Rose Castillo-Komoda
Stefania Curto

Guided by a mindset of openness and taking chances, restaurateur Jenn Saesue forges her own path as she balances ambition and fulfillment.

Determined to share the cultural diversity of the Thai dishes she grew up with, Jenn Saesue, co-owner of Fish Cheeks, boldly breaks away from formulaic menus seen across myriads of Thai restaurants. Here, Jenn shares how she’s finding a mindful balance between ambition and happiness.
Rose: Can you share a little about yourself, your background and upbringing?

Jenn: I was born in New Jersey, but was raised in Thailand. Growing up with both cultures has influenced and shaped who I am. I was raised within traditional Thai culture, which is based on Buddhism and has teachings that are ingrained into every aspect of our lives - be good to people, do your best to not hurt others, be respectful and live your best life in the path of cultivating good in the world. 

Moving to America exposed me to the freedom to be whoever you want, do whatever you want, and be as independent as you want without limitations. This Thai-American identity has given me the wide perspective that I have.

Tell us a childhood memory or experience you had with food.

I’ve always had a love of food. My grandmother was a great cook, and food is a very big part of our culture. In Thailand, my dad took us on culinary excursions around Bangkok to try different types of food and cuisines. When I was eight years old, he took me to get sushi for the first time. Before I even tried it, I said that I wouldn’t like it, but my dad was adamant that I try it saying I wouldn’t know whether I liked it or not until I tasted it – it turned out that I really like sushi and food in general. This mentality of being open to try everything at least once is something that still guides me today.

How did you develop an interest in the restaurant industry?

I worked as a food server in high school at several Thai restaurants in NYC. I was learning the ropes of running and managing the front of house and began to fall in love with the food industry and the community that it brings together. After my first couple of jobs, I began to realize that these restaurants all had the same menu with only slight variations from each other serving the same “basic Thai dishes.” There was a lack of authenticity and dishes that you’d actually find in Bangkok and in other areas of Thailand.

I wanted to fill in the gap and show people in New York that there is more to our cuisine than just Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. I wanted to introduce the regional dishes and flavors that I grew up eating. I wanted to show that we can have a successful Thai restaurant doing something closer to what Thai people eat in Thailand and the home-cooked meals I grew up eating.

Biggest learning moment you’ve had in your career thus far?

At 23, I opened my first restaurant and jumped at the opportunity to be a small shareholder in a new restaurant. I was very young and most of my other partners were much older, so we would clash on ideas a lot. I had this concept of a smaller menu that was different from other Thai restaurants but the chef, who's been in the industry for 20 years, was set in her ways of thinking. Before the restaurant opened our partnership was not going well, and the restaurant eventually closed. This was an eye-opening experience for me. Naivete led me to think that I could convince her, I was young and arrogant. I learned that if I was ever going to open a restaurant again, it would have to be with someone who shared the same mindset and had a similar way of thinking.

How did Fish Cheeks come to be?

I met my business partner while managing a restaurant he also worked at. I was at a crossroads in my life, thinking about going back to school or taking a chance at opening my own restaurant again. We got to know each other and learned that we had similar interests in opening our own Thai restaurant. We talked about our ideas, about the concept of the restaurant and the vision of how we wanted it to be for well over a year. Learning from my past experience, I placed more of an emphasis on communication and dynamics. My partner’s brother was a chef at this great restaurant in Thailand, and we decided to bring him on board as well. After talking about this restaurant and our visions for over a year, it finally felt right. It was this combination of things that aligned, and of course some luck.

What does Fish Cheeks mean to you?

It’s my baby (laughs). It needs a lot of care, a lot of love, a lot of attention. We opened successfully, and I’m very happy we're still kicking ass even in the midst of this pandemic. I'm truly grateful.

You started your career in this industry very young, what are some of the major changes and growth you’ve had in your journey?

I was hot-headed in the very beginning and thought I was always right. It’s hard when you have a very strong opinion about certain things. But nowadays I try my best to listen more, to absorb what other people are saying, before I respond. These are some of the things I’m still working on and changing.

What inspires you to do what you do?

I love meeting people, feeding people, and I love creating this community. I love seeing people happy in our restaurant, eating our food – it’s the greatest feeling.

Have you faced any challenges being a woman in a generally male-dominated profession?

One-hundred percent. I did an interview on this topic recently and it’s like, how do we fight the patriarchy that’s built into our society? I see it and I experience it, but I try not to let it get to me. I certainly don’t let it affect my drive and I don’t let it consume any of my energy.

People express shock when they learn that this is my restaurant. The response I receive is always different from the response my partner Ohm gets. People offer him congratulatory comments, whereas for me they doubtingly ask, “Is this really your restaurant?” This biased reaction comes from both men and women. There’s a lot of unlearning that we have to do, as a society, and it emphasizes the importance of highlighting women-owned businesses. We are pushing forward a narrative, a new normal where we are equalizing our opportunities and abilities. To say it out loud, that I am a woman restaurateur, is to show that women are running successful businesses and it’s not just an anomaly. What matters most is that I am doing the best that I can, doing the most that I can, and having people recognize me for that. I let my work speak for itself.

What have been some of the major obstacles you’ve encountered thus far in your career and how did you overcome them?

My biggest obstacle is myself. I’m stubborn. I tend to have strong opinions about things. I won’t argue with you per se, but I won’t listen to you (laughs). Being in this industry requires you to work with large teams. At any given time your team is 10 or more, and it’s not easy to lead if you don’t listen. This is one of those things I learned that I really need to change. It’s a constant work in progress.

