-won chops got her spots at Vongerichten’s Spice Market and Perry St. In 2012, at the age of 35, Thaimee left to open Ngam in the East Village.
Thaimee had connected with a wealthy hedge fund manager who believed in her so strongly that he not only encouraged her to open her own place, but he also pledged a chunk of her start-up costs. He encouraged others in his network to invest in Ngam. Having found a raw space, Thaimee was in finger’s reach of her goal.
As restaurant-owning readers have already guessed, that angelic investor disappeared—sadly, only after Thaimee signed the lease on 99 3rd Ave. Returning to Thailand wasn’t an option (“There was no way that I could call my mom and say, ‘Sooooo … guess what?’”). Thaimee cut a deal with a contractor who did the $50,000 buildout for a share in her restaurant. She figured out how to secure a $250,000 SBA loan for minority- and woman-owned businesses. Ngam was a quick success despite a rawness that the NY Times described as a “jigsaw of exposed brick and broken plaster … air ducts snake above, around looping wires and naked bulbs.” There was an electric sign on the wall that read “LOVE,” a motif that’s still with Thaimee today.
It took all of Thaimee to make Ngam work. “To the point where,” she says, “the restaurant became so successful, I was the first Thai female chef to be on ‘Iron Chef America,’ I was finishing my cookbook … I just pushed, pushed, and pushed. It was baaaaad. I got to the place where I could no longer have fun, like ‘fun’ was a foreign concept, and I’d always been a bubbly, positive person. Plus, I didn’t know who I could trust.” She shed a bad marriage and hired someone to run Ngam while she healed—that person “ran it into the ground” (though she admits, rising rent pressures in the East Village helped).
TODAY, ON THE OTHER SIDE
Ngam may have ended, but other things began. Thaimee pursued her packaged-food line and television work—she judged a popular Thai cooking show and appeared in ads for Air Asia. Meanwhile, she continued her work with City Harvest and the AIDS charity (RED). Thaimee was happily out of the restaurant world until Ngam’s former customers begged her to return—which she has done, but on her own terms.
Spiritually refreshed, and with some perspective on her last few years, Thaimee is in control. Her lease is short, survivable, and her revenue sources are diverse. She’s free to drive up to the Hudson Valley to visit with farmers, an adventure that landed her a partnership with Heermance Farm in Tivoli; they’re growing some of her vegetables and Thai herbs. She’s thinking of moving upstate, but maybe not. Now, Thaimee has options. ♥