When model, author, culinary mogul and recently retired Twitter star Chrissy Teigen was younger, she used to watch her mother, Vilailuck Teigen, cooking in the kitchen. Vilailuck, who is nicknamed Pepper for her love of spice, stood out from the stereotypical American homemaker. “She didn’t cook American food until she came here but she did her best to learn so she could make meals that her American family would love,” Chrissy writes in the foreword to Pepper’s forthcoming book, The Pepper Thai Cookbook: Family Recipes From Everyone’s Favorite Thai Mom. “After she fed us, she’d cook a separate Thai meal for herself, from scratch, using whatever Asian-ish ingredients she could find at our local grocery store in Utah, Washington, Idaho, Ohio, or wherever we were living at the time.”
Pepper, 59, grew up in a small town outside Korat, a city in Thailand’s eastern Isaan region. In 1982, she was 19 or 20 years old and a single mother to her then 2-year-old daughter Tina when she met Chrissy’s father, Ron Teigen, a traveling American electrician. His company had an office in Thailand, and he would travel back and forth from there and Saudia Arabia, doing construction work.
They had been dating only a short while when Ron asked if Pepper would like to meet his family in Washington. After consulting with an immigration officer, the couple decided the easiest way to get Pepper a visa was to get married, which they did the following year.
“The next thing I know I’m on my first-ever airplane ride,” Pepper writes. “I think the in-flight meal was the first American food I ever ate—Pepper steak, of course.” Ron, Pepper and Tina moved to Longview, Washington, Ron’s original hometown, where they lived in a double-wide trailer that he rented from his father. The recipes in Pepper’s cookbook navigate various touchstones in her life: immigrating to the U.S. and looking for Thai ingredients in Utah, Washington, Idaho and Ohio; helping Ron run the tiny tavern called Porky’s that he bought in Longview; visiting Thailand with Chrissy, her husband, singer John Legend, and their children, Luna and Miles; and of course, cooking meals together as a family. (Even though Pepper and Ron finalized their divorce last year, Pepper says the family remains close.)
The Pepper Thai Cookbook arrives in an era when home cooks can easily find most ingredients, even the most far-flung, online. However, much of the book chronicles decades when many ingredients, specifically Thai ones in Pepper’s case, weren’t a single click away. “I would feel homesick from being far away. I really had a hard time adjusting and had to find most of my own ingredients,” recalls Pepper over Zoom from the Beverly Hills home where she lives with Chrissy and her family. “So I learned how to drive.”