Ny Vongsaly likes to joke that he was a child when he met restaurateur Zoe Robinson 30 years ago at the old Empire Cafe in Lafayette Square. However, the experiences that got him to St. Louis, all the way from Laos, were far from child's play.
"He swam across the Mekong River with people shooting at him to escape to Thailand," Robinson explains of Vongsaly's harrowing 1979 journey out of the war-torn country. It's not something that Vongsaly focuses on, however. The part of his journey that he likes to recall, in fact, is more amusing than awful."I was the ringleader," Vongsaly recalls of his time in the refugee camp in Thailand. "There were these buildings, and I would tell people they had to put the supplies here or there. I was the one in charge of ordering, and I was only twenty years old. See, even then I was always the boss."
Today, Vongsaly is indeed the boss: As the executive chef of Robinson's acclaimed restaurant group, including its latest effort, Billie-Jean (7610 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-797-8484), Vongsaly is in charge of overseeing an eclectic portfolio that includes everything from authentic Italian to classical French.
Though never professionally trained as a chef, Vongsaly learned about food by watching his mother and sisters. He picked up their techniques and traditional Laotian recipes well enough to impress Robinson and his other co-workers when they worked together at Empire Cafe.
"Zoe would say, 'Hey, this is what I want — salty, spicy big flavors,'" Vongsaly says, recalling how he would bring in traditional Laotian dishes for his colleagues. "They would all say that they wanted more of this for lunch."
Robinson was so impressed that she brought Vongsaly on board when she bought Empire Cafe and renamed it Cafe Zoe. After a few months, he became the restaurant's executive chef, creating a menu of dishes influenced by the food he'd grown up eating in Laos, as well as what he concocted while experimenting as a home cook.
Vongsaly and Robinson worked well together, becoming, as they describe it, like brother and sister. But it wasn't just a friendship that was forged at Cafe Zoe: The pair achieved success beyond what they had expected with Cafe Zoe and realized that they had a knack for the restaurant business and, for Vongsaly, for cooking.
Though he was enjoying his newly found career as a chef, the pull to reconnect with his real-life brother and sister was strong. Vongsaly departed Cafe Zoe and St. Louis for Modesto, California, to join his family, where he worked as a mechanic for several years.
His then-wife, who had family in St. Louis, wanted to return, so Vongsalay found himself again in the Midwest and looking for a cooking job. He got one with Patty Long Catering, where he we worked until Robinson came calling with another idea: She was getting ready to launch a new concept and wanted his help.
That concept, Zoe Pan Asian, was a huge success in the Central West End and solidified Vongsaly's and Robinson's relationship as collaborators — no matter what the concept. That's why there was no one else she could tap when she
wanted to open her Italian concept, I Fratellini.
Though he'd never really cooked Italian food, a culinary trip to Italy made Vongsaly realize just how much it shares with Laotian cuisine. "Italian food is so similar to Asian food," he explains. "Dumplings are stuffed pasta; we both use a lot of noodles."
After the success of I Fratellini, Robinson again asked Vongsaly to push out of his culinary comfort zone when they opened the French-inspired Bar Les Frères. However, this time, the chef — a fluent French speaker whose native Laotian cuisine is steeped in French flavors and techniques — was far more proficient.
Now, at Billie-Jean, Vongsaly feels like he is back to his restaurant and culinary roots with Robinson. The menu, which draws quite a bit of inspiration from the fusion flavors of Cafe Zoe and Zoe Pan Asian, is his way of getting back to not just what set his career in motion, but what inspired his collaboration with Robinson in the first place — and, of course, his culinary heritage.
Still, his real motivation is much more external.
"I just want to make sure the food is good, and I don't really think about anything else," Vongsaly says. "When people come in, eat my food and say, 'Oh my god,' that's what makes me proud."
Vongsaly took a break from his three kitchens to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the talent that comes in handy working in a professional kitchen (apparently, he can repair a refrigerator like a pro) and why his last meal on earth would be a taste of home.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I can fix almost anything.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee and the news.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Making time stand still.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
More diversity in restaurants.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Elevated Laotian food.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Qui Tran of Mai Lee and Nudo House.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Papaya — in a spicy papaya salad.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I'd be a builder or mechanic.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
What is your after-work hangout?
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
What would be your last meal on earth?
Spicy beef larb.
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