Kris Yenbamroong’s restaurants aren’t Thai restaurants: they are LA restaurants. This week on The Trip podcast, Yenbamroong on creating his wine collection, ambushing Jonathan Gold, and his two James Beard nominations.
The last time I had seen Kris Yenbamroong, he and his partner Sarah St. Lifer were giving me a ride into downtown Chiang Mai from a village on the outskirts. I had thought about interviewing him in Northern Thailand, since we were there, and since his Night+Market restaurants are nominally Thai places. But the more he talked about his restaurants, and about himself, it was clear, as we put it in this episode, these aren’t Thai restaurants. These are LA restaurants. That’s why, for our second of three Los Angeles episodes of The Trip, I’m so amped for this conversation. California plus Kris, that’s what makes Night+Market. We talked about that combination; about why wines are such a huge part of what he does; and about how in a life-changing moment of bravado, he ambushed Jonathan Gold at a public speaking event.
This is an edited and condensed excerpt from the conversation, which was Episode 36 of The Trip from Luminary Media and Roads & Kingdoms. You can listen to the whole episode exclusively on Luminary here. —Nathan Thornburgh
Nathan Thornburgh: All right, well let’s have a sip. Cheers.
Kris Yenbamroong: Cheers. Oh, that sounds good. So, this is technically lunch. I’ve only had black coffee, and two sips of a shake this morning.
Thornburgh: Which is a—
Yenbamroong: It’s good. Lunch wine.
Thornburgh: … lunch wine. So tell me, of all the wines here, now we’re at this bottle. What is it, and why?
Yenbamroong: It’s a bottle of Beaujolais, from a producer we like—Dufaitre—and it’s from the 2014 vintage. In terms of how I arrived at picking this bottle, we’re sitting here in my apartment that has, I don’t know, 50 cases of wine. I feel like it could be … we could just open up a wine shop here.
I’ve said in the past, we’re really a wine bar disguised as a Thai restaurant, or a wine bar in disguise
Thornburgh: This is very fucking exciting to be with you today, because there was not one, but two Beard nominations, finalist for … best chef west coast—
Yenbamroong: Best chef west coast, yeah.
Thornburgh: Kris, that’s incredible, man. I mean, it’s a short list of like 15 people or something on there.
Yenbamroong: It’s an awesome list, too.
Thornburgh: It’s a ridiculous list, and then another nod for outstanding wine program.
Yenbamroong: That’s the one that really blows my mind because—
Thornburgh: That’s national.
Yenbamroong: Yeah. It’s national, and it’s a thing. I’ll always joke about it like I’ve said in the past in interviews, we’re really a wine bar disguised as a Thai restaurant, or a wine bar in disguise. I’m only half joking when I say that. And I’ve said before, there’s a lot of wines we have on our list, certain Beaujolais that are a little prettier than this, that aren’t really meant as pairing items for any of the food, because they’re just way too pretty and way too good to have with anything, that you should just drink them. We have them just because they’re super, super great wines. If anything, the idea, the dream or the fantasy, is for someone to just come over and open one of those bottles and just drink it, and not really even be there for the food, or just to finish it before they have the meal, because the wine deserves it.
Thornburgh: In as much as this is a warehouse of your dreams here, this is not boxes and boxes of boxed wine, these are some fucking fine-ass wines that are clearly where you and Sarah have your brains in a lot of the day.
Yenbamroong: I would say it’s more than half of what we do, and even when we opened up, literally when we opened up the first Night + Market in 2010 we had more wines than we had food items. We had seven dishes on the menu maybe, or eight, and they weren’t even thought of as like … I didn’t even think of them as dishes. To call them dishes would be like exaggerating it. There was stuff available to facilitate people opening bottles of wine, you know what I mean? So, the same way you would have nuts at a bar, or something.
Thornburgh: Give me the not-yet-drunk history version of how you got started. This was your family restaurant that started, and you kind of popped out next door, but what was that basic origin story?
Yenbamroong: Yeah, my family opened up the family restaurant called Talésai in 1982, which was the year that I was born. My pops was just coming over from London, where he was working for a bank that gave him a loan to go to grad school. So, he was working off a loan for this bank, a Thai bank, and then they transferred him to L.A. So, he wasn’t even planning on coming to L.A. he was just transferred through this job that he had. He was a junior loan officer in a bank, and he was trying to take clients and whatever to a Thai restaurant. I guess the couple that were around, he didn’t really find suitable in his mind for taking clients to.
He’s always been really entrepreneurial, and he thought, “I’m just going to make this thing.” And that’s an idea that I respond to a lot: the idea of just making something because you feel like there’s a void. At the time people aren’t traveling to go eat. They’re eating in their neighborhoods. There’s not really this culture of, “You know what, I’m going to drive 25 miles to eat the best taco because this guy said I should go.”
