There were nights when -- no exaggeration -- no customers walked through the doors of Chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Night+Market in West Hollywood.
Not even one.
“I was at my lowest point ever,” he recalled. He already felt like he was to blame after taking over his parents’ successful restaurant, Talesai, in 2008, only to see it falter under his watch. “I was looking around, feeling like a failure.”
The chef credits his reversal of fortune to one man: Los Angeles Times’ late restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold, who died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, shocking the food world.
Gold’s review of Night+Market, his gentle coaching and encouraging words to Yenbamroong, and then giving the novice chef the break of a lifetime -- the night Gold personally brought in Rene Redzepi, widely considered the world’s greatest chef -- played out a bit like a not-very-original Hollywood movie, complete with a slow clap for our young hero, and a soaring score that tugged at the heartstrings.
Gold leaves behind a trail of similar stories, generously championing many up-and-coming chefs still struggling to find their groove, and anonymous restaurants in an overlooked part of town.
Night+Market is known for its northern Thai offerings such as sweet and salty chicken wings, a fiery pork dish called “startled pig” and a curry made with spices that the menu says “Chef Kris hauls back from the Thai-Burma border.” Everyone who tried it said they loved it. But the chef was struggling to get people in the door.
The chef said he had no understanding of social media back then, or how to go about creating a customer following. He dreamed of being discovered by someone like Gold and had even taped up a picture of Gold in the kitchen. He warned his staff -- If this guy walks in, it’s red alert time. But he had no “in” to help lure in the critic.
As he looked out night after night at an empty restaurant back in 2010, he was so dispirited that he quietly began make plans to go to business school after the restaurant closed, as it was most assuredly about to do.
That’s when he learned that Gold would be speaking on a panel just outside downtown Los Angeles. Yenbamroong showed up. And he waited. His plan? “Bum rush the stage” and corner Gold.
It turned out that hundreds of other people had a similar idea.
“I invited him to come into the restaurant. He looked at the card, and made that face that he makes, and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of it,’ and stuffed it into his pocket and moved on.”
The chef had one gloomy thought as he headed home that night: “For sure I will never see this guy.”
A week or so later, on a rare night away from the restaurant, he got an urgent message from the staff: Hey boss, you know that guy whose picture is in the kitchen? The one you said is really important? He just walked in the door. He’s here right now.” There was no way for Yenbamroong to make it to the restaurant in time. Relax, he was told. The critic seemed to be enjoying himself.
His staff was correct. Later that evening, “my phone began blowing up,” the chef recalled, with people asking him about Gold’s visit to Night+Market.
Gold had tweeted about the meal to his thousands of followers. Shortly after that, Gold’s praiseful review was published in the L.A. Weekly, where he was working at the time.
And just like that, people began trickling in the door at Night+Market.
But Gold’s biggest generosity was still to come.
One night, Yenbamroong answered his cell to find Gold on the other end. Gold wanted to drop by the following evening with about a dozen people. Gold explained that the entourage was for a special guest: Rene Redzepi.
As in, the Rene Redzepi. As in, the chef at Noma. As in, Noma in Copenhagen, consistently named the greatest restaurant on the planet.
Yenbamroong went from stunned silence, to choking up in gratitude to flipping out, trying to figure out what to make for one of his personal heroes.
Gold gave him the advice that the chef said he will never forget: “He said, ‘No, no, no, don’t change anything. What you do is good enough. Don’t try to impress him.’ It was insane. Here I am, I’m in my 20s, just starting out, I didn’t go to cooking school, I didn’t really know how to run a restaurant, and here’s this guy telling me, ‘Don’t feel the need to do anything more than what you do, because what you do is good enough.’ It was unreal. It was surreal, what he did for me, what he gave me that day, it’s something I now live by.”
That’s Gold’s gift to the city of Los Angeles. His willingness to coach, nurture and encourage, to see beyond the plate and recognize the message, the history, the heritage, the honor, that a chef is trying to impart to his or her customers.
The dinner for Redzepi was a success. Yenbamroong keeps a copy of the handwritten notes he scrawled to himself as he planned the night’s menu. It is now a totem, a talisman that he returns to so that he never forgets Gold’s advice to believe in himself, to know that what he does is good enough.
Today, chef Yenbamroong oversees three restaurants in his Night-Market portfolio, including the WeHo original and a spot in Venice. He was recently anointed one of Bon Appetit’s Gen Next chefs. And last year, Gold ranked the Night + Market Song in Silver Lake at No. 23 on the Gold 101, the critic’s list of his top restaurants in and around L.A.
“He literally pulled us back from the brink,” the chef recalled. “The one thing that he does is really champion young chefs. That was a very special thing he did for me. It gave us enough support and reassurance that maybe we should stick it out, because Mr. Gold says that it’s OK, that what we were doing was OK.”
“I don’t know when this is going to hit me. I think it’s going to be like when my grandpa died. It was a few months after he died, and I’d just be sitting somewhere, and I’d start bawling. It’s going to be the same thing with Jonathan. It’s going to hit me out of the blue, when I’m driving down the street, or popping into any one of the places that he turned me onto. I’m going to realize, he’s gone.”