The name Andy Yang or Andy Yangeksakul may not ring a bell for many Thais, but New York food connoisseurs have been familiar with him for quite some time. The Bangkok-born chef rose to fame in New York when his Thai bistro Rhong Tiam received a Michelin star in 2010, making it the first Thai restaurant that’s operated by a Thai to receive such an acclaim.
After years of courting fame abroad, Yang decided to return to his motherland, armed with a new mission: to revolutionize Thais’ perception towards their own cuisine.
What brought you into the restaurant business?
I was never interested in working in a restaurant. I was a messed-up teenager who went to New York City in 1997 to accompany an ex-girlfriend to study. I lied to my father that I was going to American to study, but I spent the money for my personal pleasure. When my dad found out, he stopped giving me money. So I had to work to survive, and the only option back then was to work in a Thai restaurant. I had to do everything, from washing dishes to calling orders to serving.
What pushed you inside the kitchen?
I was so involved in the hospitality industry to the point where I thought I had it already mastered and found it no longer challenging. So I thought working inside the kitchen was my next step. Unlike the pleasant ambiance in the dining area, the kitchen is actually a cruel environment to be in: it’s extremely hot and chaotic, like a battlefield. But as a short-tempered and impatient person, I found the kitchen an ideal space for me to express myself and re-channel all my anger.
Tell us how Rhong Tiam began.
I had been working for all the top names in New York until I got to the point where I was ambitious enough to open my own place, most of which failed because I lacked the experience. My first restaurant was a noodle shop called Rochjin which opened at the same time as the World Trade Center incident, and that ended up a disaster. Then I had an opportunity to team up with legendary bartender Sacha Petraske and top pastry chef Pichet Ong for a highly anticipated restaurant called Kurve. It was a mega-project and it took years to finish, so I thought of opening a simpler eatery in the meantime. That’s when Rhong Tiam came to life. I was so fed up with Asian restaurants in America competing with one another with dirt-cheap lunch deals that take the quality of ingredients for granted. I wanted to prove that I can open a restaurant that charges customers exorbitantly, but the price comes with the best ingredients out there. And it was a success and was awarded a Michelin star. But I didn’t really care about the award. I just did what I believed in doing as an artist. What’s ironic is that Kurve didn’t do so well and quickly went out of business. It was way ahead of its time. People just didn’t get it back then.
Rhong Tiam seems pretty successful, with outlets all across New York and in other international cities like Dubai and Toronto. What brought you back to Bangkok?
My wife thought it was time we moved back to Bangkok, and we came back two years ago. I did a lot of research on the city’s dining scene, and I realized that it’s even more competitive here than in New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere in the world—not New York as everyone believes.
I also notice that people take the value of Thai food, especially street food, for granted. If you sell a Thai sweet [which involves a lot of complicated processes to make] and charge seven baht apiece, how will you survive with the money you make? Why do Thais look down on their national cuisine like that? Who would want to cook Thai food if you earn that little money? I want to change this perception and sell expensive Thai food but with great ingredients so people can see the value in it.
I’ve opened a pad Thai shop and I want to tell you that pad Thai is actually the most complicated noodle dish in the whole world. It involves all the techniques inherent in the world’s top cuisines. For example, there’s the infusion—you need to make sure the oil in the wok is extremely hot for all the ingredients to reciprocally absorb the flavors of one another. Then the noodles in a good pad Thai need to be al dente like Italian pasta, not to mention the caramelization from palm sugar, fish sauce and tamarind paste, and the wok hei [the charred aroma and flavor imparted by the wok when stir-frying over very high heat] that’s quite complicated to achieve.
What do you think is the most distinct characteristic of Thai street food?
I think Thai street food is like a gangster, like a Dang Bireley sort. The flavor is straightforward, outstanding and is far from being proper. Everyone who eats Thai food knows immediately it’s Thai. It’s fiery, it’s spicy with no pretensions. So, I really want to put my hands on Thai street food, with my style as an artist. My new restaurant [Table 38] is all about how I see Thai street food, using techniques I learned from all my experiences in New York kitchens. The dish is like a canvas, with me as an artist creating food as an art form.