THE FIRST RECIPE Yuie Wiborg learned to make was papaya salad. She was 11 years old and had just been promoted from dishwasher to cook in her mother’s restaurant in Bangkok.
Now 42, Wiborg is sitting in the modern, window-filled dining room of her Capitol Hill restaurant Soi. She also owns Banyan Tree in Kent, and a second Soi location is set to open in Kirkland in March.
Nearly 20 years ago, Wiborg left Bangkok to come to the Seattle area for school, studying to be a nurse. She says she wasn’t really that interested in nursing. She just wanted a good job that would make good money. However, she started working in Thai restaurants in the area — Nibbana Thai in Bellevue, Thai One On in Seattle and Pen Thai in Bothell — as a busser and server instead of a cook, and found she loved it.
“Every time I worked in the restaurant, I feel like this is my show. I feel like I’m a star,” she says.
She was three years into her nursing program, but she knew for certain that owning a restaurant of her own was her true dream. She started to watch the managers at the restaurant where she worked, seeing how things were done. Then she took a three-month sabbatical to go back to Bangkok and earn a professional cooking certificate.
She returned to Seattle and started a stall at the Fremont Sunday Market, cooking on weekends while still working full-time at a restaurant.
The first year she sold Thai iced coffee and tea, black rice pudding, fried banana and sticky rice with mango. The second year she added noodles and curry dishes. The last two years she had customers ordering extra to bring home to eat later in the week.
Five years into the Fremont Market, Wiborg’s confidence had grown. She knew she was ready to take the next steps; she just needed an opportunity. It was 2009. The economy wasn’t in the best place, but there was a silver lining: a turnkey space in Kent Station, meaning Wiborg didn’t need to start from scratch.
She opened Banyan Tree with a menu of what she calls “comfort food.” It’s a Thai restaurant, but many of the dishes are from the central region of Thailand, familiar to even those who have no experience with Thai food. Things were good from the start — the chef she had when Banyan Tree opened is still there — but Wiborg’s ultimate dream was to open an Isan-style Thai restaurant, the food her mother taught her to make when she was young.
The food there is centered on barbecue. There are more salads and less stir fry. When coconut is used, it’s in dessert, not in curry.
“It’s spicier, with more lime juice, more fish sauce,” she says.
In 2015, Soi opened on Capitol Hill. The menu is filled with dishes she loves. Some — like the kor moo yahng, a pork collar rubbed with coriander and garlic, then grilled — are classic Northeastern Thai flavors. Others, like the soi sai uah curry sausage and the khao soi curry noodle soup, have Wiborg’s fingerprints all over them.
“I add my Isan feeling to those recipes. More flavor and more spice,” she says.
She also adds Thai touches to weekend brunch, a rarity for a Thai restaurant: cardamom-dusted French toast with peanut butter-condensed milk whipped cream and savory fried crepes filled with prawns and chicken.
When Wiborg told her mother a decade ago she was going to open a restaurant, she was warned that restaurants were a 24-hour affair, tough to get away from.
“I don’t think that way. I think I’m one of the most lucky people that I can do something for a living and still be happy. I always have energy.”
When she speaks to young culinary students about her success, she always gives three pieces of advice: First, find your passion. Second, be ready for opportunity. Third, if opportunity doesn’t come your way, “You have to walk outside and grab it. You say, ‘Hi; can you see me? This is a diamond.’ I might be with a bunch of rocks, but that’s the way I look at that. I’m a diamond.”
Som Tum Isan
Chef Yuie Wiborg, Soi
3 cloves garlic
3 Thai bird chilis (optional)
1 oz. yard-long beans or green beans
6 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 1/2 Tbsp. palm sugar
1 Tbsp. tamarind paste
2 Tbsp. anchovy paste
1 Tbsp. lime juice
8 oz. shredded or julienne green papaya (available at Asian grocery stores; Uwajimaya should have it)
3/4 oz. shredded carrot
1 pickled crab, from a jar (Viet-Wah on Jackson or in Renton; Lam Seafood Market on King Street)
1. Pound garlic and chili with mortar and pestle.
2. Add green beans; pound.
3. Add tomatoes; continue pounding.
4. Add palm sugar, tamarind paste, anchovy paste and lime juice; mix together.
5. Add papaya and carrot; pound together for 1 minute.
6. Add pickled crab, then mix together, trying not to break the crab shell (that would not be fun to eat). The pickled crab is meant to be sucked on and chewed a bit, but not eaten.