Baoburg has a small but mighty space in Williamsburg. It is a sparsely decorated, yet welcoming room featuring hand-picked pieces of art from a local thrift shop, mason jar chandeliers, and a vintage skirt made up to be an apron and tacked to a dressmaker form. The food, though, is the true star of this restaurant, and Chef Suchanan Aksornnan cooks with happiness and delight.
We sat down with her to talk about her new, and wonderfully successful, restaurant and were lucky enough to taste some of her signature dishes as well. Baoburg’s website says to “expect the unexpected” and we are here to tell you that this food is indeed different and exceptionally tasty.
The Chefs Connection (CC): I have to ask, how did you get your nickname Bao Bao?
“Oh! Ok, well, I started off my career when I was very young. Like, 14 or 15. I was surrounded by people who were older than me. Bao bao in Chinese means ‘baby.’ So that’s why they call me Bao Bao. It was annoying at first but then I accepted it and now I like it.”
CC: So Baoburg came from that?
“Yes. Bao Bao in Williamsburg. Baby in Williamsburg.”
CC: I’m curious as to why you chose to open a fusion restaurant? Specifically, a French, Spanish, and Asian fusion restaurant.
“My cuisine includes everything I am inspired by. I always respect all cuisines but these are three of my favorites so far. You know, I combine everything together, and put my inspiration in there. Also, there is Japanese, because my stepfather is Japanese.”
CC: You moved to New York from Chiang Rai when you were a young girl. What was that experience like?
“At first it was very tough for me, because I didn’t know if I would fit in here. My life completely changed: I grew up in a small town, surrounded by nature, trees, but here, it’s a concrete jungle. Also when I moved here I saw a big difference in people. They are more active. Thailand is more laid back. People are like, ‘Chill out. Tomorrow, we will do it tomorrow, tomorrow.’ And here, it’s always like, ‘right now!’ So it was tough, but I loved that. Because it makes you put more effort into everything.”
CC: What did you think of the food when you first came here?
“Yeah! Amazing! Because here in this country you can find everything. They are all here: any ingredient, all types of cuisines, and excellent chefs. It’s the best city.”
CC: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
“I always knew. When I was growing up I liked to play cooking with my friends. I would pick leaves with my friends and fruit from trees and pretend that I was a chef. So they would buy things from me with the leaves pretending that each leaf was money. And I was happy. And the next thing I know I am a real chef and I like to see people happy eating my food.”
CC: You’ve worked for Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud. What were those experiences like?
“It was such an amazing experience. Especially with Chef Daniel. He is one of my biggest idols. I still remember a day that he was rushing to a meeting but he had to walk through the kitchen. He saw one of the cooks had messed up something — the dish — and he jumped in with his suit and the laptop in his hand and said, ‘No this is the way we cook it and serve it.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. This man is a hero.’
“He doesn’t care how big his position is, he just puts everything into his food.”
CC: You were also a personal chef. I imagine that is a very different experience from being a chef in a restaurant.
“Yes, they are very different. I like both. Being a personal chef you can do what you want and you know exactly what the client wants. They will tell you exactly what they want it to be, and how many people [it’s for]. But in a restaurant, you never know how many people you will get each day. They can be tough or nice customers. So it’s different. But both are great. And I love both.”
“Yes. My mother started here. She is a tough woman. She worked every day, seven days a week, for years, because she wanted to make sure nothing got messed up. She opened up her restaurant on this corner and then eventually expanded to the second floor and then the other location in midtown. And my dad is the businessman but he also loves food — he is a foodie — so he opened his restaurant. And Baoburg was last. It’s very new. Last year. This place (Baoburg) used to have a difference concept: my mom wanted to open a dim sum place, but it turned out she thought it was a good opportunity for me. Back then I was still a personal chef. She believed I could handle this place and told me to do whatever I wanted. And this is what I wanted to do.”
CC: What do you think food should be: fun and tasty or serious and perfect?
“Ok. So, I like that question. I think food has no limits. Who knows? Maybe you can create something better than the old original dish. I still respect tradition of course. Thinking outside the box is much more fun and challenging for me. As long as you know it’s good then it’s good.”
CC: Besides those first imaginary meals you made for your friends, do you remember the first dish you cooked?
“Yes, of course. I still remember the taste on my tongue. Egg Chawanmushi: steamed egg custard. I cooked that with my grandma when I was five years old. She didn’t want me to touch knives back then. The egg is simple and basic to cook so she taught me that. I still remember, I couldn’t reach the stove so she let me prepare everything. I mixed the ingredients. I felt proud of myself. I thought ‘Wow I cooked! I am a chef!’ I gave it to her and she steamed it. Then she showed it to me and said, ‘Look at you. Look at what you did!’”
CC: Tell us your Deep Dark Secret.
“I love to sing and dance in the kitchen. Actually that is not a secret because we have an open kitchen so customers can see. Oh wait! I know. I like to work out in the kitchen. Leg lifts.”
CC: What do you like most about being a chef?
“This one is my favorite question. To be a chef is to see people being happy eating food. The reason I have my kitchen open is to see the people outside. And also for them to see me, happy, cooking for them. I have some customers that have very high expectations, and some of them are confused by my food. But most of the time I see people eating it and saying, ‘Yum.’ So that is good. It works. Especially when the plate comes back to the kitchen empty, or if they wave and say, ‘thank you, Chef!’ on their way out. I think that is terrific.”
CC: Do you have a guilty pleasure food?
“Yes: cheesy truffle fries with bacon — I have it here. And every time we make too much, I eat it.”
CC: Do you have a favorite dish on the menu now?
“Yes my favorite dish is baked cod. Also the seared duck breast with noodles, which I came up with. It’s my signature dish. The chicken wings too. I will cook all those dishes that I mentioned for you.”
CC: Lucky me!
Read Chef Bao Bao’s deep dark secret.
Interview by Chiara Motley
Photos by Battman