Night + Market Chef's New Cookbook Combines Thai Food And Fun

Oct 19, 2017
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, a parent's pride in handing a kid the keys to success is one thing. A parent's emotion and handing a kid the family business and watching that kid drive it into the ground is another. The kid in this story is Kris Yenbamroong. The spoiler - he is now a successful chef who owns two Thai restaurants on Sunset Boulevard in LA. The food is revered. And he's now out with a brand new cookbook that includes the recipe for crispy rice salad. He was making it for us in the kitchen of Night + Market Song. That's his second place. And he was telling us about his cooking style.

KRIS YENBAMROONG: I mean, I have a tattoo on my arm that says, keep it simple, stupid. And that's a really - that's one of my many mantras.

GREENE: You know, like his other dishes, the salad is basic Thai with a bit of his own flourish.

YENBAMROONG: I don't know though, everything about it, it's like kind of - it's fiery. It's kind of bold. It's a loud dish, you know.

GREENE: You're putting - that's it? It's that simple?

YENBAMROONG: That's the salad. We want to make it delicious. We want to make it addictive. It's all food that is boldly seasoned. It's food that, probably most importantly, is food that you share with your friends.

GREENE: Now, Kris said, honestly, you can make these recipes at home and your dinner guests might think you've been cooking Thai for years.

YENBAMROONG: That's really the spirit of the book. It's something that you should throw in your bag and, you know, really cook from. And it's not like a dumbed-down version of what we do at the restaurant. I tell people all the time, like, we're - if we're doing like 350 covers or, you know, something like that in a 42-seat restaurant, that's a lot of turns. We're not looking for ways to make it more complicated at the restaurant. We're looking for ways to make it more streamlined and so that we can feed more people. And that's just, you know, that translated to the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "KNOTS")

GREENE: Roll back to his childhood, and Kris was all but living in his dad's Thai restaurant, a place that made its mark in LA by introducing Thai as a formal cuisine for business types, not just something you'd grab from a takeout place down the street. So he builds this restaurant. You're doing what as a kid? Are you like napping there when you're a baby? Or how often do you...

YENBAMROONG: I'm napping. I'm eating a lot. I'm hanging out in the kitchen. I'm pretending to be a server. I have like photos of me with a bow tie on. And not - the servers didn't wear bow ties, but somehow...

GREENE: But 4-year-old Kris did.

YENBAMROONG: Yeah. You know, I remember there were nights where I would, you know, be sleeping in the office or something and I'd sleep walk into the dining room.

GREENE: Diners probably thought that was fine, just this kid...

YENBAMROONG: I don't know what people thought of it but it happened, you know.

GREENE: So he knew his way around restaurants. He knows the ecology of the dining room. And he went to film school in New York. But then he came back to LA. And his dad said, Kris, your time has come. Take over my restaurant.

YENBAMROONG: Took over the restaurant. I was super confident, you know, that mid-20's confidence, you know. I felt, all right, I have some ideas for what we can do. And they're pretty reasonable ideas but also like kind of really idealistic, you know, and, you know, like a 25-year-old's ideas.

GREENE: This is a critical moment for you because you're 25. You basically take over the restaurant and it tanks.

YENBAMROONG: It tanks. Yeah, it completely tanked.

GREENE: He was trying to make improvements and help the restaurant evolve. But he started messing with the menu, which, you know, didn't go over so well with the regulars.

YENBAMROONG: And I started cutting dishes that were like really popular dishes. The customers who had been coming for 25 years were pissed off. A lot of them threatened me, you know, face to face. And then we had to go back to where we started because we needed to just stay afloat.

GREENE: Though that would happen without Kris being involved. He took a brief sabbatical in France. And his dad was like, yeah, yeah, if you have to get away for a little while, it's totally fine with us. When he came back, he still felt like a failure, but he got interested in this vacant space next to his dad's place.

YENBAMROONG: We didn't have anything. It was just like a blank room, like a gallery, you know. And we took furniture like tables and chairs from the other side, like the family restaurant set them up, set them up. And I had a little dinner parties for my friends where I'd cook the sort of food we do now just to have fun. It was something to do to keep me from like jumping off a cliff honestly because I was really down in the dumps.

GREENE: Now, his pet project became a restaurant. And you know that word-of-mouth thing that happens when a restaurant is catching on? It wasn't happening.

YENBAMROONG: You know, I was thinking - it was like eight months into it. And I was, you know, I was already thinking maybe this is big fail number two. You know, like I'm going to close this thing, just run off, move to like wherever, you know.

GREENE: Now, in Los Angeles, if you are a chef or a restaurant owner, there's this one name that keeps coming up - Jonathan Gold, LA Times restaurant critic. One day, Kris noticed that Gold would be speaking at an LA restaurant week event. He knew what he had to do.

YENBAMROONG: So I went up. I pushed myself to the front of the crowd, gave him my business card, said, hey, Mr. Gold. My name is Kris. I have a restaurant called Night Market. It's on the Sunset Strip. We serve Thai food, really love it if you came in. And he sort of looked at it. And he like made that face that he makes, you know, oh, yeah, I've heard of it, you know. And he like stuffed the card in his pocket. I thought, man, that's the last I'm going to see of this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "KNOTS")

GREENE: So Kris made sure to be in his restaurant for dinner service each night - well, except the night that Jonathan Gold came.

YENBAMROONG: I was there every night except for this one night where I was taking a remedial math class because I was thinking about going back to school. And...

GREENE: Don't tell me this is the one night he comes.

YENBAMROONG: This is the one night he comes in. I turned on my phone after this - after taking a midterm that I failed. And I had all these texts from servers at the restaurant because I had a photo of him. I found some photo of him and plastered it at the computer. And I was like, if this guy comes in, you know...

GREENE: It's important.

YENBAMROONG: ...It's important. So everyone's texting me, that guy whose photo - they don't even know who it is - that guy whose photo is on the thing is here. Freaking out, I go in the hallway. I call. This is crazy. I'm going to rush back. And they're like, no, no. He's on his way out. Like, you're not going to be here in time anyways, just - but he had a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "KNOTS")

YENBAMROONG: Then I got a call saying they were going to review us, you know, send a photographer or whatever. And then the review came out like two weeks later. And it's not like it was night and day, like it just blew us up or whatever, it just kept us from closing. It just gave me some sort of reassurance that I was doing something right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "KNOTS")

GREENE: Evidently, he is. It has been six years since that review, and Kris Yenbamroong has since opened a second location. And now, you can also call him cookbook author. The new cookbook is called "Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food To Facilitate Drinking And Fun-Having Amongst Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "KNOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.