Jenn Saesue

Fish Cheeks
East Village, NYC
Fish Cheeks has been on our list of restaurants to check out pretty much all of 2019. When we finally walked in one day this month, we found co-founder Jenn Saesue last-minute hosting her sister’s engagement party. Despite having to host her very important guests aka family while attending to regular restaurant customers dining, Saesue was extremely put together. She was eloquent, hilarious, and completely immersed in conversation. By the end of the interview we found ourselves mixed into the party itself - and that’s exactly what eating at Fish Cheeks feels like. You’ll leave knowing everyone’s name, and wishing you had more leftovers than you could possibly carry.
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What is your full name, age, and where are you from?

Jennifer Saesue. My age is 33. I was born here in New Jersey, move back to Thailand when i was 2, and then moved back to New York when I was 12

Why did you move back to Thailand?

My mom basically had it with New York. She was like “I’m done, I don’t have anyone here. I’m going back to Thailand.”

What was growing up like for you?

I only have a sister here, but in Thailand I have a very large family. My mom has 7 brothers and sisters, and my dad has 4 on his side, along with a stepbrother and sister. When we get together, it always turns into a party. 

Do both your parents cook?

No. My grandmother cooked. My mom sucks at cooking, she makes horrible meals. Laughs We liked to eat out a lot, which is really where my love of food and eating came from. My dad loves eating and his family actually cooks a lot. His whole side of the family makes amazing food, they are from the Northern part of Thailand. They care a lot about what they’re making.

Is there a dish that reminds you of childhood?

Oh my god, it’s so simple. In Thailand there’s this certain type of mackerel; you fry it and then eat it with dipping sauce and vegetables. My grandmother would make it for me, take everything apart, take all of the bones out, and mix the fish with rice. It’s so good.

We want to make it here but don’t have that type of mackerel in the U.S. I guess we do have it but it’s frozen and we wouldn’t want that.

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What’s your role here and how did you get into the business? 

I always worked in the restaurant business, since I was in high school and throughout college. I was good at it. I did everything: server, bartender, host, food runner. I was also a manager so it came very naturally to me.

I went to Baruch business school. After I graduated from college, I thought I could do it myself, “Hell yeah, I can open a restaurant.” I basically jumped into a project with some other people, and it didn’t work out. I was super, super arrogant. It taught me a lot. It honestly taught me more than business school. All of my partners were Thai so I handled everything for them. It was a lot.

When did Fish Cheeks happen?

After that, I went to work for my old boss at Obao. It’s a Thai/Vietnamese, fast-paced, lots-of-volume kind of place. I was there for close to 4 and a half years and I got to a point where I was really comfortable. I realized I didn’t want to keep doing this for other people - it should be something I do for myself.

I also saw that there was a gap for good Thai food in New York City. There are a lot of Thai restaurants, but there are almost no really good Thai restaurants. From a thousand in the city, you can only pick a couple and say this is actual Thai food. It’s sad to me that every Thai place in the city has the same menu - Pad Thai, Pad Kee Mao, Rainbow Curry. 

And nothing is actually wrong with that. Those restaurants paved the way for people to understand what Thai food even is. But now, 20 years later, I think people are ready to experience more. People have sophisticated palettes now. They’re more accepting of other people’s food. Now it’s like, “Bring it on.”

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The U.S. seems to have a watered down version of almost every cuisine. 

It could also be that they don’t have the ability to get their hands on the ingredients they need. Like Pad Thai really only needs a few ingredients that Chinese food already has. So that was easier.

How do you source your ingredients here?

It’s still very hard. We focus on seafood so we deal with the vendors closely at Fulton Fish Market. We get fresh seafood in every day so that’s easier for us.

But we do have problems acquiring herbs and vegetables that are really native to Thai food. I think because the demand is rising now, all the suppliers are working to make it a little easier.

What do you think working in the industry has taught you?

To be patient. Everyone is different. You need to listen, they’re just hungry. At the end of the day, they’re here to eat. They want to have a good time.

Do you have any pet peeves in particular with customers?

When they try to compare us to other places, thinking that there is one way to do Thai food, therefore we are “not correct.” At the beginning we got a lot of “You don’t have Pad Thai?” People were actually mad! They said we weren’t a Thai restaurant! We just wanted to offer something a little different. 

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Is Pad Thai as much of a thing in Thailand? 

Oh it definitely is, but it’s not something you would sit down at the dinner table to eat. It isn’t a meal you eat with your family. It’s a meal when you have 10 minutes, and you’re outside, and you grab it on the street. It’s available and it’s tasty, but there is a lot more that we actually eat at home. 

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

I love the Steamed Fish with Thai herbs. It’s lemongrass broth with a whole steamed fish, sliced garlic, birds’ eye chili, cilantro, mint. It’s really light. It’s my favorite in Thailand and it’s my favorite here.

Our Coconut Crab Curry is important to us as well. We hand crush our own curry paste. A lot of places use canned paste, which is fine and very native to Thailand. We just like to do it on our own. We get to simmer it daily in coconut milk. 

What’s the best time of day to come here?

Lunchtime during weekdays is the best. It’s calm. It’s ideal.

Where would we find you when you’re not here?

If I can get in, it’s Four Charles Prime Rib. You have to go. It’s special. They have 10 tables. You have to put yourself on a notification list. If they call, you go. I have to say, it is that good.

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