Thornburgh: One of your notable pieces of writing has the headline, “How I Almost Drove My Family Restaurant into the Dirt,” or something.
Yenbamroong: Yeah, so, he opened up in ’82. Slow start, but once it picked up after a year or so, a year and a half, they started getting reviewed, like everyone in ’80s Hollywood was coming.
Thornburgh: Who’s this, like Michael Douglas, and—
Yenbamroong: Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, all these really cool ’80s guys.
Thornburgh: He wanted to be in Hollywood.
Yenbamroong: Bob Dylan during the whole, I think … you know that ’80s, ’90s Bob Dylan?
Thornburgh: Oh nice, yeah, yeah.
Yenbamroong: He came by, and was writing, because there are a lot of record company offices in the area. Geffen was right down the street, and some other ones. I mean, people would just come by, and it was like a clubhouse, you know what I mean, it was like… which is cool, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until recently. I was … because it’s like every photo you see of this era it’s so crazy.
Thornburgh: All you see are the shoulder pads.
Yenbamroong: Yeah. So, for a long time I was like, “Wow, that’s like … it’s just nuts,” because that’s never really been me, but maybe it has and I was just trying to fight against it. But anyhow, so I took over, and that’s when I started the process of running the business into the ground. Obviously, it was unintentional.
When I took over we started on this pretty extensive remodel that was a lot of money, and we had to close down. It’s so busy now that the thought of just closing for an extra day to do some work that we need to do on the walk-in cooler or something like that is horrifying, but at the time I didn’t think about that stuff. I was just like, “Oh man, we’ve got to make it look super cool, and we’ve got to do all these little décor things,” and we’re closing, and pretty soon it’s three or four months that we’re shut down.
People are looking for other jobs and I’m just oblivious to all of it, because I have no experience in this. We finally get it back open. But I was looking at it from a really idealistic standpoint, kind of like what I was saying earlier with my dad like, “Oh, if there were no limitations on what you could do, what would you do?” Well, the unspoken part, the limitation, is like going out of business. That’s the limitation.
Thornburgh: Oblivion is waiting for you somewhere.
I’d get death threats like, ‘If you don’t put that fucking curry back on the menu, I’ll strangle you’
Yenbamroong: You can do anything you want, but there are also going to be consequences, you know what I mean? So I started thinking, “We’re going to be a dinner only restaurant, because I think this is the type of place that’s supposed to be dinner only,” which makes no sense. It just occurred to me, I was like, “I’m going to make this really serious place, and we shouldn’t offer lunch, because that’s silly.”
Thornburgh: It’s downmarket from what you need to be.
Yenbamroong: I ignored like 30 percent of our revenue. I didn’t look at stuff like that, and I was cutting menu items left and right. They were real popular items, and it got to the point where I just believed … I had the confidence of a guy in his 20s who just moved here from New York and was ready to take on the world.
Thornburgh: That’s a lot of bullshit in that game, yeah.
Yenbamroong: Yeah, and I was just so confident in this idea. I’d be sitting at the bar and there wouldn’t be that many guests, and someone would come up to be and just be like, “You’re that little shit owner … the owner’s son who took over, right?”, and I was like, “Yeah, what’s up?” and literally I’d get death threats like, “If you don’t put that fucking curry back on the menu, I’ll strangle you, and then I’m never going to come back. I’m going to strangle you first, and then I’m never going to come back after that.” I was just like, “All right, well maybe this just isn’t for you, man.”
Thornburgh: “You don’t see my vision.”
Yenbamroong: You know what I mean. So, it was just like two years, or at least a year, year and a half of that kind of—
Thornburgh: That sounds pretty fucking intense—
Yenbamroong: Super intense.
Thornburgh: That curry must have been really good.
Yenbamroong: It was super intense. People want what they want. It’s like a red sauce Italian place, and I imagine if they took the meatballs off the menu, and some kid took over and was like, “All right, no more meatballs,” people would be like, “Are you fucking kidding? I get it, I get the new stuff that you want to do, but can you please just keep the meatballs?”
Thornburgh: Right, but they read you for what you were doing, which is just giving them the finger at the same time.
Yenbamroong: That wasn’t my intention. My whole thing was like, “All right, if people have been supporting this restaurant for so long, meaning supporting the family for all intents and purposes, they should support us in this evolution of it,” you know what I mean.
Yenbamroong: If people have been supporting us for 25 years, our family doing this thing, this is the next thing, the next 25 years. They should support that. So yeah, in theory that’s true, but at the same time when you’re a place that people come to for a specific experience, or product, and you pull back that thing, people are going to be bummed. I get that at this point, but at the time, being 25, it’s just not a concept I was able to get through my skull.
Listen to the whole episode exclusively on Luminary here.