James Beard Awards Receive a Shrug from SriPraPhai
It’s about the work, not the awards, at this woman-owned Thai restaurant in Woodside
Until recently, Sripraphai Tipmanee never heard of The James Beard Foundation, or its coveted awards. As a chef and restaurant owner in Queens for over 30 years, she hasn’t stopped to acknowledge the accolades her Woodside restaurant, SriPraPhai, has accumulated. The week SriPraPhai was nominated as a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award, the 75-year-old was preoccupied with everything else on her plate.
To be fair, neither Sripraphai nor her son, Larry Tipmanee, have heard of Edible Queens–or me– either. When I read they qualified for an “outstanding restaurant” award, I spent several days trying to track down the elusive restaurant owner–whose Thai cooking has earned endorsements from The New York Times and New York Magazine, consistently dominated “best of” lists like Zagat and The Infatuation, and remains the “most viewed” restaurant in Woodside (with over 2,200 reviews) on Yelp–to learn more about SriPraPhai’s journey to the Beards. I left multiple messages with staff–who were more interested in taking my order than facilitating a request for interview–before linking up with Larry for an introduction to his mother.
The day I finally meet Sripraphai, she is busy quality-controlling a catering order for the Royal Thai Consulate in Manhattan–––an honor the whole staff holds in high regard–––so I chat with her son, Larry. He asks me what I know of JBF and where the nominations go from here. I tell him he could think of it as the creme de la creme of the food world.
The mother-son-duo haven’t always been turning 800 tables on an average weekend night. When Sripraphai moved to Queens in 1987 after immigrating to the Bronx as a nurse from the southern Thai province of Yala, she was simply looking for a bigger oven. Her custom cakes had once again taken off in popularity as was the case back in Thailand. She scouted a place for a small bakery in Elmhurst, eventually offering a modest selection of takeout food for the Thai community. As a young child, Larry would zip around to deliver orders in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Deliveries didn’t really spread the word about their brick-and-mortar bakery, but the food was revered, the clientele consistent. “I always listen to the customer,” Sripraphai says seriously and repeatedly throughout our interview. “Whatever they tell me to do, I do it.”
At the urging of customers, Sriprapha opened a restaurant in Woodside. There wasn’t much in the neighborhood in the early 90s, but she was there to serve the Thai community. “I have the cake,” she says with a wry smile. “They will come,” she told herself. And that they did. The menu started with a few traditional dishes–mostly pork and noodles–and has now grown to over 120 offerings featuring various regions of Thailand. Her Woodside space has since tripled in size and now has mostly stopped baking cakes and focuses on the food.
Sripraphai is the definition of self-taught. She is a natural recipe developer, creating flavor profiles based on verbal descriptions. The most popular order, a crispy Chinese watercress salad, came about from a customer who recounted the only dish they tasted in Thailand that wasn’t offered at SriPraPhai. She hand-wrote it in Thai on the menu that day, and later added it as a permanent item in English.
If you’ve never tried the food at Sripraphai, let me share perhaps the only endorsement that really matters, the one Sripraphai herself shares with a big belly laugh. One time, three men were making repairs at the Woodside location, and, as the story goes, something caught flame in the basement where they were working. After convincing everyone to evacuate the restaurant, Sripraphai full-force doused the repair men in white powder from the fire extinguisher, then turned around to see a patron standing outside, slurping down noodles on the other side of the window. “They still tried to pay for their food,” she said. Most diners would have assumed their meal was on the house.
It’s really that good.
So why has it taken almost 30 years for the restaurant to be nominated for a Beard? While the JBFA for outstanding restaurant requires the restaurant to be in business 10 or more consecutive years, SriPraPhai has been revered in the culinary community for at least a decade. “Of course it’s long overdue,” says Hong Thaimee, chef and owner of three Thai restaurants in New York City. “Sripraphai paved the way for chefs like me,” Thaimee says when I ask about her crediting “the legend, the OG, of ‘auntie’ Sripraphai” with “the number one reason we are eating real Thai food in NYC.”
According to Thaimee, her culinary peers have even hosted their wedding receptions at the restaurant. Additionally, notable restaurateurs such as Amanda Cohen–executive chef and owner of Dirt Candy–highlighted Sripraphai in her viral Esquire article (“I've Worked in Food for 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?”) and Lisa Fernandes–a former Top Chef finalist and now owner of the “Thaietnamese” concept Sweet Chili–has called it her favorite restaurant.
The Beards have received a fair share of criticism for lack of diversity when nominating women and people of color, but in October announced policy changes for the 2019 awards which aims to “increase access, representation and transparency.” I ask Sripraphai what it all means for her. Her answer is similar to Thaimee’s: It’s not about the award–or any award really. The real satisfaction comes from feeding the people they set out to serve.
Sripraphai doesn’t–and honestly can’t–spend too much time talking about JBF. She wants to triple-check the Thai embassy order in the other room. And she’s more animated when showing me photos of the flower arrangements she creates on the side (also self-taught by way of observation), talking about changes to her takeout packaging (adapted by way of real-life customer feedback–she never reads the Yelp reviews) and trying to convince me to try the new ice cream flavors she developed (a worthwhile suggestion).
Before I leave, Sripraphai reveals that she lives above the Woodside restaurant along with her head chef, Prapaisri Singhern (“Ing”), and it makes me laugh to learn she’s been around all along, keeping an eye on her empire in Queens. I ask one last time what she will do if she receives an award for her life’s work, and she shrugs as I crunch on crispy Chinese watercress. One in 20 doesn’t seem like good odds to her.
“I haven’t told the staff,” she says as a server refills my water glass.
Something tells me that isn’t going to change even if they win–SriPraPhai has bigger fish to fry, literally.
The James Beard Awards will announce the finalists for each category on Wednesday, March 27th, with an awards ceremony to follow in Chicago on Monday, May 6th. Learn more about the nomination process here.