With Kalaya Fishtown, Iconic Restaurateur Nok Suntaranon’s Past Steers Her Future
From selling shrimp paste with her mother at a small market in Thailand to traveling the world with Kuwait Airways to helming a Beard-nominated restaurant, Suntaranon’s path to chef stardom has been as unconventional as she is.
One night in Yan Ta Khao, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon’s hometown in Southern Thailand, her mom fell and broke her arm.
Nok was upstairs, sleeping. She heard the crash, or maybe the scream — she isn’t sure. But she was there with her two younger brothers, Supaat and Som Pop, the youngest, nicknamed “Noom” by their father when he was born because noom means “little man” and he was so big — 12 pounds, at least.
Nok rushed downstairs. “It was very dark,” she tells me. The house had no electricity then. But she found her mother — Kalaya Suntaranon, for whom Nok’s (legitimately, deservedly) famous Philadelphia restaurant is named — on the floor.
And after that, she can’t quite recall what happened. She doesn’t remember if her father was there or how her mother got to the hospital. On the phone, she tells me that she’s going to ask her mother in the morning when she wakes up. That she’ll call Yan Ta Khao and the phone will ring halfway around the world in the house where, now, Kalaya rests, recovering from back surgery after another fall decades later. And Nok will ask her mom what happened on that night so long ago because she wants to get it right.
One thing she remembers clearly from that day? The laundry. Her mother had been doing laundry, and it wasn’t finished yet. She remembers it being everywhere. And even after finding her mother on the floor — even after the fall, the shouting, the rush into the night to see a doctor — Nok didn’t cry. She didn’t hide in her room. She grabbed her brother Supaat, and together, they did all the laundry themselves.
“We probably didn’t do a good job,” she says, laughing. “But we did it. We got the ghosts out, at least. That’s just what we do.”
Nok was seven years old.
A Hundred Different Places
I could start Nok’s story in a hundred different places. In Bangkok or Paris, a classroom in Kuwait, the first-class cabin of a Thai Airways intercontinental flight, or on Palmer Street in Fishtown, where her new restaurant is set to open at the end of October.
Kalaya Fishtown is Nok’s enormous next step — four times the size of the original Kalaya, with skylights, a bar, and a menu still being assembled in bits and pieces over the course of the weeks that she and I spend talking. With it, she’s chasing flavors and memories that she’s lived with for decades — the taste of sand ginger, beef curry with heart and tripe, laughing over crushed ice with sweet mung bean and coconut cream with high-school friends, the smell of meatballs in clear broth from a rainy Bangkok café. If she does Kalaya Fishtown right, it’ll be a celebration: a living, breathing biography written in galangal root, river prawns, and dumplings that she loves like babies. She doesn’t consider any possibility that falls short of that.
The original Kalaya — 32 seats on 9th Street in Bella Vista, right next to Ralph’s, down the street from Sarcone’s and Angelo’s — was a marvel when it opened. From the deep Crayola-blue shaw muang flower dumplings to the shatteringly crisp, pursed skins of the curry and potato toong tong and Nok on the floor every night, dressed to the nines, stopping at every table to talk about home, about Thai food and her mother, it was a place people just couldn’t stop raving about. Open just three years now — two of them marked by plague and pandemic — Kalaya shot Nok Suntaranon into the thin upper air of American chefs, got named as the best new restaurant in America by Esquire in 2020 and picked up its first James Beard Award nomination the same year. Plans for the larger second location were being discussed within six months of Kalaya’s opening in April of 2019, Nok turning to old friend Greg Root, the co-owner of Defined Hospitality, whom she knew from …
I’m getting ahead of myself.
I could start Nok’s story anywhere. I started here on the floor, in the dark, in a moment of panic. Because this little girl choosing to work, to finish the things that needed to get done even in an emergency, defines something about Nok that will make the rest of this story make sense.
Most chef narratives follow a comforting arc from grandma’s knee or mom’s suburban kitchen to first jobs, worst jobs, assholery, redemption. They go from the garden to the glossies, Michelin stars, success, a starched white jacket under lights in an open kitchen, whatever — a smooth trajectory that we’ve come to associate with the production of Famous American Chefs. This story isn’t like that, though.
