Yum Thai owner Vicky’s favorite deep-fried shrimp in a blanket from Yum Thai. Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor
Upon entering Yum Thai’s new location, 7330 Madison St., Forest Park, guests are greeted by a flock of celestial blessing swans swirling around the well-appointed dining room. Wood carvings of this style famously adorn temple roofs in Northern Thailand. The swans symbolize good fortune and signify the lifting of prayers to heaven. The collection of replica carvings inside Yum Thai are representative of Valaiporn Pinyo-Nowlan’s journey from young student craving the foods of her homeland to confident Forest Park restaurant owner and chef.
Born in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand, Pinyo-Nowlan, known to many as Vicky, emigrated to the United States in 1994 to study English. Though she always dreamed of coming to America, she barely ate anything after her arrival.
“It was culture shock I think,” said Pinyo-Nowlan, “I just couldn’t eat anymore corn. I missed strong flavored foods and spicy dishes so much. My host family was worried about me and took me to Yum Thai in Forest Park.”
There, in the restaurant she would own two decades later, Pinyo-Nowlan savored familiar dishes and finally relaxed. She began cooking her mother’s recipes in her host family’s kitchen twice a week and visited Yum Thai as often as possible. She stopped in when she was on her way to and from classes so frequently that the owner ultimately offered her a job. She thought she would be working for food, but they paid her $5 an hour plus tips to wait tables two nights a week.
“I thought I was the richest girl in the world,” said Pinyo-Nowlan. “We were not a wealthy family in Thailand and the job made me feel free. When the cook made something, he knew I loved like Mee Krob, he would set some aside for me in a little white bowl. That food brought me back to my hometown.”
She had been an advertising account executive in Bangkok prior to traveling to the United States and came with the intention of learning English to advance her career in the industry. A sudden economic downturn in Thailand, however, made it impossible for Pinyo-Nowlan to continue her education. Her family needed her financial support.
After spending a couple of months in California asserting her independence, Pinyo-Nowlan took a job as a hostess at Baisi Thai in Oak Brook. She stayed on at the 165-seat restaurant for more than 20 years learning the ins and outs of the restaurant industry and worked her way up into a management role. She saved money diligently and helped to support her family at home — in time, thanks in part to a favorable conversion rate, Pinyo-Nowlan saved enough that she was able to pay off her parents’ home in Thailand.
During the years she worked at Baisi Thai, Pinyo-Nowlan and her husband John would venture back to Forest Park to dine at Yum Thai to enjoy the authentic dishes that reminded her of home. In 2013, decades after Pinyo-Nowlan’s first Yum Thai meal, the couple purchased the restaurant when the owners announced they were looking to retire.
“John made my dreams come true and he worked three jobs to make sure we would be OK,” said Pinyo-Nowlan. “I perfected all of my recipes and made sure all of my customers entered the land of the smile when they came to Yum Thai.”
In time the owners’ personalized service, attention to detail and home-style dishes cultivated an intensely loyal customer base that sustained their business in Yum Thai’s original location for years. After surviving the pandemic, however, the owners learned their landlord was looking to sell the building and knew they needed to find a new home for their restaurant in Forest Park.
“I love Forest Park,” said the passionate restaurant owner. “The people who work at city hall are my customers, the police and fire fighters are my customers. This village made my dreams come true.”
When the space at 7730 Madison Street become available the couple decided to remodel the space and relocate their restaurant. Construction took four months, but with the help of artists and designers Pinyo-Nowlan managed to build her dream restaurant. She is now welcoming the customers she calls her “angels” into her intimate dining room with wood paneled walls and red accents. She and her staff are hoping to update their kitchen equipment in time to help increase their speed but are already back to whipping up more than 2,000 crab rangoon a week and serving a noteworthy array of authentic Northern and Southern Thai curries.
The sentimental owner may have a new restaurant home, but she has surrounded herself with items that remind her of how far she has come. When Pinyo-Nowlan looks around Yum Thai’s dining room she sees a light fixture she transferred from the original location hanging on the south wall. She appreciates the flock of blessing swans she salvaged from the now shuttered Baisi Thai and even has a special place for the small white bowl she ate from at Yum Thai all those years ago.