How Malai Kitchen's Chef-Owners Keep Looking for, and Finding, Inspiration

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For most chefs, the flavors that dominate their cuisine come from a very personal place, like a decades of mom's home cooking or a few years of intensive training at a French culinary school.

For others, though, that passion for a cuisine develops in relatively unexpected places. Braden and Yasmin Wages of Malai Kitchen didn't grow up eating Vietnamese or Thai food, but their commitment to respectfully cooking the cuisine and attention to tradition is undeniable. I sat down with the Wages to talk about how they developed their unique cuisine, their commitment to making crazy ingredients in-house, and what the future looks like for these two talented (and wildly ambitious) young chefs.

What part of your backgrounds influenced the Thai & Vietnamese cuisine at Malai Kitchen?

Braden Wages: I've always been really passionate about this cuisine. Right after I finished college, I backpacked through ten countries in Asia. I spent most of my time in Southeast Asia because you just kind of make it up as you go when you're backpacking, and I just fell in love with the food, the culture, just everything. Admittedly, I didn't even know what pho was before I went to Vietnam. I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York, so not much exposure there. When I was there, I was cooking and learning, and when I came back, we moved to California. We lived there for almost five years, and there is an abundance of the cuisine available and an abundance of great ingredients. Over time, we built our confidence, and we travel back every year to learn more.

Yasmin Wages: We found ourselves cooking that food more and more at home. Those would be the dishes we were craving. When we were thinking about what we wanted for dinner, it was Vietnamese or Thai almost always.

Do you both have a culinary background?

Yasmin: We have an operations background. We both went to hospitality school and have degrees in hospitality management. We worked in restaurant management for a few years, so we come from a restaurant background. When you have restaurant experience, you have a little bit of everything. We had a little back of house knowledge, a little front of house knowledge, and we just sort of combined that.

Braden: One thing about this cuisine is that there's no culinary degree that teaches the basics. The best way is to travel and eat and learn from the people who do it. That's when our education began.

Do you think it's almost easier to open a restaurant when you have a hospitality background. That seems to be where a lot of chefs fail. They're extremely creative, but not so good at being business-oriented. Yasmin: It's been a huge part of why we're even still around. We use the word success a little loosely. I think it's kind contributed to our survival. Restaurants are really, really hard, and Dallas is a tough market. To get through the first two years and get over that hump requires restaurant savvy. You have to know and understand all the working pieces that go into your operation to know where you can make cuts where you need to without affecting your guests.

Braden: In any small business, you have to have a diversity of skill sets. You can't just be a creative chef whose job is just to write recipes and the rest will all sort of fall into place. You need that, but if that's all you bring to the table, you better have a good team around you. Between the two of us, I think we cover the main aspects of running a restaurant. Part of is hospitality, part of it is creative, part of it is knowing how to do business.

Did you feel like you might face some criticism for not being entirely authentic because neither of you are Vietnamese and didn't grow up with this cuisine? We don't think defining "legitimacy" or "authenticity" is really a productive discussion for us. We serve great food that we stand behind. It's inspired correctly. We're not just copying what someone else has done. We brought back our experiences from Thailand and Vietnam and wanted to share those with other people. We have confidence in our style of cooking and hopefully that translates to our guests.

Yasmin: I think we have integrity in everything that we do. We stand behind every single dish that we serve and we make it the best way that we know to make it. The quality of the product we use is undeniable, and I think that helps people realize that what we're doing is a little bit different.

That's kind of an interesting point, that you both are more focused on making really great food than being strictly authentic. Yasmin: I don't think it's good vs. authentic. Everything in our restaurant is inspired by tradition, and there's a lot of inspiration in the food that we cook. Everyone's definition of authentic is different. An authentic American cheeseburger might mean something different to you than it does to me. Northern Thai and southern Thai are completely different. When people make claims that our food is or isn't authentic, it's difficult to determine where they're coming from because it's a term that is very vague.

Braden: We get both ends of the spectrum in feedback about our food. But that's not a measure of success that we care about. We want people to enjoy our food and see the passion behind it. That's all it comes down to.

Many of the dishes on your menu are very traditional. How do you make those your own without changing what people expect when they order a big bowl of pho? Braden: I think Yasmin was on point when she mentioned the quality of ingredients that we use. Our core menu is mostly dishes that people are familiar with, just executed in the best way possible. With our pho, we went through eight different dishes to find the best beef bones that gave us the most flavor. We cook them for twelve hours overnight, and use beef tenderloin instead of ribeye. A fresh rice noodle instead of dried. Hopefully all of those things add up to a superior dish. The same thing is true for our green curry. Every Thai menu has green curry, but we make ours from scratch using 15 ingredients. We pound out all the herbs and spices to make the paste, and use housemade coconut milk made from whole coconuts. What it results in is a dish that is similar to what you see in other restaurants, but different in a good way.

Speaking of the coconut milk, you guys do a lot of things in-house. It sounds like a lot of work to make your own coconut milk and sriracha. Is it as involved as it sounds? Braden: It's worse! When we decided that we were going to make our own coconut milk a year ago, it was like why wouldn't we? We make everything else from scratch, so it seemed like a great idea. It is so hard, but it comes out in the product. It makes a total difference, and that's what makes it so rewarding. The same goes for our sriracha. If you put this next to a regular sriracha that you get in a store, it's just way better. It's healthier, made from scratch. Plus, it's unique and helps us define what we do. A lot of these things are a little bit thankless, but the people who appreciate it, it makes it really worthwhile.

