How Hong Thaimee Is Empowering Palates and Communities

“I am a student of life, so I learn from everyone and everything.”

Hong Thaimee's story is a testament to the power of passion and perseverance. Think about it: how many people can go from model to corporate executive to celebrated chef and restaurant owner? In the vibrant culinary landscape of New York City, Hong’s name stands out for her exceptional talent, entrepreneurial spirit, delicious Thai food, and dedication to giving back to her community.

Born and raised in Thailand, Hong was immersed in the rich culinary traditions of her homeland from an early age. Growing up with her grandmother gave Hong a deep appreciation for the flavors, aromas, and cultural significance of Thai cuisine—and provided her with a strong, resilient role model. “After she learned about an infidelity from my grandfather, my grandmother decided to take all her nine kids, leaving her well-to-do life and social status to become a single mother, and she built her new life,” Hong says. “Imagine how brave she was at her time!” 

Like many of us, Hong’s career journey has taken twists and turns. She got her start in modeling, starring in commercials for shampoo and toothpaste, before earning an MBA and working at a big pharmaceutical company. But something was missing, and her true calling beckoned her back to the kitchen.

Inspired by memories of her grandmother’s cooking and a desire to showcase the authentic tastes of Thailand, Hong embarked on a culinary journey that would redefine her life. When she decided to quit the lucrative corporate life to become a chef and build a brand new career from scratch, she looked to another grandmotherly figure for guidance. “Mother Teresa’s life work inspired me to be strong,” says Hong. “I have read her poem ‘Anyway’ over and over; it was my meditation to build my courage. To be powerful, one doesn't have to be rough! Strength could come with gentleness. I find that is a very brave thing to do.”

Hong’s bravery brought her from Bangkok to NYC. She had little kitchen experience but a ton of tenacity, landing cooking jobs at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s famed Spice Market and Perry Street restaurants. Hong honed her skills and developed a unique style, blending traditional Thai techniques with contemporary flavors. It wasn’t too long before she opened her first East Village eatery, Ngam, which was an undeniable hit—The New York Times even raved about the “mighty Thai flavors that seize you by the throat.” 

Ngam closed after a decade, and Hong began planning her next venture. Thaimee Love, a culinary and lifestyle brand, began as a pandemic pop-up in 2021 and opened a permanent space in Greenwich Village that year. When the restaurant closed, Hong pivoted to selling Thaimee Love’s flavorful sauces and meal kits for anyone looking to bring her signature brand of Thai comfort food home.

Hong has made a significant impact with her authentic Thai cuisine and unwavering commitment to her roots. She authored a cookbook, garnered widespread recognition on Food Network’s Iron Chef America and Beat Bobby Flay, and has been recognized as a James Beard Foundation Women in Culinary Leadership Program fellow, further solidifying her position as a trailblazer in the industry.

Beyond her success as a chef and entrepreneur, this Hall of Femme honoree is a philanthropist at heart. She believes in using her platform to make a positive impact on society, and works tirelessly to combat hunger and empower communities in need. Hong travels the world as a Global Chef Ambassador for the AIDS charity (RED), and serves on City Harvest’s Food Council, where she partners with local organizations and food banks to provide meals for those facing food insecurity. 

Ahead, Hong gets real about the restaurant business, shares a memorable act of kindness, and offers advice for anyone skittish about cooking Thai food. 

When you were a young girl, what were the narratives you were exposed to about women and women's rights?

I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother, one of the strongest women I know. She planted in me seeds of a belief in the right to freedom to live and be anything I want to be, and to look at the world with possibility. 

Tell us about a woman who inspires you to be courageous.

When I am very low emotionally and have not much in my tank, I always think of a lady whom I met in Zambia during my visit as a RED chef ambassador. She lives in her mud hut with no electricity, no water, little babies, a mother, one meal a day—which consists of steamed sweet potatoes—and is HIV positive. Once a month she walks a whole day to fish in a river, dry them, and sell them to make a living. But she has hope. She keeps on pushing through. She helps me to gain courage. She touches me and fills me up. Her courage to keep on living is beautiful. 

What is one thing you love about being in the restaurant business, and one thing you wish you could change? 

What I love about being in the restaurant business is the connection. I get to be involved in many people’s lives—on happy occasions such as birthdays, engagement proposals, and wedding celebrations. I get to be joyful with them. On sad days, or when my customers are going through a tough time, our servers, food, and service could cheer them up and strengthen them. I get to create magic! That’s what I love about it. 

What I wish would change is the demanding nature of it. It takes a lot for everyone involved— BOH, FOH, investors—every position. It’s never an easy process. It’s a team and a business where something can always go wrong. We have to keep our chin up and keep pushing. I am going to be real: having connection with customers is a wonderful feeling to have, but on the other hand, it could be draining. So, one, especially myself, has to learn how to balance and guard your heart, feelings and expectations. 

Do you have any advice for people who are intimidated by cooking Thai food?

My advice would be to find an authentic, truthful, and reputable source of information to guide and teach you. Don’t feel overwhelmed or intimidated by new information. Thai food is quite straightforward, and it’s a combination of flavors—sour, sweet, crunchy, and salty. Spiciness is an accessory, you add it to your level. Once you have the knowledge, have fun with it, be open minded, and keep it simple. Cooking is not rocket science. It’s ok to make a mistake. Enjoy the ride! 

Or…if you can, treat yourself to a trip to Thailand. 

What’s the kindest thing someone has ever done for you? 

This is a true NYC story: in 2011, when I started Ngam, my main investor left me hanging after I already signed a lease. I had two choices: fold it, or find new investors. Imagine the stress and thoughts I had in my head! One afternoon, in a cab, at the traffic lights on Houston and Laguardia, a total stranger, an angel in the form of the taxi driver, opened his door and picked the rose from a bush in the middle of Houston, turned around and gave it to me saying, “You looked stressed. Don’t think too much. Smile, it’s a beautiful day!”

He had no idea what I was going through. It was a breath of fresh air. It was a booster of my poor soul. His kindness still touches my heart. 

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I probably would live with my soulmate, Conor, either in London and the surrounding countryside, or in a lovely property somewhere in the south of France—somewhere in Cote d’Azur. Drinking wine, cooking from my garden, with a big kitchen and an open door policy, so our friends and family could enjoy a wonderful life with us! 

What's a ritual in your life that you swear by?

Cook with love and serve with joy! What’s the point of living, working, and growing if there is no joy?

What's your favorite way to celebrate a win (big or small)? 

I love to share it with my man, Conor! We laugh together, cry (out of joy) together, and scream the win together. 

You can follow Hong on Instagram.