“I kept saying to myself, ‘I can be the one-woman Khao Man Gai!'”
– Nong Poonsukwattana
Author and Photos: Kim Nguyen
Nong Poonsukwattana grew up watching her mother work long, grueling hours as a restaurant cook. She never imagined she’d make a career in the food industry. Yet when she immigrated to the United States from Thailand in 2003 with only $70, she applied to as many jobs as she could. She spent the next years working in a slew of Portland restaurants before landing a line cook position at Thai-inspired eatery Pok Pok. “I had to peel shallots all day,” she admits. “But I liked it because I was working with my hands. I realized I enjoyed making good food.”
The revelation and nostalgia for home inspired Poonsukwattana to carefully save money and develop ideas for her own busi-ness. When she returned to Thailand for a visit, she took note of the unique ways people sold and advertised their food. She saw a woman offer papaya salad from her motor-cycle while an older man held a sign that read, “One Man Making Khao Man Gai in the Bangkapi Neighborhood.” Poonsukwattana recalls, “I kept saying to myself, ‘I can be the One Woman Khao Man Gai!’”
Nong’s Khao Man Gai opened its doors in 2009 as a food cart. Renown for its simplicity, the menu is best known for its khao man gai—or Thai chicken and rice.
After nearly a decade, her team has grown to include a second food cart, a brick-and-mortar store, and over 40 additional staff. The coveted fried chicken skins still sell out on a daily basis and Poonsukwattana continues to work as hard as ever. She says she wants to give hope to those who don’t have opportunities or haven’t seen success yet. As Poonsukwattana has faced many hardships throughout her life, her drive to succeed remains firmly rooted in maintaining hope for herself and others.
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