By Anne Cruz
Hong Thaimee is chef and owner of Thaimee Love in New York’s West Village. Thaimee is best known for her beloved East Village restaurant Thaimee Table (a.k.a. Ngam), which closed in 2019. Hong first came to New York City in 2006 from Thailand after working as a model and pharmaceutical executive, and learned to cook professionally in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market and Perry Street. Thaimee Love first opened as a pop-up in 2020, before settling into a permanent Greenwich Village space in October 2021.
When the 2004 tsunami hit Thailand, I learned that life was so fragile and made a decision to make every day worthwhile. I started out with nothing, quit my corporate job in Thailand, and moved to New York. My rich and famous friends who wanted to support me in the beginning, some of them pulled out at the last minute. With Thaimee Table, I wanted to love and serve people. I did that every day, gave my all, and I lost myself in the process. When someone would ask me, “Hong, what do you do for fun?” I would say, “What does that mean, fun?” It was so wrong of me to do that to myself.
Now I’ve learned how to not overwork. I don’t have to feel guilty, telling my team that Mondays are my day off. I spend time for myself and do something that brings me joy, like watching Thai TV for half the day on my iPad, or reading cookbooks.
I lost my appetite for life for a couple of years after Thaimee Table closed in 2019. I’m still dealing with pain, but when I think of the amazing things that happened, it’s almost like a supernatural healing balm. When my friend Floyd Cardoz passed away in March 2020, that morning I was crying, and I said, “You know what? At least I get to live. And if I get to live, I still can fight.”
The number-one reason why I re-entered the restaurant space was because of my old clients. One day I was biking around town on a Citibike with my helmet and mask, and I was at a traffic light, and someone said, “Chef, we miss you so much! Please open again!”
I said, “How could someone recognize me wearing a mask and a helmet?” He said, “Oh, come on, Hong. We remember you.”
I started getting emails randomly from old clients, saying, “We miss you. Could you please consider opening a restaurant again?” And my partner, Conor, has told me, “Hong, I have never seen a chef get so much love from their clientele.” So returning to the restaurant industry, it’s purely for those who have been supporting me for years.
The thought process behind opening Thaimee Love was that I could get up and go again because I found love. I love cooking so much. If I don’t cook, I feel almost like a tree without water. Now I can do more because I can handle situations better—things that used to linger in my heart for three months, now it’s three hours. I can relate to people more with the struggles that I’ve gone through. When I’m feeling joy, I can be a better boss and a better cook. I have found the natural healing of love, and I want to bring that to the restaurant concept.
For example, the first week that we opened Thaimee Love, a random couple in their 70s walked in. They ate, and at the end they called me over. The husband said, “I have throat cancer and have not tasted anything for so long. Your food ignited my taste buds.”
I feel much more secure after 15 years in this industry. I want to bring more complex flavors, like stink beans. I want to choose food that excites people more and brings them together. What I have learned is that we have to maximize our operations as much as possible. In Thai food, there’s so many varieties of concepts that we can make.
For example, at Pad Thai Mee, we focus on rice and noodles—pad Thai, pad kee mao, pad see ew, and then fried rice. Hopefully when we have the bandwidth to do more, we can expand. We use the same kitchen, ingredients, and same team to produce food as at Thaimee Love. With Thiamee Love, it’s a baan baan experience, which means homestyle—it’s like you walked into my home kitchen. Because Thaimee Love is only 30 seats, it is very manageable for us. The good news about Thai cooking is that most of the time you have the same inventory list. The ingredients of pad Thai are tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce. We can use those same ingredients in a papaya salad sauce.
The food has been the best PR for me while launching these new concepts. We were on a community board meeting on Zoom. At the end, one of the community board members said, “Oh Chef, we feel so sad that the one in West Village was just a pop-up, because we love the food.” I had to stay quiet and not offer to send her food and risk coming across like I’m bribing her.
I am learning every day not to be too mean to myself. I deserve kindness, too. I learned not to get too upset when things don’t go our way. Like Omicron, who would have thought that we were going to get hit this hard? As a business owner and chef, I had to make some executive decisions so that the whole company could survive the pandemic. Unfortunately, we had to let go of a couple of our staff because the sales were extremely low since before the holidays. Normally it’s the busiest time of the year when we can do private events and a lot of celebrations, but we had to switch plans when all the events were canceled. It was quite a disheartening time. It is disheartening to let someone go, because that’s not the way I like to do business, but in order to survive we have to make tough decisions sometimes.
It’s all about flexibility. I make myself moldable and teachable. In order to be flexible, we have to make sure that we have other sources of income. Dine-in is one of my incomes, but I understand that some people might feel more comfortable staying at home. For example, I created an island getaway feast for two for Valentine’s Day. Or you can have afternoon tea delivered to your home. I also created a virtual cooking class, where I deliver ingredient kits. I don’t have to limit myself to my clientele in New York City. I’m able to put my eggs in so many baskets right now. It might sound like I’m not focused, but in this time and age, we have to be more flexible than at any other time since I’ve been in the industry. No matter how long you are in the industry—as a chef, as a business owner, as anything—you still have to learn how to solve problems and move on.