Chef Ohm Suansilphong Of NYC’s Fish Cheeks On What “Authenticity” In Thai Cuisine Means To Him

Hint: There's no pad Thai involved.

By Jacqueline Parisi

6 December 2019

If you make a reservation at Fish Cheeks, a family-style Thai restaurant in Manhattan’s Noho neighborhood, don’t hold out hope for pad Thai—you won’t find it anywhere.

Because as Chef Ohm Suansilphong tells us, he can count the number of times he ate this dish as a child growing up in Sukhothai, a province in the northern central region of Thailand. “It’s just not something that, if you’re at home, your grandma or mom would make for you,” he explains, by way of co-owner/translator Jenn Saesue. “It’s not something that we crave.”

Chef Ohm Suansilphong | Alexa Bendek

And while Suansilphong recognizes full well that the dish exists as a “gateway food” into Thai cuisine for the American palate, he nonetheless staunchly refuses to put it on the menu of Fish Cheeks—a restaurant that he opened in 2016 alongside his brother and fellow chef, Chat, to be unapologetically, uniquely, and authentically Thai.

What you will find, however, are steaming curries doctored up with chunks of crab meat and laced with thick, creamy coconut milk. Or whole fish wrapped in a banana leaf, “Ping Gnob Style.” You’ll find copious amounts of fresh herbs and a healthy caliber of spice tapered by fluffy mounds of fragrant, sticky jasmine rice. All with a side of bold island vibes.

While the name, Fish Cheeks pays homage to the most prized part of the fish, the part widely considered a delicacy in various countries around the world, Suansilphong didn’t open the restaurant with a fine dining concept in mind. And yet, it’s managed to land on list after list of the “best upscale seafood restaurants in NYC”—an accolade that Suansilphong chocks up to relativity.

“It’s not upscale by any means if you compare to other cuisines, but comparing it to Thai food, it’s more expensive because of the ingredients we use,” he explains. “We’re seafood-focused, with a lot of shrimp, prawns, and crab meat, so people critique us as an upscale restaurant. But I want to mimic the experience of going to Thailand, where everything is very casual. Nothing is fussy; there are no white tablecloths. I just want to put out food that I’m proud of.”

READ MORE: How To Plan The Perfect Multi-City (And Island) Thailand Itinerary

Fish Cheeks | Alexa Bendek

Even if Suansilphong grew up wanting to become a chef (he didn’t), the widely accepted connotations of the profession in Thai society at the time would have convinced him otherwise.  

“It wasn’t honorable,” Suansilphong tells us, “and no one really aspired to become a cook.”

But growing up with a father who prepared a homemade meal every single day—"he makes the best braised pork over rice"—Suansilphong always had the seed of interest planted firmly in his mind.

Upon graduating from college, he decided to open a restaurant. The only problem? He didn’t understand the back-end of exactly how to do so. The solution? Culinary school.

After graduating from the Mandarin Oriental, Suansilphong was presented with two options: head to the southern part of Thailand to work at a resort alongside a friend and mentor, or remain in Bangkok to join the team at Nahm. He chose the latter—a decision that he calls “the best for his career.” Because during his time immersed in the upper echelons of fine dining at this one Michelin-star spot (which has since repeatedly landed on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list), Suansilphong learned how an international kitchen should be run. Surrounded by dedicated and passionate chefs, he left more inspired and excited about cooking than ever before.

From Bangkok, Suansilphong brought his enthusiasm down under to Australia to work at Long Grain, a modern Southeast Asian restaurant that afforded him the experience of cooking outside the realms of Thai food. But when the opportunity presented itself for Suansilphong to come to New York, he couldn’t pass it up.

“New Yorkers have such a sophisticated palate,” he argues, “so I knew they would understand this type of food and the way we want to make it. They’re open-minded and wouldn’t try to compare Thai food that we have to Americanized Thai food that we’ve seen before.”

READ MORE: The Best Foods In NYC, According To Locals

In pursuit of authenticity, Suansilphong has done more than omit dishes like pad Thai from his menu—he also retains the integrity of the spice levels by not “dumbing it down.”

“I won’t make food spicy for the sake of being spicy,” he explains, “but because we use homemade ingredients, the spice comes through more. We don’t add chiles just to add chiles. We do it because it’s called for. But there are also dishes that aren’t spicy at all, and that I prefer others not eat spicy. The tiger prawns with scrambled eggs and yellow curry powder is the perfect example, If people ask for chopped chiles on the side, I would say ‘Yes, you can, but I prefer you not to.’”

Tiger prawns stir-fried with curry powder, scrambled egg, scallion, micro-celery, and roasted chili paste | @stuffbeneats

Suansilphong may spend upwards of 15 hours a day wearing chef whites, but when he does get the chance to escape the Fish Cheeks kitchen, odds are he’s around the corner shopping at Kith—indulging in what Saesue affectionately refers to as his “wicked sense of style.”

Or he’s flipping through old cookbooks, or wandering deep into Queens or through the alleyways of Chinatown seeking out inspiration in the form of hole-in-the-wall ethnic markets.

“Two weeks ago, I saw a rambutan, which is a red, spiky-looking fruit,” recalls Suansilphong. It was on a cart on the side of the street, and I thought ‘I could make a curry from that.’”

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Fish Cheeks | Alexa Bendek