For Chef Hong Thaimee, cooking is much more than preparing food. It’s an act of love.
“I had about 10 lives before I decided to be a Chef,” Hong Thaimee, the Chef and Owner of Thaimee Love, in New York City laughs.
Born and raised in Chennai, Thailand, Chef Thaimee grew up around what she describes as a “paradise of food.” She remembers everything as vibrant— there was always food on the table and outside, she would climb trees to get fresh fruit. “There is this saying called Lan, which means there’s fish in the water and there’s rice in the field,” she says. “It’s just such an abundant country.”
Chef Thaimee began to realize that besides having a wealth of incredible, diverse flavors, food also possesses the power to change someone’s life, to give it purpose. “My grandma was a very proud woman, and my grandfather, well he was a big deal, but he had a couple wives,” she remembers. “My grandma, she took away her nine children and raised them by herself, all through cooking.”
While she always thought that becoming a chef and being around food would be “sexy,” she led many lives before she got to that point.
First, she was a model in shampoo, toothpaste commercials and more. Then, she went to business school and earned her MBA. That led to a position at a pharmaceutical company. This corporate job gave her a comfortable life, but she didn’t feel fulfilled. Something was missing.
So, she quit her job and applied for a hostess position at Jean-George’s restaurant, Spice Market, in the Meatpacking District.
“The guy I gave my resume to just laughed,” she remembers. “I didn’t have any culinary or New York hospitality experience and I had an MBA, what was I even doing there?”
They didn’t accept her.
But through an act of kindness, the man who took her resume decided to help her out. He passed it along to the kitchen, and she was offered a spot in the kitchen.
“Eventually, after working there for a bit, I made Pad Thai for the chef there and I was so nervous. I had little to no culinary experience. I just did what I knew.” But the chef was amazed. He was shocked that there was no sauce on the noodle whatsoever, yet it was packed with flavor. “He saw music,” she says.
But things only got harder from there. She burned herself, struggled to adjust to long hours and kitchen culture, and realized this was going to be a more drastic shift from her prior desk job than she had thought. “I told myself that this is what I came here to do.”
As she worked her way up in the kitchen, managers began to take notice. “One chef told me he’d like to help me open a restaurant—what could I say but yes?” she says.
Her first restaurant, Ngam, was nestled in the East Village. While the manager left halfway through the process of opening, Chef Thaimee poured her sweat and tears into the place, and as a testament to this hard work, it remained open for a decade. Despite being a hit, because of ownership disputes with her partner, she was forced to close.
“I was so depressed,” Chef Thaimee says. “But I picked myself up bit by bit, and slowly I fell in love with this man who is now my partner.”
“He really encouraged me to open up a new place more than anyone,” Chef Thaimee says. “He always tells me that he’s never seen a chef have so much love from their customers.”
For example, Chef Thaimee describes one moment of many during the pandemic when she was on a bike ride, and despite wearing a helmet and sunglasses, a customer recognized her. They yelled at her, when are you opening a new restaurant? We miss your food! And for her, that was a moment where everything came full circle.
“I spent my whole life trying to help people, and so for my customers to help me and show me love in this way, well it meant everything,” she says.
She found a spot and started working on her second restaurant, appropriately named Thaimee Love.
“Because we opened in the pandemic, we wanted to make it feel like home,” Chef Thaimee says. “Nothing was fussy, let’s just cook Thai home style like you’re eating at my place.”
Pulling inspiration (and sometimes even furniture) from her own home, the restaurant feels like you’re at a good friend's house. Chef Thaimee insists on visiting every table, as if it’s a big dinner party—because, well, it is. She wants everyone to feel welcome.
Cooking, after all, is so much more than just making delicious food for Chef Thaimee.
“It’s a commitment to love,” she says.