Hong Thaimee was living a dream life in Thailand, hosting a TV show and modeling for brands like Pantene and Nescafe. But after some serious soul-searching, she realized her passions centered on food, so she came to America to start anew. In September, she opened her first restaurant, Ngam (which is her Thai name), serving Thai comfort food with a modern twist -- and she hasn't looked back.
Tell us about your decision to come to New York City.
I was a career woman in Bangkok, and then late in 2004, the tsunami hit. I was always curious about what life is -- like, why are people born and get hurt and die? I wanted to learn more in depth, so I searched and searched and my experience took me to the point where life is too short. I looked back at my life -- what do I do well, what do I love to do and what can I do for others? I came up with the idea of, OK, I love to cook, I love to entertain, and maybe if I could do a business that I can set up for other people -- the money that we generate we could donate. Or the culture of the company, if we could do it to make people feel good about their life, and serve them from within, that'd be cool. So basically I collected all my money and quit my job. I knew of someone in New York and contacted her.
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What's your favorite thing to cook on the menu?
Everything. Not that I'm trying to be political, but it's so dear to my heart, this menu. I would love to link people to my culture. Thai food is more than peanuts, more than spicy. It's a combination of sweet, sour, salty, crunchy -- everything at once. When I got a chance to do this restaurant I looked at local ingredients and matched [them] up with my childhood flavors that I love. It's like a flavor of my childhood put on the menu. The burger, it's from my hometown. There's a pork sausage that we marinate in herbs -- when I bite it, that's my childhood snack.
What's the hardest part about owning your own restaurant?
I feel like I'm standing naked and people can judge me from every direction. We understand that I'm not perfect, no one is, but we want to be better every day. I feel blessed that I'm here, and for people to come in and basically eat my vision.
How do you find new ways to cook Thai food while maintaining the traditional elements guests expect?
I do not do it in the way that is too foreign to them. I do it in the way that people would understand. For example, the Massaman potpie that I do, all I did was just change from the regular potato to the sweet potato that we all love here. I mean, who doesn't like potpie here? It's homey.