Meet Jennifer Saesue, the Visionary Behind NYC Thai Hotspot Fish Cheeks
Her restaurant’s focus on seafood is redefining traditional Thai cuisine, one dish at a time.
“I think of Thailand as a place of abundance,” Jennifer Saesue says, ducking her head low.
A litany of wiring and messy kitchen shelves frame a very alert Saesue, who appears to be in a bunker of some sort. “We're in a little cubby hole,” she chuckles. “If I stand up my head is touching the ceiling.”
Saesue is nestled deep inside the kitchens of Fish Cheeks, her celebrated Thai restaurant located on Bond Street in New York City. “Thailand is a diverse place,” Saesue exclaims proudly. “We've been lucky enough that [Thailand] was never colonized, but we accept everyone in.”
“How would you describe Thai food to someone who is totally unfamiliar with it?” I ask.
Saesue pauses thoughtfully.
I can see why it might take her a minute to respond; after all, Saesue’s dealing with the commotion of a kitchen that constantly bangs and clangs behind her.
Thai food, she tells me, is influenced by many different cultures. Her father, for instance, was born in Thailand, “but ancestrally he's one hundred percent Chinese.”
Saesue’s passion for her subject matter is apparent: She immediately dives into a rapid explanation of how a large portion of Thai food is influenced by Chinese cooking. She explains that many stir fry, curry, and noodle dishes are thought of as classically Thai, but, in reality, their origins can be traced to another culture. Khao Man Gai, for instance, is a Hainanese dish but can be found in Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Massaman curry, Saesue says, isn’t exclusively Thai, but something you can find in Malaysia.
Saesue and her parents were born in Thailand. Her father hails from northern Thailand and was proud to be the guy who knew which place served the best version of any given dish. Having this rep, of course, required constant culinary excursions around Bangkok in search of new dishes to experience. Forever seeking their next great bite, Saesue’s father imbued his love of hunting for new flavors in his daughter at an early age.
She once recalled a vivid memory of her father giving her raw fish for the first time at age eight. She knew she wasn’t going to like it even before trying it, according to her interview with Chasing Sunshine in 2020, but her father was adamant until she gave in. This, she points out, birthed a mentality in which being open to trying everything at least once is something that still guides her today.
Saesue moved back to the States at the tender age of 12 and began working in kitchens when she was in high school. Her career began like many others—she became a server to score some quick cash. Saesue worked in several restaurants across New York to quickly learn the ins and outs of the biz before falling in love with the industry altogether.
Yet—despite her newfound culinary prowess—something was still amiss. Saesue noticed an all-too-familiar pattern across the restaurants she worked at. Despite the abundance of cultural diversity found in Thai food, Saesue was somehow constantly swimming in a sea of Pad Thai everywhere she went.
“The older generation has this set menu that works,” Saesue explains. “You get three or four types of noodles, you get your rainbow curry, and then you get your fried rice. Open a Thai restaurant anywhere with those on your menu and you're one hundred percent going to be fine.”
That set menu concept never stopped plaguing Saesue. She refused to accept the idea that all of Thailand’s nuance and diversity could be summed up in a few dishes. The lack of authentic Thai food around New York haunted her like a bad dream.
“I appreciate everything that’s been done before me to break down barriers [when] introducing Thai cuisine to the US. But we owe it to ourselves and the cuisine to bring attention to the fact that Pad Thai isn’t the only thing we eat,” Saesue exclaims passionately. “[Thai] cuisine doesn't live on a one-page menu.”
The next decade of Saesue’s life was devoted to breaking down that archaic formula. She sought to open a restaurant that showcased Thai food across New York in all its glory, highlighting the ingredients and dishes from her childhood back home. She took on an unofficial role as a culinary ambassador and educator determined to teach the world more about Thai cuisine. Her hard work eventually culminated in Saesue opening her first restaurant at just 23 years old, an impressive feat, even among classically trained chefs.
While her first restaurant didn’t quite pan out, Saesue was determined to fulfill her vision no matter what. She continued to work in Thai restaurants across NYC until she met brothers Chat and Ohm Suansilphong in 2015 at Obao, a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant. The trio bonded over a shared vision of having their own Thai restaurant for over a year before partnering to open Fish Cheeks in 2016.
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“I felt like we needed to present more information about Thai cuisine in a way that works for the Thai community and the country,” Saesue says.
Fish Cheeks, Saesue notes, has a spotlight on seafood, “because there's no Thai restaurant [in NYC] that focuses on that, and seafood is such a big part of Thailand.” The menu is designed to be family-style, with a section for plates to snack on and another for plates to share. Each dish on the menu, Saesue explains, is a hard-won victory. The steamed fish dish, for example, is her favorite item. “I had to fight my partners on it,” she says. She dives into a story about the fish and how it went through several iterations before it could be served on the menu.
She thought people were going to get freaked out by the fish head. The team worked to and fro trying different versions of the dish and accommodating guests the best they could, but eventually decided to serve the fish whole.
Today, Fish Cheeks is proud to be a Pad Thai-free zone. “There are so many other things better than Pad Thai that I can count on one hand,” Saesue says.
Indeed, Saesue never seems to tire when it comes to trying out new ingredients and spins on classic dishes. She tells me about a new dish she’s creating—a play on the traditional papaya salad that many people associate with Thai food. Saesue waxes poetic about different types of papaya salads before explaining the new version will contain fermented fish and raw blue crab, two radical departures from traditional papaya salad that’s typically served with peanuts.
“That’s going to be a little funkier, and it's very weird. Some people can handle it. Some [might think] it’s disgusting,” Saesue says. “But I'm going to do me and I have nothing to prove to anyone.”
The constant need for innovation doesn’t just extend to Saesue’s food either. Despite a pandemic raging across the country, Fish Cheeks doubled its number of diners and acquired the space next door during this period. That new space got her thinking about expanding beyond NYC, so she began visiting restaurants in Los Angeles.
She noticed the same telltale pattern across LA restaurants that irked her so in NYC.
“LA already has a lot of Thai restaurants [and] people are familiar with those tastes,” Saesue explains. “But there aren’t many Thai restaurants like us in LA and I feel like we would thrive there.”
Her team is currently looking for a space in LA and may have already found the perfect spot.
“We're going to see where everything goes,” Saesue says excitedly.