Take, for example, the discoveries he made during first visit to Spain last year to cook at a wine festival, H20, in Catalonia. “I had paella for the first time, or even any sort of Spanish food, really, which sounds silly for a chef. I’m going around with that sense of wonderment that a kid has when they discover something. That’s kind of how I feel. I end up going around [saying], ‘Have you guys ever had Spanish food?’ They’re all looking at me like I’m crazy; like, of course you have. It’s been the centre of the culinary world for however many years.”
An apparent propensity for arriving in his own time isn’t a phenomenon solely reserved for food, his primary province as the James Beard-nominated chef and restaurateur behind the widely lauded Night + Market restaurants, three beloved venues that Yenbamroong has opened in his native Los Angeles over the past eight years. It happens with other things too, like music. Yenbamroong, who is only 33-years-old, recalls not having heard the music of David Bowie until he was around 20-years-old. “I was like, ‘Oh, have you heard of this guy, David Bowie?’ It happens to me a lot like that. I imagine with Australia it’s going to be the same thing. It’s about putting myself in situations and seeing stuff [for the first time].”
Yenbamroong is currently in Sydney to participate in The Blend, the first instalment in a series of collaborations that the Ms. G’s chef Dan Hong is spearheading. Together, Hong and a series of four contemporaries will join forces on an experimental menu served at the Potts Point restaurant for two-nights only, with one of the visiting chef’s signature dishes available for the remainder of the following month. For Yenbamroong, the exercise is not a didactic one; the chef is content to not only bring an array of signature dishes from his restaurants to the table, but also hopes to use them as an open-ended jumping off point for collaboration between the chefs depending on the rhythms and capabilities of Hong’s kitchen.
Of the Los Angelean’s contributions, a crispy rice salad is as close to a signature dish as Yenbamroong’s dynamic offering will allow for. It’s the dish that the chef recommends first-time visitors to his restaurants begin with, setting the tone as much as it does for his flavour profile as it does his restaurants’ vibe more generally. “It’s super bright, it’s spicy, it has texture – it has crunch from raw onion, [coriander] and raw ginger, which is spicy too,” he says. “It’s a good preview and way to set your palette and expectations.” Like many of his creations, the dish comes from an esoteric place. It’s an adaptation of an eastern Thai dish crafted from fermented pork sausage and leftover sticky rice that is then fried to resemble felafel before being broken down further to give the dish a variety of different textures ranging from viscous to crispy. “When we opened Night + Market in 2010, I said ‘We’ve gotta have this dish on the menu’,” the chef recalls. At the time, Yenbamroong was committed to executing his food in a “gung-ho, super traditional” fashion. This one dish, however, gave him permission to experiment and reimagine the rustic, traditional dishes of his antecedents as his own. “It feeds into why Night + Market is more of an LA restaurant [than a traditional Thai restaurant],” he reflects. “When we first started, we were mainly trying to reproduce Thai country dishes super accurately. Over time, I lost interest in that and wanted to cook the food that I wanted to cook using that stuff as a jumping off point.”
Part of that transition owes to the reception of Yenbamroong’s clientele to his food at the time. The Night + Market restaurants are bright, vivacious places saturated by colour and noise alike, the kind of place where food is a conduit to drinking magnums of natural wine and having fun with friends under neon wall art as opposed to a studious and cerebral exercise or a chance to flex one’s well-travelled encyclopaedic knowledge of regional Thai dishes. To prove the point, Yenbamroong’s recently released cookbook is titled, Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends; or, in Thai, ‘aharn glam lao’. Yenbamroong found that those initial guests were prone to hunching over tables, analysing his food in hushed tones and approaching his cooking much more preciously than the chef would’ve wanted them to. “I care more about if people are having fun with their dining companions,” he says. “It was cool, but the value started to become tied to how closely it resembled this other thing that was very far away.” The realisation prompted Yenbamroong to loosen up; to take more of his cues from the eating habits of his city but with the kinds of twists that he was, at first, reluctant to apply.
A fried chicken sandwich with a papaya salad is another dish indicative of that pivot. It arrived four years after the original iteration of Night + Market first opened and a second venue, Night + Market Song, arrived in the Silver Lake neighbourhood. Here, the chef says he found his footing in a place quite literally far removed from the original restaurant concept, which was born of a pop-up ethos at a time when the chef, formerly an NYU film studies graduate, was operating out of his parents’ Thai restaurant. When his parents established Talésai in 1982, on the glamorous Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, the restaurant was something of an anomaly. It was unsual, Yenbamroong says, to find genuine Thai cuisine in the centre Hollywood that catered to a celebrity clientele (Yenbamroong, too, is no strange to a celebrity clientele. Night + Market fans include the late food critic, Jonathan Gold; Rene Redzepi of Noma and David Chang of the Momofuku Group; as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, Lena Dunham, Daft Punk and Questlove).
“From the get-go, [Song] was the way it was meant to be,” he says of finding his own voice distinct from his fathers. He realises now, however, that despite their differences in style and execution, both shared an affinity to create something new that didn’t exist at the time. At Song, the young chef served a style of fried chicken that is unique to a part of northern Thailand where Yenbamroong’s mother is from, visiting the region multiple times in order to understand the exact formula for perfecting the dish, which began – as many iconic dishes do – from a staff meal that proved so convincing it made its way onto Night + Marker’s à la carte offering. “It wasn’t really meant to be a dish,” he says. “I put it up on Instagram […] and people started coming in immediately and asking for it. To this day, I don’t think it’s even listed on the menu, but people still get it.”
Each year, Yenbamroong says he moves closer to a place where he’s producing the kind of food that can only be found in the precise place of its making – the kind of establishment where a Thai-influenced sandwich can be enjoyed with copious French natural wines in an even livelier setting. All of which isn’t to say that Yenbamroong is reticent to play directly into a traditional Thai palette. A dish of Sai Uah sausage – an unctuous, herb-laden sausage seasoned with curry paste and fish sauce, as well as sawtooth, coriander, lime leaf and lemongrass – served with a Nam Prik Noom chilli dip errs on the right side of traditional. For the chef, it’s redolent of his earliest visits to Thailand as a child. “That’s one of the things that I didn’t really mess with because the way it exists already is kind of perfect,” he says.
For now, Yenbamroong is content to continue experimenting with the oeuvre he has honed at a time when people are becoming more aware of the regional distinctions between foods from other cultures, as filtered through the lens of his city’s legacy of high-concept fusion dining. When Yenbamroong opened his third restaurant, Night + Market Sahm in Venice (‘Sahm’ means ‘three’ in Thai, in much the same way that ‘Song’ means ‘two’), he began describing the concept as “cocaine Thai” – a high-octane, whimsical dining experience with design ambitions to match. Despite the considerable delays endured in its opening and discrepancies between the original concept and its eventual execution, it’s the place where he says his food is the most fun.
“All three places have their own personality, even though they’re all under the Night + Market umbrella,” he says. “[‘Cocaine Thai’] is still how I approach it. There is no shortage of places to get authentic regional Thai food. That’s less my concern right now. It’s [more about] presenting something from a singular viewpoint that is my own; something that can’t be replicated because it’s so weird and messed up. That’s it… It’s just about presenting what’s in my mind.”
Kris Yenbamroong will conclude his second guest appearance at Ms.G’s on October 11. Tickets are $90, which includes all food from both chefs, four Chivas Regal cocktails, a custom whisky blend experience, your very own blended whisky to keep and entertainment until late. More information is available here.
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