An interview with Night + Market’s chef-owner Kris Yenbamroong.
Kris Yenbamroong, the 33-year-old chef and owner of Los Angeles’ Night + Market, is currently one of the hottest chefs stateside for his bold Thai and Isaan food that’s not beholden to tradition. Though born and raised in Los Angeles, Kris spent part of his childhood in Thailand where he even attended an international boarding school. After working hard to revamp his family’s longtime Thai restaurant, Talesai, he launched Night + Market seven years ago—all without any official culinary training. Kris was recently spotted on social media in Thailand traveling around with the likes of chefs Jarrett Wrisley and David Thompson and cookbook author Austin Bush, so we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Here, he discusses the influence of his grandmother, his go-to Bangkok restaurants and whether he’ll ever make his way back to Bangkok.
What brought you to Thailand this time?
My wife and I try to visit Thailand once per year. This was an overdue trip — I had not been since I visited with the photographer of my cookbook nearly two years ago. Andy Ricker, a dear friend and the chef/owner of Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, got married in Chiang Mai. We used his nuptials as an excuse to visit our family in Bangkok and Chiang Rai as well!
Your parents have had the restaurant Talesai in Hollywood since 1982. When did you start to become involved in the restaurant?
I grew up in my parents’ restaurant, Talésai, where my grandmother was the chef. It was the first mainstream Thai restaurant to cater to a celebrity crowd in Los Angeles. I took it over when I was 25 and nearly put it out of business before my father came out of retirement and helped me correct the course. That was in 2007.
How did Night + Market evolve?
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. And, I suppose the menu followed the same trajectory. Night + Market started with a base menu of sai oua sausages (which I hand-stuffed), nam khao tod, and pork toro. One night, one of the five guests would say to me, “I went to Thailand for our honeymoon and had khao soi. Can you make that?” I’d tell them “of course!” but they had to bring in a group of friends with them the next time they visited Night + Market. We built the menu with our guests. Over time, we realized that people wanted to eat fried chicken sandwiches alongside Thai-style salads. It became a restaurant without definition.
You were born and raised in the U.S. but your family is from Thailand. How have both worlds inspired your cooking?
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. But, growing up in L.A. with working parents meant I was eating a lot of food that was convenient — pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen, tacos, etc. The menu at Night + Market is inspired by traditional Thai recipes, but not bound by it. Don’t be surprised if a raw scallop tostada is on the table along with hor ab and gaeng pa.
Where did you learn your Thai cooking skills?
When I talk about my grandma, I refer to her as my “true north” in the kitchen. As a chef, my grandmother was efficient, she was resourceful, and she was incredibly gifted at making Thai food that was beautifully composed and awe-inspiring. I can’t say that all of these traits translated directly to how I cook — I definitely lean towards flavors that are a little more crass — but as far as laying the groundwork for how to conduct yourself in the kitchen without acting like a fool, my grandmother is the reason I’ve been able to build up a solid foundation of skills.
How do Thais perceive your dishes at Night + Market?
Just like non-Thais, some get it, some don’t. I feel that anyone who comes to the restaurant with an open mind and isn’t tied to the idea gauging how closely the dishes resemble the ones in the motherland will love it. One time a Thai woman came in and asked me whether the restaurant was “authentic style” or “fusion style” to which I smiled and replied, “no.”
We read that you had to remove certain dishes off your menu, like the blood soup. Why was that?
Every dish on our menu comes from a real personal place. Night + Market is about me sharing my experiences as a Thai-American and, at its core, is about putting a face to the culture. It was never a gross-out item, or an exoticism thing. It was something I had a personal connection with and a real love for. I had to come up with a way to create the same sensation you get when you’re eating raw blood, only with cooked blood. It’s not something that existed in Thailand. At the time, another restaurant in Los Angeles copied our entire menu — including the luu suk, which was a workaround. It was something I made up. I retired the the dish in order to make more space on our menu for me to create.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you face when cooking Thai food in the U.S.?
Whenever I see a table that is overly serious or contemplative, I sense that they’re quietly studying the food for “Thai-ness” rather than enjoying it. To me, the best part of eating at a restaurant is that sense of surprise, that sense of unexpected and subverted expectations. I wish guests would arrive without any preconceived ideas of Night + Market: is it a Thai restaurant with authentic recipes? Or is a Thai-fusion menu? Just enjoy the night out — don’t overthink it!
When you’re in Bangkok, what are your go-to places for food?
Favorite city in Thailand?
Bangkok — I spent four years living in Bangkok when I was a teenager, so it has a special place in my heart. Each time I visit, I feel like I’m in a completely new city. It’s not stale. Back in the day, it was impossible to get a good glass of wine in Bangkok, now there are loads of options! And, it’s been exciting to watch a younger generation of Thai cooks opening restaurants. They’re on social media and travel the globe, and they now have much more reference points than the previous generation.
MSG—yes or no?
Yes. It’s a shame that MSG has such a bad rap. I’ll add it to pasta or season protein with it.
Which chefs do you most admire?
My grandmother, chef Wolfgang Puck, chef David Thompson.
Any plans on doing a pop-up or collab dinner, or even opening something, in Thailand?
No plans, but I love working with Andy Ricker — we’ve collaborated on numerous dinners in the past, and he spends much of his time in Chiang Mai now. Who knows what 2019 will bring!