Cooking as a child in the street markets of Bangkok, learning craft in a Japanese restaurant in White Plains, and opening his own place in New York City.
By Tom Naumsuwan as told to Juliet Izon
Tom Naumsuwan is the owner and chef of Wayla, a homestyle Thai restaurant, and Little Wayla, its sister grab-and-go concept. Both are located on New York’s Lower East Side and quickly became stalwarts of the neighborhood soon after their 2019 openings. Naumsuwan grew up Bangkok, but now splits his time between Thailand and New York.
I’m the third of four boys. My parents both used to be teachers, but when my mom found out she was pregnant with me, she realized the money they were making was not going to be enough to support the whole family. So, she started to cook and sell food out of our home as a side job, just to find supplemental income. First, she was making sweet pastries, but soon she was also folding bags made from newspapers to give to other vendors to carry their goods.
Then she started making curries: red curry, yellow curry with chicken, green curry. She would sell those alongside her steamed buns. Those were stuffed with taro or yam, and the ingredients took a long time to cook, like five hours. Sometimes it would bubble up out of the pot and I’d get burned on my leg. Since my older brothers were busy taking orders from different houses, I would be the one by her side to help her prep and cook. I was five years old.
Eventually, she moved into the Tao Poon Market, in the middle of Bangkok. I would go every day before school, and then after school as well. It was for about three or four hours after school every day, not that much. At first, I was just observing, and then little by little, I was learning more and more. The cooks at the market liked to keep their recipes and procedures a secret, but since I was a child, no one kept anything from me. In Thailand, everyone is very friendly, and since we saw everyone every day, they kind of became our family. They would say, “Hey, go do this. Can you help with that?” I was free labor! And I got to learn lots of different types of recipes and techniques from doing that, some of which are on the menu at Wayla.
My favorite memory from the market, though, is that my mom would give me a little money as a reward for helping. I’d get to go buy chips, candy, things like that. The best treats from childhood were curry puffs and khanom khrok, a coconut-rice pancake. I worked at the market until about 11 or 12 years old, and then I focused on school.
In 2007, I was working at a comic book store in Bangkok during the week, and I sold wholesale, kind of 99-cent items shipped from China at a market on the weekends. My older brother was working at a Japanese restaurant in White Plains, and he called me and said I should come to New York. I wanted to go because Japanese food is all about cutting, prepping, and technique. My brother kind of just threw me in and I did anything … prep, dishwashing.
It wasn’t easy to move to America—the language (I still have problems!), not having the skills. I didn’t think people were friendly at first. There’s not much eye contact. And my first winter—my hands were so cold and chapped. We used cold water at the restaurant to clean the meat and the rice. But one coworker told me, “Just put Vaseline on.” Now, I know, I do it still.
American grocery stores were so intriguing to me when I first got here. There’s a lot of organic food, and the vegetables have no holes! In Thailand, when you buy vegetables, you find a lot of holes on the leaves made by bugs. But my first favorite American food was Subway. I love the Italian herb bread with turkey breast and mayo. You get to build your own sandwich and put whatever you want in it and make it perfect. In Thailand, the sandwiches are already prepped. You can’t mix and match the same way.
I started thinking about the idea for Wayla—which means “time” in Thai—about two years ago. A mutual friend knew the owner of the building where Wayla is now, and he was interested in putting a new concept into the space. Meanwhile, I was seeing that food trends and people’s eating habits had changed. They’re more open-minded about new ideas and concepts. Thai food now doesn’t have to be just whatever everyone was previously eating. I knew I didn’t have to cater to the American palate. More than 50 percent of the menu is inspired by or based on food from the street vendors of my childhood. But I only need to ship about 10 percent of my items from Thailand, things like coriander seed and specific wooden skewers.
There are two different Wayla concepts: upstairs is Little Wayla, which translates to “little time.” So that reflects the style of the food. Everything is quick. And downstairs is Wayla, which means that you have time. When you step down there, it’s taking you out of whatever you’re doing to spend time there, relax, and enjoy the food and the experience. Meals in Thailand are absolutely more relaxed. The lifestyle is more chill in general.
My favorite dish on the Wayla menu is the lobster noodles. I love to make the sauce—I put in lobster roe to make it richer. I want people to be able to differentiate that dish from pad thai. The roots of this recipe are in a traditional dish which is usually made with stir-fried crab, but at the restaurant, I changed it to lobster. And the vegetable curry was inspired by my mom. The soup is rich, but when you eat it, it makes you feel like you’re at home.
My mom came to the restaurant … she liked it, but there was culture shock for her. She’s 80 years old, and the first time she left Thailand was to come to New York. But she approved of the food, especially the fried branzino with larb sauce.
I go back to Thailand about two or three times a year, and I’ll stay about a month. The last trip, I went with my friend to the south of the country where he’s from. I learned all about chili pastes from his grandfather. He walked me through it. They took me to the market and taught me the recipes. Those will end up on the menu by this summer.
What I miss most about Bangkok is the food scene. Here, there are set hours that places are open. There, any given time of the day or night, you’ll always find something to eat. It’s very lively. You walk a few blocks and there will be lines of street food carts. And in a market, you can find everything. You want appetizers? Entrées? Dessert?
I did go back to the market from my childhood, but there was no one left from when I was young. Next for me might be a new restaurant—a new concept, but still Thai. I’m thinking about making pastries.
With the coronavirus, it’s definitely a challenging time for us and everyone. On one hand, we have staff that rely on their weekly income to afford the cost of living, and because we already operate on such a thin profit margin, it is impossible to compensate them for an unforeseeable amount of time, when there is no revenue coming in. On the other hand, staff’s safety is also a top concern, and even if we were to keep our doors open, that might not be the best and safe decision for them. In the end, we decided that it is best if they stay home and to reach out to management on a case by case on what we can do to help them get through this. As far as for restaurant industry and ways to help, if guests are not going out, they can support by buying our gift cards (or their favorite restaurant’s gift card) so we know you don’t forget us, ordering to-go, or just leave kind words on social media. Especially in this difficult time, every nice gesture goes a long way and is very appreciated. One thing that I found comforting is to think, “This too shall pass!” It might be hard to imagine a normal world right now, but it will come soon enough, and we will be stronger than ever.