Chef Braden Wages of Malai Thai in the West Village is originally from upstate New York. He and his wife, Yasmin, who is from Weatherfod, met while in school at Cornell. Running a restaurant was a long-term dream for both of them. But the concept for that place was based on a what sounds like an epic three-month backpacking trip through Asia.
We spoke with them for our weekly series of chef interviews. We start with Braden.
How did you initially get into cooking? I am one of five siblings and my parents worked a lot. So my mom devised a system where one of us had to cook each night of the week. We had to create a menu and she'd go buy all the ingredients for us and make the meal and clean up. We started at a young age. My younger brother would do nothing but omelets; I started with casseroles and then went on to other things. I guess my first job was in a kitchen -- my family business was in amusement parks and we all kind of had our own department, if you will. My brother was in entertainment, my sister did gates, another did games, I was always in food.
Then I went Cornell and studied hospitality management and they also had culinary classes. I don't know if I ever thought of myself as becoming a chef; I sort of developed into that. I just always wanted to have my own restaurant.
After college, you had the opportunity to backpack through Asia for a few months, which ultimately led to the concept of Malai Thai. A friend of mine from school, who was a chef, and I just wanted to travel through Asia. We flew into Yangon in Myanmar/Burma and basically started in the east and ended up in Bangkok.
We had worked in a restaurant together during school and all we wanted to do was eat. We checked out a lot of street food and markets. We weren't nervous about what we ate, because it's no fun with that mindset. We just wanted to eat and we enjoyed being immersed in the culture and food. If we saw a fruit we'd never seen before, we'd just buy it and see what we could do with it.
What did you learn in a culinary sense? We started to understand the food more after taking a cooking class in Luang Prabang in Laos; we had a shopper go with us to the market and we would cook any dish we wanted. They explained how to use the ingredients. There's really an art to getting the most out of the flavor -- I had been using lemon grass wrong all my life. That was a major turning point.
Also, the food in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam really had an impact on me. Pho is the staple there. And it's actually only available for breakfast. You can't get it past noon. They make it all night and in the morning come out carrying it on their shoulders and set up their plastic stools and serve it until it's all gone. Then, after the soup is gone, they go to bed in the afternoon and wake up in the evening to start making it all night again. In Hanoi it is almost always made with water buffalo.
Which region did you like the most? The food culture in Hanoi was the best. There was a wider variety of cuisine there, in terms of both street food and family restaurants. They had these places called "beer hoi," (bia hoi) which means beer today. It's a beer that's made fresh every day with no preservatives, and it's sort of green and a little cloudy. It costs ten cents a pint and they sell it on every corner. It's everywhere, it's cheap and delicious.
And there are these restaurants everywhere and people stop in after work for a beer, or three, and have small plates of snacks. It's our equivalent of a tapas restaurant here. The food at those places was awesome. The typical proper meal in all of Southeast Asia is based on a bowl of rice and there are all the condiments used to season it. I say condiments, but it's not the way we eat our food here; the meal is the rice and you add a little curry sauce to it. What I liked about these places was it was all about one dish and a ton of flavor.
Did you expect to like Vietnam so much? I didn't. But it was the perfect balance of a growing culture and great food scene, but not overdeveloped. I found that most of Thailand was overdeveloped and didn't have a lot of charm. Vietnam has a great food history because of the French colonization and they're they main port for northern Asia and China. There are elements from so many cultures in all the dishes. Did a particular dish or meal stand out? I was in Da Lat, which is called the "Paris of Vietnam" and is in the hills above Saigon. It's an agricultural area and since it's higher in the mountains the produce is better and they also had the best oysters and scallops I've ever had.
We found this place that was the equivalent of a garage with plastic chairs and plastic tables. (Note: There's a picture in the bathroom at Malai Thai). This woman was cooking in tin cans and plastic buckets and she made this particular dish where she would sauté scallops in the shells and pull the top shell off and serve it on the half shell with this mix of pistachio, cilantro, green onion and oil. It was so amazing. We ate maybe ten plates the first night and kept going back. I've tried to recreate this one dish a million times and can't ever do it right. It never lives up to my expectations.
What did you learn about working after that trip? It helped me remind me of my passion for food. You see people who live their whole lives serving soup in the street in Hanoi. That one thing defined them. That's all they did -- work 12 hours a day, then go straight to be and get up and do it again the next day. The conditions were terrible, they barely had the right utensils and they do that their whole life and they don't aspire to anything other than to serve the perfect bowl of soup. That passion for food and eating was probably the biggest inspiration for me and why enjoy the pursuit of the perfect dish here.
And, also, I couldn't wait to go back to work after all that time.
Why? You're just making me want to eat. Because you can only be a spectator for so long. It was almost too much traveling, not because I was exhausted or homesick, I actually felt lazy. I wanted to get back and work.
Why Malai Thai? Everything from Malai comes from Jasmine and I together. We've always wanted to have our own restaurant. We came up with the concept a year or two before we opened. In LA there was a really well defined Vietnamese and Asian culture, but we struggled to find that here, so we wound up cooking at home more and more. And the more we did that we realized how different our food was from what we were finding at other places. We felt like we had a unique concept. How do you manage your staff? Jasmine and I are really careful about attention to detail. I spend all day either cooking next to somebody or watching them cook. I watch and expedite all day long, which allows us to manage each dish.
It's a four-man line, and everything is cooked to order, which is the biggest recipe for disaster when you make everything from scratch; you don't just make a batch of sauce, there's seasoning involved in every dish. We constantly have to balance the sweet, salty, sour... all those things going into every dish and that takes a lot of attention to detail. So, if I'm not watching, then she is.
What do you look for when you hire? As lame as this sounds, we have a mission statement, which is just, "I care." It's very simple. Everyone here has to care. If everyone cares then it works seamlessly. If one person doesn't care, then it can be a cancer.
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Have you had to deal with people that don't care? Yeah, we've had some healthy turnover because of that. People are passionate one day then over time their passion may drift to something else, and that happens, it's fine. In the front of the house, we don't hire for experience, we hire for enthusiasm and personality -- you can train them for everything else. The biggest problem in the kitchen is ego. When you become competitive with people around you it can be a problem.
How do you create cohesion? You have to constantly keep them under pressure and constantly challenge them. If you're always moving them and giving them new challenges that helps. It's rewarding for them as well.
What lessons have you learned after year one of running your own place? Yasmin: Never settle. We thought we had the best menu when we first opened and we thought our food was great, but the more we would listen to people, read comment cards and read internet reviews, we started slowing changing things. And we still constantly are. The moment we stop trying to make things better is the moment that we start to fail. That's probably the biggest lesson is that we can't ever be idle.