Jenn Saesue at Fish Cheeks in NYC photographed by Gabby Jones

What do you do in the food world and what do you love about it?
I am a co-owner of Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant on Bond Street in Manhattan. We serve family-style, seafood-focused Thai food, with the goal of bringing the same regional flavors I grew up eating to New York. At Fish Cheeks, we’re a “Pad Thai free zone” because I love sharing Thai dishes that often aren’t featured on typical Thai menus, like our coconut crab curry, crab aob woonsen, steamed fish with Thai herbs, and tiger prawn karee, to give New Yorkers a true taste of what we eat in Bangkok and beyond.

I’ve always had a love of food — growing up, I remember scouring Bangkok with my father in search of the best dishes (one, I remember, to a restaurant that was specifically known for having the best watercress in the city). My passion for food only continued to grow over time, and, after I moved to the States, I actually first ventured out to open my own restaurant at just 23 years old.

The restaurant ended up closing, but it gave me the experience needed to start at Obao, a multi-concept Thai and Vietnamese restaurant here in New York, where I first met chefs Ohm and Chat. We bonded quickly and realized that we shared the same vision of opening a restaurant in NYC that served the kind of Thai food we had grown up eating. Inspired, we set out to open Fish Cheeks in 2016. This love of food and experimenting with flavors continued as the success of Fish Cheeks grew, and in 2019 Ohm and I opened Chicks Isan, a fast-casual Thai restaurant in Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market Hall, spotlighting the bold flavors of Isan (Northern Thailand) to showcase a kind of Thai cuisine that we don’t serve at Fish Cheeks.

How do you resist the patriarchy?
Honestly, I just don’t give the patriarchy my energy or attention. I see and experience the patriarchy all the time, but I try not to let it get to me. For me, as a petite Asian woman, there’s always this questioning of my authority and success. People will do a double-take and say “Oh, you’re the owner? This (restaurant) is yours?” Whereas no one questions the success of my partners (who are male) — they just say congratulations without hesitation. I know that they don’t necessarily come from a bad place because it’s our society that shaped their views, so I’ve learned to not think too much about it and focus on putting my work and vision out in the world to change that view. I believe in doing the best and most that I can, and in the end, it will pay off.

You run your business with Chat and Ohm who are siblings, what is your favorite part about having a family driven business. What has been the impact of family on your business?
It means that they never fight with me, they just fight with each other, haha! But truly, having a family driven business means that everyone in the restaurant is focused on working together to achieve the same goal. We all have our own roles and responsibilities, and we all respect each other’s work.

I would say that the largest impact that our family-driven mentality has on our business is that, as Chat, Ohm and I are all Thai, we’ve made it our conscious mission to educate people about what Thai food really is. We are inclusive in our staff — our team is a very diverse group and we don’t only hire Thai people, but we all are passionate about the food we serve at Fish Cheeks. We want others to understand our food and culture, and in the same way, we are inclusive of all people. We also serve family-style plates and encourage visitors to share dishes with their friends and family to get the full Fish Cheeks experience.

What do you hope guests at Fish Cheeks will take away from their experience?
I hope that guests at Fish Cheeks can be inspired by the soulful Thai dishes we serve, and open their horizons to understand Thai food as much more than pad Thai or pad see ew. We encourage family and communal-style dining so diners can try a variety of different dishes that pair well together (this is also the way we eat back home). Dinnertime allows family and friends to gather and connect after a long day, share a deliciously cooked meal, and just be together — whether they’re eating in fine dining restaurants, street stalls, or at their own kitchen table. We try to recreate that warm, familial feeling at Fish Cheeks and hope people take away memories of trying something new (or, something they love) with people they care about.

It takes a lot of trial and error and re-calibrating to reach success. What has been your favorite failure along the way?
For me, the biggest learning curve was learning how to hire staff and manage my own expectations of other people. I’ve made poor hiring decisions many times, but it’s been a good lesson in learning what to expect out of others. The hiring process, and especially realizing that someone is not the right fit and letting go of staff is never fun, but it is part of the business. And sometimes, there are people who are just not fit for the job. You always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, people can change if they want to, but sometimes people don’t and won’t change. So, as an owner, you have to realize that sometimes people won’t change for you and make the difficult decisions.

What is your favorite thing on the menu right now?
The steamed fish with Thai herbs! I just love the taste — it’s light, served hot, easy to eat, and you can make it spicy or not super spicy to your own taste. It’s just a great dish!

What's the best piece of advice you've received from another woman?
From my mom: Pick and choose your battles. I can be hot-headed and my first instinct is to be in “fight mode” to prove my point to other people. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are things you should fight for, but other times it’s best to take a step back, relax and let them play out. Fighting to prove everyone wrong all the time doesn’t hurt anyone except me.

        Jenn Saesue at Fish Cheeks in NYC photographed by Gabby Jones

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