This Chef's Secret Weapon Is Cooking with What He Has
Chef Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market shares his tips on how to get creative with cooking substitutions.
I am not a chef. Sure, I’ve been consumed by food all my life—the way fire cradles a wok when fried rice is tossed in it, or how vastly different a stew can taste with the addition of a simple bay leaf—but I can’t say I am the best rule-follower when it comes to cooking. I’ve had countless cheesy soups break and cream sauces curdle. Baking is an entirely different story—one that is full of collapsed cakes, close-textured bread, and heartbreak.
But I keep trying, because the joy of cooking stems from experimentation, growth, and that fuzzy feeling I get when I finally make something that actually tastes good. That’s why it was heartening to find out that Kris Yenbamroong, a chef I deeply admire, cooks this way, too.
Yenbamroong is the chef and owner of Night + Market, a trio of whimsically decorated Los Angeles restaurants and a Las Vegas outpost with a killer wine menu that Chrissy Teigen touts as one of her favorite spots for Thai food and more.
In fact, he strays away from calling his restaurant one that is strictly Thai. “I’ve thought about Night + Market more as an LA restaurant rather than 100% a Thai restaurant. There’s stuff we put on the menu now that even I don’t even know what it is—fusion kind of dishes,” he explains. That doesn't mean the heavy influences of Thailand and night markets, the namesake of his restaurant, aren't present.
“As a Thai-American private school punk in Bangkok, my first love was the street food,” Yenbamroong says. “For guests who have experienced night markets while traveling, they’ll understand why we chose the name when they walk through the door—the loud music, the communal tables, the crowded space, the chilled wines flowing. It’s not about the food, it’s about the vibe we create.”
That vibe is an eclectic mix of Yenbamroong’s background: growing up in his parents’ Thai restaurant, attending Thai school in North Hollywood throughout the summers (at the same temple that I, too, attended Thai school), and sitting around a dinner table with a rotating cast of Thai relatives, both in Thailand and Los Angeles.
But it’s also a place that highlights his experience and identity as an American, one who grew up in LA, attended film school during his undergraduate years, and spent a stretch of time in New York working as a photographer.
“As a Thai-American private school punk in Bangkok, my first love was the street food.”
Initially, when Yenbamroong first took over his parents’ restaurant in 2008, he stuck to a strictly Thai menu. He added dishes from northern Thailand, where his mom was originally from, and included southern bites as well from where his dad was born. He insisted that the food be more traditional, but also more “country,” crafted in the most complicated and difficult way possible. “I really had that energy—that young chef thing—that I don’t have anymore,” he laughs.
But overtime, Yenbamroong's desire to maintain a sense of authenticity began to fray. “These [identities] can really coexist, right? You can have something traditional and something sort of non-traditional, and you can have stuff that’s not even Thai at all. That’s when I started to deviate and go in my own direction,” he says. It wasn’t just that making curry pastes from scratch with more rudimentary tools was labor- and time-intensive work. Yenbamroong also didn’t just want to be another Thai restaurant in LA.
“There are things that are relevant to the Thai American experience,” he says. He chose to put those things on a plate. It started with a fried chicken sandwich. Yenbamroong had made it for his staff, using the mass amounts of chicken they had in the restaurant for a menu staple, Northern Thai-style fried chicken. After posting the sandwich on his Instagram, an unintentional off-menu sensation was born. From there, he really began to experiment. His influences include food from the ‘80s, like crab rangoons, and his combined Thai-American background.
“If you’re running an independent restaurant, like we are, it’s gotta be fun or rewarding in some way. It’s definitely a business, but it’s gotta be rewarding,” he explains.
It just so happens that improvisational cooking is also a great philosophy to abide by in a world plagued by pandemics, supply chain issues, or just an emptier pantry.
“There’s a whole section of my book called ‘Using What You Have’,” Yenbamroong says of his style of home cooking. “If I feel like making something, if I have the main ingredients for it, I’ll just do it even though it’s not complete.”
Yenbamroong wants to motivate people to try their hand at cooking, using whatever they might have. He shares a simple recipe for his version of what he calls “mall pasta,” inspired by the faux-Italian restaurants sprinkled in Bangkok shopping centers that might make your nonna grimace.
The point is that food doesn’t need to be wholly complete or deemed authentic to taste good; some of the Italian-inspired restaurants in Thailand wow with tangy tom yum pizzas and salted fish spaghetti.
“There are chefs who say, ‘Oh, well it’s not this dish if you don’t have this ingredient,’ whatever it might be,” he shrugs. “For me, I don’t really care about that. If it has the essence of it, it’s fine.”
Yenbamroong has been nominated for a James Beard multiple times in different categories: Rising Star Chef, Best New Chef, and Outstanding Wine Program. In the same way I trust my gut when it comes to crafting made-up recipes, I trust his encouragement to cook a bit chaotically and outside of the lines.
“If there’s one thing I want to do, it’s to get [people] in the mindset that you can still make good food, even if you don’t have every single ingredient listed in the cookbook,” he says. “If you only have 60% of it, I think it’s probably fine.”
That includes Yenbamroong’s mall pasta recipe—which will be good, even if you’re missing some ingredients.
Kris Yenbamroong’s “Mall Pasta” Recipe
Yield: 2 servings
• 4 ounces spaghetti
• ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 2-ounce tin anchovies packed in oil, anchovies finely chopped and oil reserved
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic plus 2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
• 1 tablespoon minced Thai bird chili with seeds
• ½ yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
• 1 ½ tablespoons oyster sauce
• 1 ½ tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 2 tablespoons whole pink peppercorns
• Pinch of ground white pepper
• ¼ cup torn basil leaves, plus small whole leaves for garnish
1. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta water.
2. In a wok, heat the olive oil. Add the anchovies, anchovy oil, minced garlic, chili and bell pepper and stir-fry over moderately high heat until the bell pepper is softened, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the pasta, reserved pasta water, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sugar and cook, tossing, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Add the sliced garlic, pink peppercorns, white pepper, and torn basil leaves and toss.
4. Serve topped with whole basil leaves.