"I keep hearing every day that everybody's going to move here," says Night + Market chef Kris Yenbamroong of his native Los Angeles. "It's an energy." Indeed, Eater’s restaurant editor Bill Addison declared LA the best dining city of 2015, citing Yenbamroong’s second restaurant, Night + Market Song, as an example of how the city is the "current epicenter of free thinking and diversity in American cooking."
Yenbamroong doesn’t have the typical rising-star chef resume. He didn’t go to culinary school (he went to film school). "I never staged at Noma," he quips. But he did grow up in his parents’ LA restaurant, eventually turning half of its dining room into his first restaurant, Night + Market on the famed Sunset Strip. His second spot Night + Market Song catapulted Yenbamroong to full-blown superstar status last year, with the chef taking home Eater LA’s Restaurant of the Year award and snagging a coveted place on the national Eater 38 in early 2016. "Out of necessity I had to just be like: Okay, what do I know how to do? What food I like? What's personal to me? Let me make that."
Yenbamroong’s approach — an increasingly popular and sustainable point of view among local chefs — is part of what’s making the Los Angeles dining scene so exciting. "I think a lot of cooks [in LA today] are making these restaurants that are free or liberating in a way," he says. "Chefs in other cities are probably just recognizing that. Diners are recognizing that, and there's just this excitement about it." For Yenbamroong, LA’s moment is all about chefs "doing the food that they want to do." This idea, even as he admits "it's a cliché," feels especially relevant as he works on his first cookbook and his third restaurant, opening soon in Venice, CA.
"Okay, what do I know how to do? What food I like? What’s personal to me? Let me make that."
Eater caught up with Yenbamroong at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he was being fêted as one of the magazines Best New Chefs. Below, he sounds off why he’s "loosening up" when it comes to traditional Thai cooking and why he’s embracing the aesthetics of the rainbow roll:
On taking his infamous blood soup off the Night + Market Song menu:
"We'd maybe sell two a night — and that was a good night. The idea was to have it there for people who would be into it. Ninety percent of the people who are going to come would probably not be into it. The same thing goes in Thailand. It's not a big seller in Thailand, but it's around...
Someone sent me a photo of the menu of this other restaurant [that now also offers the dish]. I never get really precious about menu stuff... [But] it was the worst selling dish on my menu. There's no reason to take it. It was an exact copy because the way I did it on the [Night + Market Song] menu, it was a cooked dish. In actuality, it's a raw blood dish. You don't serve it any other way. I had to come up with work around figuring out how to serve it. It's something I had to make up out of my imagination... I had a really personal reason for serving it. I wanted to do it because it's the sort of thing that uncles, family, friends of mine were into and I sort of got into. It was not to sell a lot of it.
It was one of these things I started thinking, 'Well, at least copy something that sells a lot. At least do yourself a favor and copy wings. Don't copy my loser dish because I'm the only one who cares about it.' All my servers hate it. Everybody in the kitchen hates it because it's a pain in the ass to make and you lose money off of it after this whole process of doing it. Whatever, I don't want to serve it anymore."
On what stays on his menus:
"I only want to do stuff that I care about or that's relevant to me, or that stimulates me in some way. Either it's got to be that or it's got to be the thing on the menu that sustains everything else and brings money in. It's sort of one or the other. If it's just there as a place holder, then I didn't really want to do it."
"The essence of it, the soul of it, isn’t in the fact that you’re sitting there pounding for 10 hours."
On codifying recipes for his upcoming cookbook:
"The cookbook has been an enlightening process. The way we do it at the restaurant, I teach all the cooks how to taste [and] season. We don't have anything written down. But now we're two restaurants, about to be three. We have to start writing stuff down, and the cookbook is forcing me to do that."
On the "accessibility" of his recipes:
"The real point of the book is how to do Night + Market at home. That's not to say a dumbed-down version. I tell people all the time, even in the restaurant: People think that we're really complicated. Maybe to some people we are, but we're always trying to find ways to be more efficient, consistent, and just better all around. We're not doing things to do them the hardest way or the most old-school way. I don't care about any of that. I want it to be easy on my cooks. I want it to taste good for my customers, and that's it...
Part of that is, for instance, going away from a mortar and pestle. The curry paste that we make takes five hours each time we make it. If you did it in a mortar and pestle, it'd take 10 hours. The essence of it, the soul of it, isn't in the fact that you're sitting there pounding for 10 hours. Maybe it makes it incrementally better, but in thinking about efficiency and bang for your buck, I'll go with the food processor. I'll talk to my grandma or older cooks back in Thailand. They were stoked when they first heard of a food processor years back. It wasn't a bad day when someone said, ‘Here's this machine that's going to make stuff easier.’"
"I've gotten a little bit looser. When I was younger, I was sort of rigid in how I saw things. Now I want people to have fun with the food. I think that with our sort of food, whatever you want to call it — this traditional Thai food, "ethnic food" — they treat it with this lens when they're looking at it. It's almost like they're waiting to find a fault or waiting to find where it went wrong."
On his next restaurant, opening in Venice in August:
"I just want to make fun food, especially with the next spot. It's going to be way looser. I'm going to have a bunch of Asian fusion dishes, throwback dishes, but interpreted through the Night + Market lens.
We're going to do a Peking duck pizza with hoisin sauce and the crispy wontons, popularized by a famous pizza chain that I won't mention because they'll sue me. We might make it like a personal pan pizza where it's a flatbread, but with Peking duck and then hoisin sauce squirted in a spiral. [I] don't want people going around saying, 'Man, if you go to China will you find Peking duck pizza? We can't eat this.' It's good. It's fun and people like it. Why not?
Last night we went to Matsuhisa [Nobu’s restaurant in Aspen]. I went with two of the other [Food & Wine] Best New Chefs, my boys, Fabs [Fabian Von Hauske] and Jeremiah [Stone, both of Wildair and Contra in NYC]. They've worked at every fancy restaurant there is. We were having a blast eating rainbow rolls. I love going to the one bite at a time, pristine, 50 types of snapper [experiences]. That's fun, too, but it's also fun to have a California hand roll. I feel like, honestly, the spontaneity, fun, whimsy, the drama and all those things in "Asian food" are missing or have gone away because people have become obsessed with this authenticity. ‘Is it real? Is it not real? Who's the chef? What race is he? Where's he from? Has he ever been to Vietnam? Has he ever been to the Philippines?’ It doesn't matter."