Ngam's Hong Thaimee: "Giving Up Is Not My Choice"
"I've learned that giving up is not my choice," says Ngam chef-owner Hong Thaimee as she reflects on the journey that brought her from Chiang Mai to owning New York City restaurant Ngam (99 Third Avenue, 212-777-8424).
The seed for her international lifestyle was planted when she was young: After a friend moved to the Big Apple, Thaimee realized there was a world outside of Thailand, and she obsessed over exploring it, learning English and doing a cultural exchange in Portland, Oregon along the way. After a career in modeling and corporate social responsibility with a pharmaceutical company in Bangkok, the tsunami hit the southeast part of her country, and she headed down to help. There, with newly found faith, Thaimee was forced to re-examine her goals, and she rekindled her desire to move beyond southeast Asia. She loved cooking and making people happy, she realized, so after traveling the world, she decided to come to America and try to start a Thai food company.
A mentor encouraged her to learn to become a chef, and she pondered whether to go to culinary school or enter the kitchen. Her fate was sealed after an interview for a hostess position at Jean Georges' Spice Market -- during which she frankly admitted she'd rather be in the kitchen -- and she was placed on the line, which she says was like "walking through fire." She proved herself to the chef's right-hand man Greg Brennan with a dish of revelatory pad Thai, and she was soon exploring the idea of opening her own spot. After a year at that restaurant and a subsequent year at Perry St, she departed, securing the lease for Ngam -- only to have her investor back out after the deal went through.
"I had two choices: quit or look for a way to make things work," she recalls. Bent on not giving up, she moved forward, scraping together the funds and editing her build-out to accommodate the new smaller budget. Two years later, Ngam turns out many renditions of her famous pad Thai as well as a number of other dishes Thaimee says come from her heart.
In this interview, she weighs in on the concept of authenticity, what she hopes to accomplish in her upcoming cookbook, and why worrying about the review cycle means you're doing it wrong.