Suzy Wong was serving fish sauce realness at New York’s Amazing Thailand Fest in Lower Manhattan one recent weekend in June.
The nationally ranked pageant queen (Miss Gay America 2017) and drag alter ego of Thai-American chef Arnold Myint, Suzy wore fuchsia-colored opera gloves and had orchids in her hair as she led a cooking demo at the Oculus in the shadow of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center.
She shared tips for putting together one of those little caddies of condiments you see at Thai restaurants as well as how to make the essential Thai chili fish sauce, prik nam pla. “Fish sauce is our salt accessory in Thai cooking,” Suzy explained.
She also schooled the crowd on Thai culture, like, how more casual Thai greetings usually begin with the question, “Have you eaten yet?” She noted that while Thailand may be known as the Land of Smiles, “it’s also the land of food.”
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Myint, who has appeared on celebrity cooking shows such as “Top Chef” and “Food Network Star,” was in New York the same weekend the Tennessee ban on drag shows was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court. Speaking to Gay City News in a phone interview when he was back home, Myint questioned the purpose of the whole legal drama.
“Suzy is a very expensive drag queen who commands booking fees in the upper thousands,” Myint said with comic sass. “I don’t want to perform for children. They don’t drink champagne and they don’t have credit cards.”
On a more practical note, Myint listed all of the rules and regulations drag queens already adhere to as performers. “So what’s all this noise really about?” he said. “It’s about people passing judgment and not seeing a person’s humanity. And it’s about banning freedom of expression.”
The day Myint spoke to GCN, he was busy with Pride month events, as well as heading to the local farmer’s market to shop for his restaurant, International Market.
This is the second iteration of the local Thai restaurant, first opened by his late mom Patti in 1975, which introduced Thai cooking to Nashville and served the local community for more than 40 years before his mom’s unexpected death in 2018. His ailing father died a year later. The restaurant was shuttered in 2019. But in late 2021, Myint and his sister reopened a new iteration of the beloved spot.
After losing both of his parents, Myint said he refocused his culinary ambitions from being a chef who could do it all — someone who could serve Spanish small plates and French bistro fare, as well as getting a nod for burgers considered one of Nashville’s best — to focusing on his heritage of Thai food tradition and culture. “And that allowed me to really find my voice and identity—and it helped me heal.”
The restaurant still offers his mom’s original menu during the daytime hours, but at night the kitchen shifts to Myint’s take on modern Thai cuisine.
“The restaurant was born before I was,” he said. “I was raised in a bassinet out front. And all of the northern Thai and Laotian aunties and godmothers who raised me in the kitchen are the ones who got me to where I am today.”
And though he admittedly learned to cook in culinary school, he said, “Where I honed my craft and point of view was through my mother. She’s the one who raised my palate for sure.”
Myint added, “Everything I do is an homage to her.”
And her spirit lives on at the restaurant, where they serve an inspired adaptation of his mom’s signature dish, miang kham, similar to a lettuce wrap, made with 30 ingredients, including a ground coconut and tamarind sauce. The restaurant also still carries Myint’s grandmother’s shumai dumplings, an original recipe, generations old.
As he continues to center his cultural identity on his culinary path, Myint has shot the documentary “Family Thais” currently on the Tastemade YouTube channel, and there’s a cookbook in the works.
And he enjoyed bringing Suzy out on stage at the Thai food fest in New York. “Identifying as a Thai person in America has been a great journey. I was there in drag but I didn’t feel any less Arnold or any more Suzy. I could express myself fully,” he said. “I felt at home with the locals and the native people from Thailand who came to the festival. I just felt very proud of everything that my parents had given to me.”