When it comes to handling challenges or obstacles, I do my best to see them as just problems. When there’s a problem, I look at what the possible solutions are. I think okay, “Let’s try to get this fixed, let’s try to get this to work.” If you try your hardest and put in the most you can, even if the result comes out to be something that you aren’t happy with, you still walk away knowing that you tried your best.

If you view problems as obstacles, it’s almost like you’re giving them life, giving them more meaning than they deserve. You’re going to come across problems, and you just need to find a solution for them. Finding that solution may stress you out a little, or a lot, but it will just be momentary in the grand scheme of things, it won’t be that bad. If you choose to get stuck on that one problem and allow it too much of your energy, it will consume you. 

What are some principles that continue to guide you?

Do your best, do the most you can, always give it that extra mile. Work hard but also know when you should be working smarter.

What does success mean to you? 

Finding the balance between being driven and being truly happy with what I have and all that I've accomplished. There’s a side of me that’s very ambitious and is always pushing for more money, more restaurants, etc. But at the same time there’s this side of me that says, “All right but when will it be enough?” Sometimes I have to remind myself how much I’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time — I know I already have a lot to be happy about.

I try to do the self-work and tell myself that I don’t constantly need to do more and instead find moments to appreciate and be happy with what I have, the people that I surround myself with, and to live a good and meaningful life where I am true to myself.

I’m learning how to be okay with the things that are out of my control. Learning that I can choose to be happy now with everything I have already accomplished in tandem with my aspirations.  

"What matters most is that I am doing the best that I can, doing the most that I can, and having people recognize me for that. I let my work speak for itself. "
On moments when you find your courage wavering, what grounds you to find perspective?  

My mom. Whenever I have any problems, any sort of doubt or anything at all, she’s my rock. She taught me to look at things as momentary problems. She taught me to look at what’s in front of me and ask myself, “How are you going to approach this?” Are you going to look for solutions or are you going to dwell on it? Are you going to give it more life than it deserves?  

The restaurant industry has tremendously been impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us about the experience of leading your team during this unprecedented time?

This was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You realize that you have to still run your business, only in a totally unpredictable climate. We learned that you have to be ready to pivot quickly and that what we were doing before no longer applied. It became this situation where you were playing a guessing game. All of a sudden, people were no longer eating out. 

We were very concerned about what was going to happen to our business. We closed the restaurant when the shutdown went into place and used it as an opportunity to regroup. We were also concerned about our staff. They can’t afford to stay home, they have responsibilities too, they need their paychecks. Once it was safe to do so, we pivoted our service so that our restaurant could do take-out orders. My partner and I said that if we’re willing to work, if our staff is willing to work, that we were going to figure it out together.

Thank goodness for my partner because I ended up getting Covid pretty early on and was out for close to a month. He took care of the restaurant and cooked and I focused on social media while recovering and working from home. We knew that this pandemic was going to shift our normal ways of operating for a while. We had to take things day by day and be as creative as possible to constantly come up with ideas for the shifting situation.

Would you say that this pandemic pushed you creatively into other segments of the food industry?

Definitely. This has probably been the most productive we have been since we first opened. Opening a restaurant is hard work, but there’s a formula to follow: produce great food, be a great restaurant, find ways to keep the overhead and labor costs low etc. The past few months we had to be creative in developing other streams of revenue, for example packing and selling our spices. 

This pandemic truly showed the importance of community and the symbiotic relationship that exists between your diners, your team and the city. Of what importance does community and collaboration play into what you’ve built and how you move forward?

We truly have a close-knit community and it has meant so much. Our diners and our community have been amazing, super supportive, and kind. In addition to going full force into takeout and delivery meals, we also found ways to work with organizations through the community we have.  Another pivot we made was to provide meals for frontline hospital workers. Some of our diners who were nurses and doctors reached out to say they were struggling, and asked if we could provide meals to help boost morale. We were able to raise some money and provide meals to hospitals all over New York. It was important to us to give back and support our community.

How has the pandemic affected how you conduct your business or what you’d like to do going forward?

Now that things have calmed down in NYC, we haven’t been providing as many meals to healthcare workers as we were early on. Instead, we’ve shifted to providing meals for communities around the city. We’re currently working with 67 Precinct Clergy Council to provide meals and food to low-income families in the Bronx and East New York. We hope to continue our work in supporting and making an impact in communities like these.

How does chasing sunshine manifest in your life?

In the way that I know what I want, and I go for it. 

I knew early on that I couldn’t work the typical 9-to-5 job. I couldn’t do it, period. Being in the restaurant industry was something I was good at, so there was no doubt that this was what I was going to do. It’s allowed me to be in control of how I live my life while being happy and carefree.

Is there an image that comes to mind that embodies chasing sunshine for you?

It is a feeling. I want to be able to look back one day and feel happy about everything that I have accomplished — to be content and not be consumed by the ego that fuels this need to do and have more. It is this feeling of being fulfilled, accomplished, and proud of what I’ve done while being present in the moment of enjoying all of it. Once I reach that moment in my life, I’ll know that I’ve found my sunshine.

Wisdom to share with those who are in the pursuit of self-discovery and are chasing their sunshine…

Do the best you can do. Put in your all. Whatever the result may be, be at peace with it.