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Q&A with Nonglack Thanephonesy

We sat down with the chef and owner of Dok Mali, Portland's hottest Thai restaurant

What do you love most about Portland?

I love that Portland is a growing city. I remember going to the Nickelodeon theater with my siblings when tickets were just 99 cents. We would also hang out at Deering Oaks Park at night to watch the fountain and look at the city lights. Portland today is so much more diverse than it was back when I was growing up. I’m seeing more small, immigrant-owned businesses open up across town. 

What led you to become a chef?

I started making ramen and eggs when I was nine years old. My family loves to cook, and they work in the industry, so I would watch how they made dishes and then put my own twist on things.  

Who are some of your culinary influences?

Certainly my family, as I would always watch them cook and try to help them in the kitchen. Another one of my culinary influences is Thai street food chef Jay Fai. In 2018, she received a Michelin star for her famous crab omelet, and since then I’ve been inspired to gain recognition for perfecting my own signature dish some day.

What sets your cooking apart?

I think what sets me apart from other chefs is that I’m not afraid to use new ingredients that I’m not familiar with. This goes hand and hand with my philosophy to not let fear drive you, especially in the kitchen. 

What do you love most about being a chef in Maine? 

Although the regions are different, both Thailand and Maine are bordered by water, so there’s plenty of access to seafood from local vendors. In addition to getting fresh seafood from our fishermen, I love to support Maine farmers by buying fresh produce and flowers from the farmers’ market.

Where do you find inspiration? 

By going to new places and visiting other Thai restaurants. I’m currently planning a trip to Asia—with stops in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand—and my goal is to explore and learn various styles of cooking. In Thailand, I’m especially looking forward to visiting the night market.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?

My favorite ingredient is coconut because it’s super versatile. You can make so many different dishes, from mango with sweet sticky rice to curries, or even my auntie’s famous me ka te noodle soup.

What makes Dok Mali special?

At Dok Mali, we highlight the best food from back home. For instance, our nam khao tod (crispy curry rice with pork) and me ka tee (spicy rice noodles with pork and curry broth) are dishes that we typically eat during family gatherings.

Which dish at Dok Mali are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of our Lion King dish because of how we braise the short rib, which takes lots of precision and patience. It took a fair amount of trial and error for me to figure out how to perfect that recipe!

Do you cook at home?

Since I work in the kitchen most days, I like to treat myself by dining in other restaurants on my days off. I love Portland’s Vietnamese restaurants—Huong’s Vietnamese, Thanh Thanh 2, Sun Vietnamese, and Saigon—because pho is one of my go-to comfort foods. I also enjoy going to Scales on Commercial Street for special occasions or if I’m in the mood for a great seafood dish.

If you could prepare a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you make? 

I would go back in time and prepare larb moo for my late father. He used to make this minced pork salad for me as a child, so I would want to show him my own interpretation of the dish. 

Who is your biggest supporter? 

My biggest supporters are my daughter, Phonsavahn, and my dear friend Robert Fong. They have been with me from the start of this journey and have helped me overcome the obstacles that come along with being a business owner.

Portland today is so much more diverse than it was back when I was growing up. I’m seeing more small, immigrant-owned businesses open up across town. 

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