Yasmin: Knowing that we can serve people a product that is free of preservatives and chemicals that make it last for years without going bad makes us feel a little bit better about what we do. And it just takes so much better.

That was going to be my next question: is the taste really that noticeably different? Braden: With the coconut milk, it's totally different. It has more of a fresh flavor, and is a little thinner than a canned coconut milk. We use coconut water inside, so you get all the nutrients and sweetness. It's super-natural, and it has almost a pulpiness like fresh-squeezed orange juice. It really is amazing.

Did you have to adapt your recipes around the new product? Braden: We did, but not too much. We don't add sugar anymore, and in some cases where a sauce was made with coconut milk and stock, we're able to use less stock. But those are really the only two changes that we have to make.

You even brew your own beer here. That takes a pretty big level of committment to do all of these different things entirely in-house. Are you going to start making your own plates in the back or something next? Braden: Every day, we think of more crazy stuff to do. We're infinitely curious, and we know that anything can be done.

Yasmin: It's like mad scientist syndrome in here sometimes.

Braden: Right. When is it going to end? The beer thing, though, is like cooking to me. There are ratios and times and ingredients. The process is a little bit longer, but we treat it with the same level of precision as we do our food. We want to have consistent food every time, and we want to have consistent beer every time. It's great, though. I think it's super-cool to have our own beer because we've always had such a great cocktail program and a unique wine list, and it's hard to stand out with a beer program anymore. We thought that was the best way to go about it.

What were the logistics of actually being allowed to brew your own beer? It seems like TABC would quickly stick their noses into that. Yasmin: You actually have to go through the federal government first. You have to get approval from the Tobacco and Trade Bureau, and that took about six months. Once you get your seal of approval, then you go onto TABC. We had to send them full-scale drawings of what we were planning and how we would brew the beer, and a lot of other really detailed information. We had to have our lease changed to become a brewpub, we had to get approval from the neighborhood, and it was just a really long process.

Braden: But because the federal government's screening is so thorough, the state-level process really isn't terrible. The federal part, though, is really hard. You can't go to an office, so communication is difficult, and they're constantly asking for more information. They're mostly concerned about the logistics of the project and where they funding is coming from to make sure that you're not laundering money or something. Then they have to figure out how to handle the taxes. If we're doing it all here, they tax brewers and alcohol producers at a different rate. It's a little crazy.

You guys seem to be really good at making your lives more complicated. Braden: Definitely. I think we have no regard for making our lives easier is what it is. We're not trying to make our lives harder, we're just oblivious to what we're doing is going to do in the long term. But we're always going to figure out a way to make the things that we want happen. We really love this restaurant, and the passion that comes with that inspires you to do more and more.

On a very unrelated note, after traveling and living in other parts of the country, were you surprised at the level of excellent Asian food in Dallas? Especially for Braden, who never lived in Dallas? Braden: Definitely. I did not realize when we moved here five years ago that there would be such a great Asian population. That population creates a demand and flow of great ingredients and that makes things better for restaurants in general.

Yasmin: Earlier this year, we did a cooking demonstration in New York City, and to try and find ingredients that we take for granted here was so challenging in New York City.

Braden: We spent weeks planning where we would find the best markets and the best purveyors and when we got there, we were really disappointed in what they had. We get such beautiful fresh produce and herbs, which is the core of the cuisine, flown in daily or grown here locally. It really is incredible.

You both also consulted on Banh Shop, which has obviously gotten some headlines, not all of which were positive. When that happened, what was your reaction to the backlash? Braden: We felt really bad that people were offended by the star. It obviously wasn't something that we saw coming or expected, and it wasn't our decision to make. We were brought on long after that. The decision was terribly overlooked. We went to Vietnam and showed people the logo because the star is ubiquitous there. It's the people who have come to the United States from Vietnam who were fleeing Communist violence who were offended.

Yasmin: It's two different worlds. I do have to say, though, that I thought the company handled it really well. They took really quick action to apologize, took the sign down, and then fixed it and tried to move on with as little momentum loss as possible instead of trying to argue about it. I thought that was impressive. We care most, though, about the food. As long as people like the food, we feel like we've done our job.

Was it difficult to create a menu that was much more casual than what you're used to doing at Malai?

Braden: It was exciting for us to think differently. We love this cuisine and we want people to eat it for every meal like we do. To have another avenue to share our passion and share the cuisine was a big deal. Not everyone can come to Malai, and that was a great option to complement what we do here.

Yasmin: It requires a completely different mindset. We had all these lofty ideas, and realized that there was no way it was possible to do certain things on a large scale. We had to rethink how we thought of the food to create a menu.

Since you both clearly love to stay busy, what does the future look like? Braden: Of course we have lots of things brewing, most notably that Yasmin is brewing a little demon of her own that's coming the first week of December. We are opening a Banh Shop at DFW Airport on Friday in the international terminal, which is a great location for us. We're also upgrading our brewing process at Malai so we can kind of put it on display and streamline our operation. Right now, we're brewing two five gallon batches per day, and we'll be able to brew twenty-five gallon batches once the new tanks get here. We're also contemplating doing another Malai, but we'll have to find a great location that really suits us.

You both seem pretty laid back for people who have this much on their plates. Braden: Maybe you just caught us on a good day. I haven't slept in a little while, so maybe I'm docile because I'm half-asleep.

Yasmin: This was just a good way to talk about something other than all that we have going on here.

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