Kris Yenbamroong grew up in a family that was at the forefront of Thai cuisine in Los Angeles. Talesai has been a Sunset Strip mainstay since 1982, and cooking was always a part of his life. He spent eight years away from L.A., earning a film degree from NYU and working the next four years for photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern. However, he returned to Los Angeles to run Talesai. As traditional Thai cuisine became more important to him, he added dishes like sausage and mortar pounded relish to Talesai’s menu, but discovered that his core constituency wasn’t receptive to change. He craved a “blank slate,” and the office space next door became available, so he expanded with Night + Market, which features beer- and wine-friendly street food. Yenbamroong has earned a stack of national coverage for his efforts while attracting a steady flow of chefs and young people. He’s on the hunt for an Eastside outpost for Night + Market and plans to retool his mother’s Beverly Hills restaurant, Cafe Talesai. He recently shared several insights about his background and approach.
What are the big challenges of serving such progressive food on the Sunset Strip?
We all know that the Sunset Strip is not exactly a beacon of light in terms of progress and interesting things and culture. It’s sort of this really weird spot, kind of lives on a certain legacy. It isn’t really into moving forward. It really isn’t. At certain times, I get sort of down about it, but no place is perfect, and it’s been really good to me. It’s been really encouraging that people have traveled to come eat my food, a lot of people coming from the Valley, where there’s a lot of good Thai food, and places where they have really good food, so-called ethnic food, that’s been really cool. And having Thai people come has been really cool. That never happened at Talesai. It was just old white people from the Hills. And now having young Thai people come in, because they love the food, is the biggest compliment to me. Aside from cooking for all these other chefs, the other side is cooking for young non-white people, and not just Asian people.
You’ve cooked for chefs like Rene Redzepi, David Chang, April Bloomfield, Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton. Why do you think Night + Market has become such a chef magnet?
At the core, it’s just me doing it, me cooking the things I want to do. I know that’s sort of a cliché, where chefs say, all these places that are run by younger chefs like me, small menus, the thing that always comes up, “Oh, I just think of what I would want to eat in a restaurant and I cook that.” It’s sort of become a cliché, but it’s so fucking true. There’s so much Thai food that isn’t even on menus in the city, and it’s just what you choose to do. This is the stuff that I choose to do because I like food that’s really salty, and really sour, and really spicy and fatty. Sometimes I’ll read my Yelp reviews before I go to bed, which is the worst thing you could do, even the good ones, I can’t bear to read because it’s too close, but I would rather read the bad ones. Still, it’s so painful sometimes. I happen to not have a ton of veggies on the menu because I don’t really eat a ton of veggies, and I’m not that great in cooking veggies. I’m not that interested in them. It’s just sort of one of those things. There are a million other places that do veggies way better than I do it. If there are a million other Asian restaurants that have a ton of Riesling, why would I want to be another one? It’s not necessarily a stance that I’m taking, but because I literally do everything, all the ideas, it’s not consensus by committee, it’s just me, making sometimes really lopsided decisions. We have all this pork on the menu, and it wasn’t like, “I want to be a pork restaurant.” It was 1) that’s the major protein of Thailand, way more than beef, way more than chicken, way more than seafood, unless you’re by the shore, but 2) it’s just my favorite thing to eat.
Has your family had much input on what you’ve been doing?
Zero. Initially, they had more input. I’ve got to preface this by saying I’m pretty conservative in terms of decision-making and in terms of my taste. I love eating and have eaten all over the world…That was a big influence too – being in Peru – I went with a Peruvian friend of mine and was lucky because she showed me her favorite spots and took me around the country and we couched it with her friends, and it’s stuff I never would have seen otherwise. That was a big influence, but before, my dad, who is super progressive, way more than I am, he sort of was like, “Wow, do you really want to do it so extreme?” There were certain things that I was sort of unaccommodating with, for the same reason. If there are a million other restaurants doing those things, I don’t need to be another one. Literally, before, it would be me and two other people in the kitchen. Now it’s me and three other people, and I’ve recently added a fourth line cook, which is insane, because it’s two restaurants, one of which does takeout and delivery, out of the same kitchen, with me trying to do this totally different thing. And the prep happens in the same place. It’s totally insane.
You run Talesai too?
I do, but it’s just overseeing it, because I don’t do anything new with it. It’s just overseeing it, but it’s a lot of maintenance and busy work…I’m probably going to do something with my mom’s café on Olympic. I want to do a really solid Thai takeout place, that’s not like Night + Market at all. It’s just really solid Thai takeout in every sense, a delivery place, easy. That’s what it was initially supposed to be, but it’s sort of veered away from that. I want to do that, and sort of do a really simple menu, affordable, and not have it be as extreme as Night + Market. And when I say that, I don’t personally think it’s extreme, because it’s my food, but just in the general sense, with other people, it will be more stir-fries, more central Thai food. And then I’m going to do this other Night + Market, which will be more fully realized because it won’t be almost a side thing, where it’s run out of the same kitchen. It almost feels like a pop-up in my own restaurant that’s been running for two years.
What will the solo space allow you to do that you’re not already doing?
It will allow me to cook some things in certain ways that I’m not able to do right now. That’s sort of vague, but there are certain things I think people who aren’t running restaurants aren’t privy to, things you have to do in terms of efficiency and solving problems in tough circumstances, tight spaces, how to execute a menu when you don’t have much to work with.
Tangibly, what we’re talking about is maybe more different types of papaya salad. More raw stuff. People eat a lot of raw stuff in Thailand, but it’s not the culture of raw bars here, where it’s a lot nicer and shucking is perfect. It’s just more raw in every sense. I want to have more of that. I like serving oysters. That’s one of the things, where 99% of what I do is really traditional, and not even because I care about being traditional. I always tell people, if I was not Thai, I would have more of a chip on my shoulder about being authentic, but I don’t really care about it. I just happen to do it that way because it’s the best way to do it, often times. Sometimes it isn’t, but most times, people have been doing this for hundreds of years. It’s like the empirical formula. It’s been boiled down to what’s the best way to do it. That’s just what I do. But just something like having oysters is unrelated, I actually find to be sort of related. It doesn’t get any simpler and more satisfying that having some oysters with your grilled pork, or beer with some really spicy food. You just have refreshing raw seafood. That’s something I can’t do right now. I’ve done it in the past, but as I’ve gotten a lot busier, it’s become close to impossible. I also don’t want to do shoddy versions of it. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it really nice. It will be those things, but at the same time, I’m not really looking to expand the menu. If anything, I’m looking to do it simpler. I think that will end up being one of the differences. I see it being as much a place to drink as it is a place to have food, whereas right now, the menu started at 8 to 10 things but slowly grew because people wanted it. People weren’t drinking as much as I thought it would – it’s probably, a big part, the location too – I anticipate that the original location on Sunset, I’ll have more specials, and the other place will be pretty simple Thai beer garden style, which is what I want to do, a big outdoor area.
What will it take for you to consider Night + Market a success, if you don’t already?