For Chef Arnold Myint, Quarantine Brings New Perspective on Food and Life
Besides having ownership in three Nashville restaurants—Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, PM and BLVD— he was juggling multiple projects, including producing a documentary and a cookbook in honor of his late mother, the beloved restaurateur Patti Myint. He also was performing drag (as Suzy Wong, naturally), and ping-ponging between Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles.
When the pandemic stopped him in his tracks, Myint quietly closed his restaurants and retreated to a small desert town in Southern California to wait it out with a friend. With weeks on end to lose himself in cooking, he discovered an unexpected and welcome reprieve from the life he’d always known.
“I grew up in a restaurant, so it’s always been about the hustle,” Myint said. “Suddenly I had all this time, and I was cooking for two, not 400. I was making everything from scratch. It felt very new. Not rushed. I’ve never had the chance to approach cooking in such a pared down, personal way.”
Myint’s culinary point of view reflects his mother’s roots in Thailand. She passed away in October 2018, and her restaurant International Market, a Nashville landmark for 45 years, closed the following July. But her influence lives on as Myint finds comfort in recreating the recipes he learned at his mother’s knee.
“I’m cooking by myself in silence with her spirit on my shoulder guiding me,” he said. “Not thinking about feeding thousands of people, but thinking only about what’s in my mind and in my hands and on my plate.”
Myint is no stranger to the limelight. He’s already appeared in two cooking reality shows, which helped catapult him to national renown, but neither produced an offer for a cooking show of his own. Despite his hustle, that goal seemed to evade him before the pandemic.
“Every time I’d go in to meet with a network I felt like they wanted me to fill a role—the drag chef or the flamboyant gay chef or the Queer Eye guy,” Myint said. “I felt like I was only showing them one small piece of what I have to offer.”
Then, Myint received some encouragement from a longtime friend, film producer and videographer Stan Okumura.
“Stan said, ‘Why don’t you forget the pressure, let loose and just be the Arnold we know? Put out some videos on Instagram and see what happens.’ And literally when he said that, the lightbulb went on and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can actually be me. I can just be Arnold,’” he said. “I started making these videos and having fun and it was very liberating.”
Arnold’s videos on IGTV chronicle his quarantine life, ranging from an instructional cooking video on how to make Pad See Ew (traditional Thai rice noodles) to a day of rock climbing in the California desert looking for a lost water bottle, to a slick music video in full drag.
“At some point I literally said to myself, f--k all this. I’m going to do me,” Myint said. “I’m just going to put myself out there. If I want to hike in a wig, hike in a wig. If I want to wear lashes and a gown to chop wood, why not?”
A funny thing happened after he put himself out there as “just Arnold.” Job opportunities came knocking, including a feature on the popular cooking platform BuzzFeed Tasty, as well as ads for Ralph’s (Kroger) supermarket chain and Chobani yogurt, to name a few.
“It’s pretty funny that because of my silly cooking videos on Instagram, I actually have been working quite a bit during quarantine,” Myint said. “It’s been a surprise, and I’m thankful for the income.”
Okumura isn’t surprised that audiences are embracing Myint’s videos.
“In addition to Arnold being an incredible chef, he's a very playful, creative and inspiring person,” Okumura said. “I believed that if his audience got to know the side of him that I know then his videos would be a hit—and they have been. It’s important to note in this present moment his cooking is not an escape from reality. He sets out every day to bring positivity and happiness to others. Dozens of times, I’ve seen him lift spirits and bring light to challenging situations.”
As Myint entered his third month of self-isolating in Southern California in June, his thoughts were with his staff and restaurants back in Nashville, where the city was in the midst of a partial re-opening even as the daily tally of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
“As a chef, I’m heartbroken for my staff. I’m heartbroken for the restaurant industry,” Myint said. “PM is still closed and that’s out of the request and direction of the employees. Financially it’s stressful but the staff are doing OK. They know if they need money for rent or mortgage to just let me know.”
Suzy Wong’s House of Yum reopened in March with reduced occupancy and social distancing rules in place for drag shows. But BLVD remains closed (it was shuttered last year) while Myint and his sister Anna Myint work out a remodel that will position the restaurant to replace International Market and carry on its legacy.
“We’re curating the menu and working with the architect on the space,” Myint said. “When we reopen it’s going to be beautiful. But it’s not going to open anytime soon.”
The documentary and cookbook inspired by Patti Myint are steadily moving forward.
“When the timing is right, it’ll happen,” Myint said. “My sister and I have gone through so much with both parents passing away over the past two years, so this has been a good time for us to breathe and get caught up. But there’s no pressure.”
Myint’s main takeaway from his time in isolation? There is only so much you can control in life.
“It’s a very Buddhist approach,” he said. “I can’t control my environment, but I can control what I do and how I react to it. I really think it’s OK to be selfish right now and take the time you need. Self care is so important right now, because when you do that, it is going to ripple out and you are more able to help others.”
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.