Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
When I sat down with Jenn Saesue at the bar of Talé, a Thai restaurant on the Upper West Side, she gave me her undivided attention, motioning her co-worker to take care of the last party finishing lunch. (It's around 4pm, the awkward in-between hour for restaurants sandwiched between lunch and dinner service.) By the time I wrap up my interview with her, she has migrated to behind the bar—shaking cocktails, scrambling to print out checks, and then shuffling to tables to deliver them, with a cordless phone in her hand that never seems to stop ringing with delivery orders. It is an impressive display of multitasking for a 25-year-old woman at the beginning of her career in the restaurant industry. But Jenn is not a server, a bartender, or a manager. Although she has been all of those things, she is one of the owners of Talé, a new restaurant on Columbus Avenue, not far from neighborhood fixtures like Jackson Hole and Five Napkin Burger.
On a recent chilly night, I caught up with her (and a bowl of Koh Boat, or beef noodle soup, yum) and we chatted about what it's like being the new kid on the block.
Tell us about your experience in the food industry. When did you start out, and where did you go from there? I started out at Klong [a Thai restaurant on St. Mark's Place], when I was 17, and worked there through high school and college. I did everything--I was a waiter, a runner, a bartender and then ended up managing the place. And then the restaurant expanded, they opened Room Service [in Chelsea] and Sookk [in Manhattan Valley] and I managed those places as well. After college I quit and started this project.
What prompted that decision to open your own place? A chef and another manager at Klong hit a point where they didn't want to work for someone else anymore and decided to start their own venture. I was invited to be a part of it. It was a good opportunity, I had a little bit of money saved up, and it was just good timing. I knew that I wanted to open a restaurant, but I didn't know it would be this fast.
We scouted for a location for a long time... the whole process probably took a year. A lot of the places we saw before this were just messes, they had a lot of work that needed to be done; we needed a lot of money just to get started. This space was in a good condition when we started and the renovation was actually doable.
Who's running the kitchen? Amornrat Thorngroop, the chef, came up with the menu. She comes from a family of food professionals in Thailand. She asked us for input along the way, but she made the major decisions. Thai food can be overpowering; it can be very spicy or very fishy; sometimes it's too much flavor for some. We're trying to walk a fine line, accommodating those people while keeping the integrity of the taste as much as possible.
Which of those dishes are truest to the cuisine? The noodle soups are all very on point with the noodles you get in Thailand. The Koh Boat, which is the beef noodle soup, is made with beef broth that's been boiled with diluted pig's blood. Every Thai restaurant has a basil sauce, but ours is very similar to what is served in Thailand.
What challenges didn't you foresee when you started this project?Dealing with all the tax paperwork is probably killing me slowly. I also thought the neighborhood was going to be busier, and didn't expect it to be so hard to get people in the door. There's less foot traffic than I thought there would be.
What have you learned about your customers? The hardest part is convincing them to come in. The scaffolding above our block probably has something to do with it, people don't know we're under it! Newcomers always think that we just opened, but in fact we've been here for over 7 months. But once they come in, many of them are very loyal.
You were 24 when you started this business. Do you think your age was an asset, or do you wish you had more years of experience under your belt? I was probably more enthusiastic because I am a little younger. But at the same time it makes me a little arrogant, always thinking "Yeah, I can do this." I think it's an asset, but it might not come off that way to the people that I deal with. Especially being young and female, people constantly ask me, "How old are you?" You can tell they are doubtful and they're not really taking you seriously.
But I think it's definitely better to start young, there's more time to learn. I've already learned so much. I know the industry. I know the front of the house and the back. There was no other position to move up but to start my own business.
What are your goals for Talé? I want it to be a neighborhood go-to where people come, enjoy their food and hang out. If it's successful enough we want to expand and open another location. It might not be the same restaurant, but in the same vein of Thai food. I want to be able to become established enough that we can have the freedom to come up with new, more innovative dishes that I know Thai cuisine has to offer. Dishes that aren't here yet because they haven't been brought over—once we're successful enough and can afford to experiment.
Do you like being your own boss? Do you wish you had more guidance at times? Would I choose anything else right now? No. But at the same time, when the AC breaks in the middle of July, or the fridge, it's on you. The time the AC broke, I was going away for the weekend and had already packed my bag... and then I had to be here through the whole day and the weekend. But I think all owners go through this. You get to pick your own hours, but you're on call all the time. It's your home. What if something in your house breaks? You're the one who's going to have to fix that.
About the author: Helen Zhang works in the media industry by day and descends upon New York's culinary and spirituous offerings by night (and sometimes day.) She is an ex-bartender/server/hostess/counter girl but will always love the industry. Follow her on Twitter (@hel_bell).