Bryan Chunton never thought he would work in the restaurant industry. Chunton, 45, was born in Bangkok, Thailand and came to New York with his family when he was a child. His father, who worked as a bartender in Bangkok, took low level jobs in restaurants and eventually worked his way up to a position as chef in Mezzaluna, a popular Italian eatery on the Upper East Side. But that was not the life he wanted for his son. After graduating from Baruch college, Chunton got a job at an import and export company.
“My dad said, ‘oh no, don’t do this, you get an office job,’” Chunton said. “I went to college. I came out, got a little desk job, I was bored.”
So he became a Buddhist monk. Chunton’s parents were proud, because religion is a valued part of his personal and family life. After four months of intense preparation, he was ordained on Long Island. From there he served one term, about four months, in the order. Then reality kicked in — he had bills that needed to be paid. He decided to leave and go back to work. But he continues to practice at a temple in Elmhurst.
“It’s good for the soul,” he said.
Chunton realized he was most passionate about restaurants, so he took a risk. He borrowed some money from his mother and in 1999 opened a takeout place on 28th St in Manhattan that he sold a year later to open another restaurant, Kun Paw, in the West Village. Since then he’s continued to invest in restaurants.
Five months ago, Chunton opened Zen Yai Noodle & Coffee in Sunnyside, not far from where he grew up with his parents and five brothers and near where he now lives. Zen Yai, which translates to “big noodle” in Thai, serves a combination of Thai and Vietnamese dishes inspired by the food that Chunton ate growing up, including classic Vietnamese food like oxtail pho, a traditional soup with thick noodles and beef broth that is slow -cooked for 12 hours, and Thai options like jasmine rice bowls served with basil, minced meats and a fried egg. The restaurant is currently the only place in Sunnyside serving Vietnamese fare.
But he hasn’t forgotton his religious roots. Towards the back of the restaurant, a giant buddha sits atop a large wooden shelf, with small bowls situated in front of the figure. The staff places food or water in front of buddha as a religious offering every morning.
Chunton is Thai, but at home his family always cooked a combination of both cuisines.
“My dad would try to do Vietnamese food, my mom would do Thai traditional,” he said. “Because there are a lot of Vietnamese in certain parts of Thailand, so they have these cuisines there.”
For Chunton, pho is a reminder of home.
“It’s flavorful. The pho, it’s soft, it’s light, just home feeling.” he said.
Pho has gained popularity in the U.S. as a lunch and dinner food, although it is traditionally served in Vietnam as a breakfast soup. It is a new addition to restaurant fare in Sunnyside, where less than one percent of the population is Vietnamese and only 20 percent, around 5,500 people, is of Asian descent, according to census data.
On a Friday afternoon, the roughly 20-seat cafe is filled with customers. Kenia Encarnacion, who works at a nearby office, sat alone at a small wooden bar near the front of the restaurant. This was Encarnacion’s first visit to Zen Yai, although she’s had take-out at the office before.
“I like that they don’t have servers — you can just pay up front,” she said, referencing a “No Tipping” sign on the entrance door. The cafe offers cafeteria style dining, encouraging tips only for exceptional service.
Tammy Phimanpommachak, a 15-year restaurant veteran, has worked at Zen Yai, since it opened, taking orders and serving coffee. Phimanpommachak is Thai and before coming to the restaurant she worked at another Thai place in the area.
“It’s pretty busy,” she said, in the midst of answering phones and taking lunch orders.
Chunton is hoping it stays busy. He’ll be opening another Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village in the next couple of weeks that’s very similar to Zen Yai. As for the Queens location, he’s planning to bring in some new dishes, like chè, a sweet Vietnamese ice drink, for the summer.
His family is supportive. Chunton’s mother has passed away, but his father and most of his brothers have stopped by Zen Yai, and so far, he said, they are impressed. Chunton also has a 15-year-old daughter, and he wants her to follow her dreams, the same way he followed his.
“For me, the restaurant is not a job or career,” he said. “It is my passion.”