After working in the marketing department at Chipotle for nine months, NYC-based Tim Wildin had an “aha” moment: to launch a Southeast Asian chain called ShopHouse. Next thing you know Tim and Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, are flying to Bangkok and Singapore, eating at night markets and hawker stalls. By the trip’s end they are sketching out a menu on a cocktail napkin at the Singapore Raffles, sipping gin and tonics. Sound serendipitous? How about some major tenacity with (sure!) an element of chance. We interviewed the Bangkok-born, business savvy foodie Mr. Wildin… about his life, his work, and the joie-de- vivre he inherently weaves.
bunnyhawk >> How has food shaped your consciousness?
TW >> Food is culture… something we interact with at least three times daily or if you’re like me, all day long. Personally, it’s the closest way I’ve been able to relate to my heritage… My mom and my family in Thailand are absolutely obsessed with food and it’s kind of all we talk about. But it’s not just them, it’s a national past time. I grew up with this as part of my life, and I think that’s why I ended up in food.
bunnyhawk >> A favorite memory from cooking?
TW >> Favorite memories: With my dad when I was little… peanut butter cookies with him… And with my mom – steamed mussels with the most amazing Thai dipping sauce of fish sauce, cilantro, lime juice, chilies, sugar, and peanuts. Eating all day every day on trips back to Bangkok… my aunt has the most amazing food…
bunnyhawk >> Who taught you much of what you know?
TW >> I’m a great home cook, but have learned so much about translating that to both a restaurant and staff from Nate Appleman, who I work with on ShopHouse. He taught me all about organization and discipline.
bunnyhawk >> From inception to present, can you discuss your ShopHouse journey?
TW >> I started at Chipotle’s NYC office in a tiny little exposed-brick loft in the meatpacking district when the founder/CEO and the CMO moved to NYC to build a more robust creative/marketing department. It was just our founder/CEO, CMO, and myself. We quickly hired several other really talented people. Through working closely with Steve Ells on a number of projects, I knew he was interested in opening other restaurants beyond Chipotle – he had a vision that the Chipotle format could apply to a number of different cuisines. Growing up in Bangkok during my childhood summers, I thought that Thai / Southeast Asian was an exact fit, in that it’s food that takes hours to prepare, and just seconds to serve. And it proves that fast food doesn’t have to be a plastic soulless experience. So I pitched Thai / S.E.A. food to Steve because of the big flavors that most of America doesn’t yet know it loves, and the name ShopHouse because they’re where I grew up eating – and they serve the best food in Bangkok. He was crazy enough to let me pursue this idea. So I booked us a trip to Bangkok and Singapore, where we ate at my family’s house, shophouses, night markets, and hawker stalls. And by the end of the trip we had a basic idea of a menu sketched out on a cocktail napkin at the Raffles in Singapore. Over gin and tonics. Developing the menu was an iterative process of hosting dinner parties, working in the basement of Chipotle (the Chipotle crew loved those days), and another trip back to Thailand. We built out the first one in DC’s Dupont Circle in late 2011, and tinkered with the menu and the operation for about a year and a half before opening another one in Hollywood. We’re up to fourteen today and growing, with number fifteen coming up in West Hollywood. To have Chipotle’s economic and expertise backing us is incredible, and hopefully someday ShopHouse can be a meaningful contributor to Chipotle’s overall growth.
bunnyhawk >> 5 random facts about you?!
TW >> (1) I’m obsessed with putting dogs in an upside down position. No idea why. I just turn them over. All the time. (2) I had a mystical experience unexpectedly swimming with a whale shark in Turks & Caicos. We were together for about half an hour. (3) I make a point of writing in to companies when front-line employees go above and beyond in terms of hospitality, always. (4) I hoard airline amenity bags as if those tiny tubes of toothpaste and earplugs contained within will get me through the apocalypse. (5) I need to live somewhere hot when I retire. I want to pick lychees in the front yard in the morning and have them for dessert at night.
bunnyhawk >> What do you eat for breakfast and lunch, and how do you spend time when you’re not cooking or working?
TW >> Breakfast: If there’s leftovers I make an amazing breakfast soup (an Asian thang), but on a normal day Greek yogurt and berries. Lunch, something saucy over rice, and greens. When not working/cooking/eating… Tennis, yoga, 306090 (a crazy fitness brand out of NYC), scuba diving, theatre and live music.
bunnyhawk >> What’s your go-to “easy” dish when all else fails, versus your dish to impress – and can you share some tricks to each?
TW >> Easy: anything wok. Green beans with ‘nam prik pao’ which is basically a Thai chili jam. People find it so sexy – the flame, the heat, the motion. It’s so easy. Impress: curries. I love making sauces. Thai curries are incredibly complex and take a lot of skill to get just right in terms of taste, texture, and spice.
bunnyhawk >> Your fave environment to prepare a meal?
TW >> An open kitchen in a loft, or outdoor grilling. Need light. Need music.
bunnyhawk >> Best meal of all time – where were you, who prepared it, etc?
bunnyhawk >> What have you learned about the consciousness of the food industry by becoming a key player? How has your understanding evolved…? What were some of the major surprises, and how do you see the food industry continuing to transform?
TW >> So much is wrong with our food system – it’s terrible. At a high-level, a lot of the issues we are facing as a culture, like climate change, immigration issues, drought, and obviously obesity – they’re somehow related to food! We’re in a system where the government invests public resources that are focused around productivity rather than well-being, and our diet, health, and food culture suffers because of it. I’m hoping that the next few administrations see food as a huge national priority. In my mind, Chipotle (and hopefully ShopHouse as we grow it) has been really transformative in terms of the way food is raised, cooked, and served in this country, and we are better for it.
bunnyhawk >> Some of your idols?
TW >> Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf… And they’re married to each other, how perfect.
bunnyhawk >> What are your top 5 favorite ingredients (your artist palate!)?
TW >> Lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, palm sugar, cilantro.
bunnyhawk >> If you were to write a recipe for a good life… What would that be?
TW >> 1 part passion, 1 part fun, 1 part heart, 1 part mind, 1 part body, 1/2 part ability… Garnished with a lot of lime… A lot of young people that work for me are always asking how to further their careers… how to have a good life, how to make lots of money. Money has never been and will never be my end goal. I think that’s a horrendous idea! I think you have to do what you like doing so that it doesn’t ever feel like work… so that it doesn’t ever feel like something you need to escape from. If you do that, you’ll like/love what you do, so you’ll be awesome at it. And if you’re awesome at what you do, and what you do creates real value in the world, you’ll be handsomely rewarded for it.
bunnyhawk >> Any advice for someone looking to get into creative cooking?
TW >> Fresh herbs and sharp knives are your friends. And season liberally, at all times.
Image gallery: 1. Tim and his mom at the 14th ShopHouse opening | 2. ShopHouse | 3. Row of shophouses in Thailand (photo by Eric Wolfinger) | 4. Southeast Asian market (photo by Austin Bush) | 5. A ShopHouse meal | 6. ShopHouse managers | 7. Portrait of Tim Wildin (photo by Ethan Hill)