PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland is home to different types of Thai food and Chef Earl Ninsom is a big part of why the city has so many unique options.

Ninsom has opened several restaurants in the Rose City and is now being considered for a James Beard Award. From collaborations with other chefs to creating different concepts of his own, he’s quite the force in the Portland food scene.

“The food in this kitchen is similar to what you’d find in the southern Thailand city of Hat Yai, which is also the name of this restaurant,” Ninsom said.

The menu includes fried chicken, roti, curry, Southern Pad Thai and brisket curry. Ninsom said these are influenced by where his dad’s side of the family lived.

“So this is something that I grew up seeing every year… every time I go visit my families,” he said.

That personal connection to food is something you can taste in each of his several Portland restaurants — and now the chef and businessman is up for the “Outstanding Restaurateur” James Beard Award.

His impact on the city’s food scene started back in 2008 at a Thai restaurant in the St. John’s area. The next year saw a shift in Ninsom’s focus.

“I just feel like with what’s going on in Portland, as far as like Thai cuisine, we [were] doing the same thing everywhere back then,” he explained. “It’s not something that Thai people wanted to eat.”

Motivated to make more creative dishes, he opened Mee-sen Thai Eatery. Top chefs dined there, which created lots of culinary connections for Ninsom.

Then came Paadee and eventually Langbaan, which opened inside Paadee. “Langbaan” actually means “back of house” in Thai.

As the years went on, Ninsom’s presence in Portland continued to grow. Now in 2022 — the chef is still expanding. Phuket Cafe just opened in Northwest Portland — and while Langbaan closed in February, Ninsom plans to re-open it inside this spot later on.

With all these delicious spots, some are wondering if he’s trying to build some kind of empire.

“Sort of, sort of — but I didn’t think of it that way,” he explained. “[It’s] sort of like a place that people can come to work and not be not getting [a] sort of torture, are not happy.”

He says that’s because it’s about more than just serving food and drinks. Ninsom stresses the importance of having a healthy work environment where people are treated with kindness and respect.

“We wanna make sure people feel safe coming to work,” Ninsom said. “And eventually, your happiness is why you doing what you do.”

Of course, having all these businesses under his belt is very demanding. Ninsom told KOIN 6 News he may take a big step back to spend more time with his family and kids in the next several years — which is why he created a program where he’s empowering his employees to grow, even work on a path to potential ownership.

We’ll find out on June 13 if Ninsom wins the James Beard Award, once the winners are announced in Chicago. That will be a big night for two other Portland chefs as well — Carlo Lamagna and Thomas Pisha-Duffy are both up for Best Chef in our region.

For more information about the James Beard Awards, visit this website.