A Conversation with Malai Thai's Chef-Owners Will Make You Want to Eat Pho, Like, Now
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.
Braden and Jasmine Wages of Malai Thai
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.