Articles,  Radio Hour

Native Noodles

by Jeremy Fredericks


Jeremy’s essay appears in episode 31 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.


On the wall of the newly-opened restaurant Native Noodles, “Singapore” is written in big, gold Chinese characters. After that, your eyes are drawn to the posters showcasing the city. Your tastebuds are drawn to the dishes inspired by the Southeast Asian country.

And that’s the way Singapore-born owner Amy Pryke wants it. She went from the financial field to opening a restaurant, with time spent at a food stand and cooking for her country’s Prime Minister.

“In 2017, I was in my corporate job – I was in management consulting – and it was fine and interesting, but I didn’t see myself climbing that ladder,” Pryke said. “I decided to think about what I actually wanted to do with my life. I realized that the thing I was spending most of my time on was the food world.”

Pryke was researching recipes, cooking, and keeping tabs on the industry, in her spare time, but felt that she was missing something.

“One of my favorite things in my life is bringing people together through food,” Pryke said. “And so, I thought ‘it’s kind of now or never.’ I should just try and give it a shot, if I want to open a restaurant.”

 

“One of my favorite things in my life is bringing people together through food,” Pryke said. “And so, I thought ‘it’s kind of now or never.’ I should just try and give it a shot, if I want to open a restaurant.”

 

She decided to leave her job and enrolled at Columbia Business School where she earned her MBA in 2019. Pryke said that unlike U.S. citizens, who can leave their job and open a restaurant at free will, her visa didn’t allow her to do so. That’s when she wrote an admissions essay and applied to get her MBA.

“I was like, it’s so unlikely I’m going to get in because who writes their MBA admission essay on opening a restaurant, right? It’s not a very common path,” she said. “But I actually got in and took it as a sign that I should go for it.”

At Columbia, she enrolled in a class in food entrepreneurship that gave her the skills to start her own business. She rented a stand selling Singaporean food at the Queens Night Market in the spring of 2019. It was a hit, and even got written up in a piece in The New York Post.

“It was my way of testing the minimum viable product and people responded really well to it, so it gave me the confidence to move forward with finding a space for a brick and mortar location,” Pryke said.

After ending her run at the market, Pryke continued to find success. She cooked for the Singaporean consulate in New York when the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, visited in 2019.

 

After ending her run at the market, Pryke continued to find success. She cooked for the Singaporean consulate in New York when the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, visited in 2019.

 

She also began to search for a location to open her restaurant. She found a spot in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, near New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia’s medical school. When she signed a lease in May 2020, her landlord gave her nine months rent-free, meaning she didn’t have to pay a dime until the February 2021 opening.

“I was able to negotiate with the landlord to get a really good period of time as a buffer,” Pryke said. “I really had time to build out the restaurant slowly, kind of take my time, learn the trends of the neighborhood.”

She began to convert Singapore’s classics into a more American-style cuisine.

“I have to cater to my immediate audience, which is the neighborhood of Washington Heights,” Pryke said. “I know that a lot of them haven’t had Singaporean food before, so I really wanted to make a menu that was friendly that I could understand that would bring our flavors from Singapore but in a way that wasn’t too unfamiliar.”

She worked with family friend James Aw, a chef in Singapore whose recipes she used at the market, to expand her menu when she returned to her homeland last September. She thought it would be a good opportunity to work hands-on with the chef. At the Queens Night Market, she was only able to sell a few items at a time; with her restaurant, she had to expand the menu to include more than a dozen dishes, from crispy Popcorn Chicken to wok-fried noodles.

“A lot of our recipes that we had tested at the Queens Night Market were actually from him, that we tweaked for the New York market,” Pryke said. “And so, I was able to do that while I was home in September, which was very helpful because it was directly before opening and so it gave me the confidence to…work in a commercial kitchen.”

She also worked with Josh Medina, a chef at a Hawaiian restaurant, whom she met at the market. Pryke calls Medina a mentor and a friend, who first discovered her food when he was helping a friend with a booth at the Queens Night Market.

He told her that he had never “smelled anything like that before.” Medina tried her food and liked it, offering to “keep in touch, and if you feel like you’re closer to finding a space, let’s talk about how we might be able to work together,” Pryke said.

They kept in touch. Medina helped her set up Native Noodles. When she opened, she became one of the only Singaporean restaurants in the Big Apple, ready to share her culture.

“I think that it’s a little bit tricky with a Singaporean audience because I intentionally didn’t do things exactly how our grandmothers cooked it,” Pryke said. “I’m happy to be one of the first…in New York City and I think it actually helped us get a lot of organic marketing, which I’m thankful for.”


Original artwork by Alex Knighten

 

Jeremy Fredericks

 

About the Author

Jeremy Fredricks is a freelance writer based out of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He’s written about COVID-19, the 2020 election and profiles of restaurants.

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