By Michelle Lee
Dr. Michelle Lee is a resident physician at New York Presbyterian-Cornell in Manhattan, New York City. While working with pandemic-affected patients in intensive care at Mount Sinai Morningside, she helped coordinate meal donations coming in for frontline workers.
When COVID-19 hit New York, I was a resident physician working in Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. Resident physicians don’t get paid much during training, so we’re used to surviving 12-hour shifts on pizza and donuts. Needless to say, on a busy night in March, it was a surprise to find a warm home-cooked meal of spicy fish filet at my desk after running around balancing ventilator settings, laboratory values, and taking care of critically ill patients. This was the first of countless donated meals from a nearby small mom-and-pop restaurant, Thai Sliders, that fueled our grateful hospital staff through the toughest stretches of the pandemic.
I wanted to track down and thank the chef who got me through my shifts with life-giving red curries and pad Thai. Toon Preechathammarach is a tireless 70-year-old Thai-Chinese mother of four who has prepared and delivered over 6,900 meals to NYC healthcare workers since the start of the pandemic. Toon worked seven days a week in the restaurant business for 30 years until the pandemic forced her business to close for three weeks. Wanting to help the local healthcare workers, and unaccustomed to having free time on her hands, Toon returned to the kitchen.
She recruited her husband Wai Ying Lau and daughters Sage (age 27), Ginger (29), and Senna (25) to help drop off her first donated meals to Mount Sinai. They expanded their donations to New York Presbyterian, NYU-Langone, Harlem Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, EMS FDNY Station, Bronx Care, and at least 10 other healthcare institutions around the city. When hospital donations tapered off, they continued to donate weekly to their local soup kitchen.
Toon’s meals often saved the morale of our ICU staff and kept us going. It always made my day to see Toon and her family drop by in their blue minivan and deliver handwritten messages and boxed dinners. Toon has an obvious passion for caring for others with her cooking that I genuinely felt in her food. I spoke to Toon and her daughter Sage about their experiences in the pandemic, and what comes next.
MICHELLE LEE: I wanted to personally thank you guys for your meals. It’s been rare in my experience for the chef and her family hand-deliver these meals to the frontline, and it’s been heartwarming to see your kindness in person whenever we receive these boxes. Thank you so much for that.
TOON PREECHATHAMMARCH: Thank you!
MICHELLE: Where are you from? How did you come up with the names for your daughters?
TOON: I’m Thai-Chinese from Bangkok, Thailand. My husband is from Hong Kong. I have always loved cooking and food, and I came to the States in 1972.
SAGE LAU: The three of us are named after teabags and ingredients my mom found in the kitchen. We also have a brother named Raxsit in California.
MICHELLE: How did the pandemic affect Thai Sliders?
TOON: The pandemic was the first time I stayed home, for three weeks. After a while, I said, “No, I have to do something. I cannot stay home.” So I asked my daughters for hospitals nearby and what we could do to help. I called all my employees, and after two weeks, we re-opened very slowly. Even though business was slow, we were happy to do something to help the doctors, nurses, and firemen.
Some of the meals are on the menu, but a lot of them also developed off the menu. First we started with fried rice and curry, but then I would think “let me throw in some squid … let me throw in some fish” while thinking how hard the doctors and nurses must be working.
SAGE: The meals truly come from a place of joy and hospitality and wanting to take care of you guys in the hospital.
TOON: We have pad Thai, chicken curries, fish filet, shrimp dishes, pad see-ew, pork dishes. We know hospital workers are working so hard, so we want to reach out.
MICHELLE: I’ve been on the receiving end of your donated meals, and I was surprised to see your whole family when you drop off your food. Is this a family-run business?
SAGE: Thai Sliders is mostly run by my mom. My dad helps with supplies and ingredients. Senna and I do design for the restaurant and some business operations and expansion. Ginger also helps out here and there too—that’s the nature of supporting immigrant parents. My parents really love doing these deliveries and feeling that they’re giving back.
MICHELLE: How does Toon have the energy to be involved in delivering thousands of meals at 70 years of age?
SAGE: Food is her love language. Since we were young, she gets up early and cooks. My parents worked every day, with very little breaks in between. The pandemic was the first time they were able to be idle, and it’s not really like them. They really enjoy the food drop-offs and contributing to hospitals.
MICHELLE: How did you get started in the restaurant business and cooking?
TOON: I loved cooking since I was very young, and when I came here, many of my friends asked “Why don’t you open a Thai restaurant since you love cooking?” I always said no, no. But then the landlord got along with me, and offered the space, and I just decided to open one of the first Thai restaurants in New York City. This was in 1983, in Tribeca. In the beginning, we had a lot of celebrities like Liam Neeson, John Kennedy Junior every week on Friday, Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, I lost contact with Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson, if you’re reading this, please reach out!
SAGE: She’s spent most of her life in her restaurant, and since we were little, we had playdates in there too. Even after doing the meal donation, she’s the type to go into the kitchen and cook for her friends too. She’ll call them and say, “I’m cooking food, and will drop it off.”
MICHELLE: How is Thai food in New York different from Thai food in Bangkok?
TOON: A lot of people go to Thailand say food here is better than Thailand—a lot sweeter. However, it’s more complex in Thailand, and the ingredients we get there are the types that you can’t find exactly here.
MICHELLE: How have you changed the business since the pandemic?
SAGE: We never had much of a take-out business, and Midtown East was affected by the city closing. Sales were really low, especially in the first two weeks of the pandemic in March. People were just stocking up and staying in, so we decided it wasn’t really worth it to stay open, and we closed for a few weeks.
MICHELLE: How were you able to organize your deliveries to hospitals?
SAGE: We were just trying to organize as best we could. There were so many initiatives in the beginning, since so many businesses were impacted. It took a few applications before we got a response. We found Meals 4 Heroes two days after they began, where they develop partnerships with different hospitals and restaurants. We also did our own fundraiser. With our own fundraising and Meals 4 Heros covering a percentage of meals, the orders were consistent and steady enough to hire back our staff and stay open. Now, we’re donating weekly to the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen on 28th Street and 9th Avenue. Giving back to the community is something that our family is really happy doing.
MICHELLE: What’s the schedule for the restaurant now?
SAGE: We’re on a modified schedule from noon to 8:30pm, seven days a week. We reopened our downtown Brooklyn location called “Thank you Come again” in the DeKalb Market outdoor setup. We’re also working on bottling our sauces, like our garlic chili, and calling it Mama T’s Magic Touch.
MICHELLE: What have you learned in the pandemic as a family business?
SAGE: I feel that the biggest thing is there’s so much potential to gain public support for these initiatives. We had a huge response from friends and the community—many times as a surprise to us. We’re looking into starting a nonprofit too. The pandemic is forcing us to be innovative, to see how we can contribute and be proactive.