Feast Portland, the sequel, lands September 19 through 22, 2013. It's an opportunity to celebrate the food town that defied the gods of gastronomy, sit in on conversations with leading foodists, and inhale everything that makes Portland's food scene awesome. (Check out the remaining tickets here).
To count down to the event, we've interviewed some of the visiting cooks shaking up the status quo. Last week we chatted with Israeli-born iconoclast Michael Solomonov, who changed the Mid-East conversation at Philly's Zahav, a must visit for anyone interested in food.
This week, 31-year-old Kris Yenbamroong offers a rare peek inside the making of his cult Thai restaurant, Night + Market:
Karen Brooks: Four years ago, you took over your family's West Hollywood restaurant, Talesai, adding rustic regional dishes and wine to the mix. It didn't go too well. Night + Market evolved from a makeshift dinner party next door to one of LA's defining Thai restaurants. How did it all happen?
Kris Yenbamroong: I had basically run my family’s restaurant into the ground by trying to do a bastardized version of the concept of NIGHT+MARKET. [Talesai] had been around for 30 years, and the customers expected a very specific thing—sort of middle of the road Thai food. It was a lesson I learned the hard way—when you try to compromise two things and meet in the middle, they generally both suffer. Anyhow, I was having a protracted nervous breakdown in 2010 when the space next to my family’s restaurant became available. Perhaps as an outlet to my frustrations, I started hosting makeshift dinners (6 to 30 guests) in this gutted office space. I cooked the food we now serve at NIGHT+MARKET.
Still, it never occurred to me to actually make it a restaurant since I had always envisioned it somewhere that felt like more of a ‘neighborhood’ rather than a tourist destination. It’s funny how blinding that sort of expectation can be.
Anyhow, I eventually got over my prejudice and realized that I could do this NIGHT+MARKET thing four days a week. I was stuffing all of the sausages by hand with a Chinese soup spoon. Some nights we’d have 2 customers. Some nights, none. But eventually, word spread.
Now we’re building this second spot [in Silver Lake]. I've had a lot of people ask me how it will be different and I always tell them the same thing—that menu-wise, NM2 will be largely the same as NM1, with a handful of new dishes. People can expect two beers on tap—one American and one Thai. Lack of choice is a concept I wholeheartedly believe in. When you're eating very simple and satisfying 'ethnic' food in a city that's hot year-round, is there anything you really need other than a cold beer of some sort or a low-alcohol wine with bubbles? Not really.
Night + Market’s menu doesn’t shy away from hard-core Thai spice and funk. But you’ve also said you’re "not an authenticity goon … I don't have that chip on my shoulder—I know I'm Thai, so I don't have anything to prove." Does authenticity matter anymore?
Authenticity matters in that it’s usually the way you’ll get the best result with a dish. Something like Hor Ab—a Northern dish of catfish, pork fat, chile, and aromatics wrapped in a banana leaf pouch and grilled—has been made over so many generations, the recipe and method for preparing it have been honed to the point where it’s infallible. It’s like an empirical formula. You’re not going to get it any better than that. My goal is to make delicious food and that doing so authentically is usually just the best way to go about it.
What informs your restaurant aesthetic – the look, the feel, the music? Where do you find inspiration?
I've never worked with a designer and because of that, our decor has been an evolution. When we opened, there was no decor. It was four white walls and a few tables and no sign out front. I used to project movies on the wall because it was the easiest way to create ambiance. It's the same idea as eating dinner in front of the TV. I added things bit by bit—plants, an actual sign, some photos on the walls. Sometimes, I'll be at a hardware store and see something I like and that gets added to the mix. To use the cliché, it's an 'organic process.' People have called it a teenager's bedroom, a GI Bar in Bangkok, a cafeteria, and many other things. And they're probably all correct. It's nothing more than the ideas in my head and what I think is cool or appropriate for a restaurant.
How have restaurants like Mission Chinese and Pok Pok set the table for restaurants like Night + Market? Or have they?
I love both restaurants. This past April, I collaborated on a dinner with Andy Ricker at my restaurant. We had never met each other before, but had emailed for several months trying to work out the logistics. It was sort of like online dating. When we finally met, the night before the dinner, we immediately had a shorthand and were able to understand each other’s references. That sort of thing can be a total crap shoot but in this case, it turned out great. I only met Danny Bowien recently—we had dinner while he was in town. Though I feel I know Andy a little better, what I will say is that I’m completely in awe of the passion and sincerity that both of them bring to their restaurants. They’re generous, they’re into learning and they seem to go about things in a way that’s specific and unwavering but sort of relaxed at the same time. Maybe a better way to explain it is that both of their restaurants have a sensibility that you could not mistake for any other place—you know it’s Mission Chinese, you know it’s Pok Pok—but it’s not oppressive. That’s not an easy thing to achieve.
What’s your Thai cooking bible? Any one cookbook that says it all?
Learning Thai recipes is, for the most part, an oral tradition. Almost everything that I’ve learned was either passed down from family or acquired through conversation with cooks in Thailand. That said, there are these amazing pamphlets that you can buy in shopping malls in the various provinces. Usually there will be a lobby or food court area that has a stall selling the signature wares of that province. These are pamphlets with titles like, “The various traditions of pork rinds of Lanna (the North).” That pamphlet will just be 50 different interpretations of pork rinds. That sort of thing is really inspiring to me.
Kris Yenbamroong will join the global street food vendors at the USA Pears Night Market, Sept 20. The event is sold out. Portland Monthly is a sponsor of Feast Portland.