Text Message, 11:39 p.m.
My father took mom to the hospital
Just like she’d promised, Nok had checked with her mother about the details of the fall. She wanted to make sure I had everything just right.
Dreaming of Shrimp Paste
At four and five years old, Nok would go with her mother to the market in Yan Ta Khao, to the stall Kalaya ran selling shrimp paste and eggs and dry chilies and spices. At home, Nok and her brothers helped make the curry paste that everyone adored — that would sell and sell until there was none left.
“I was born and raised in the market,” she says, a child at play among the baskets of fresh fish and steaming woks. She remembers every inch of the place. And when she goes home, everyone remembers her, too. She was Kalaya’s daughter, the kid who sometimes fell asleep on the shelves of her mother’s stall, dreams perfumed by shrimp paste and curry. She was Louk Nok, which means “Little Bird,” the nickname given to her because she was born small and dark-skinned (like a baby bird, get it?) and which stuck because she was always hungry, always seemed to have her mouth open, waiting for someone to put food in it.
“I love food,” she tells me. “Or maybe I love anything good” (meaning fashion, jewelry, expensive handbags and sunglasses — all interests that would come later, laid out in front of her like prizes to be coveted). “But food is my obsession.” She’d eat the same spicy beef curry her father did because she was curious why he liked it so much, why he’d take off on his motorbike just to go find some. She fantasized about smoked stingray — a delicacy in the market, always out of reach — and of someday being able to come back, buy a pound of it, and eat it all herself.
Her mother would cook for the family, for neighbors, for people in town. There wasn’t a lot of money, but Mom had a garden, kept chickens, slaughtered them herself and scalded the bodies. Sitting beside her, Nok would pluck the feathers. She can’t eat chicken now. Not here, not in Philly. And not because slaughtering the chickens or plucking the feathers was traumatizing, but because other chickens just don’t taste like her mother’s chicken. Because, mostly, they don’t taste like anything at all.
“I never get upset,” she tells me, “or question why can’t I go play?” Because there were things to do, work to be done. There was curry paste to be made or laundry that needed doing or chickens to pluck, meals to prepare. “Beautiful meals,” according to Nok, who can talk for 20 minutes, easy, about beef curry carried home in plastic bags from side-street stalls and the burn of it on her tongue, or the khao yum rice salad with sand ginger that her grandmother made; about her mother making oxtail soup for her and her brothers with just a few glass noodles added. She’d start it the night before, letting it simmer all night over one of the charcoal burners in her kitchen, then wake up early to stoke up the heat so they could eat before going to school.
“This is what we do,” she tells me. That same line, repeated again. We work when there’s work to be done. And there was always work to be done.
Nok’s mom is Hainanese, an orphan who never had much of an education, but she knew a thousand recipes. Her father, Chaiyos, was an alcoholic, a gambler, a hospital administrator. He also had a trucking business that he ran, moving cut rubber trees from the plantations to a local furniture factory.
“My father bought the oldest, lousiest trucks available because he had no money, I think,” Nok tells me. The trucks would break down constantly, stranding the drivers. Nok’s mom would take them lunch while they waited, hopping on a scooter and bringing them food no matter how far away they were. Often, Nok would go with her. She liked the trucks and loved seeing the cut trees because they’d be carrying with them wild orchids or beautiful mosses from the ground where they’d grown.
Kalaya Suntaranon looked after the drivers. She treated them like family, and in turn, when the floods would come to Yan Ta Khao (as the floods always did), the drivers would show up at Nok’s house and help the family move all their furniture up to the second floor.
When the Floods Come
“So this is where you learned that lesson,” I say to her, interrupting the spooling stories that never stop coming, the two of us chatting on a Thursday afternoon, pre-service. “How you run your kitchen, how you treat your staff.”
We’d talked earlier about restaurants in general, the things we loved, the things we didn’t. One of the things we agreed on? The brigade system. We both hated it — the rigid, militaristic hierarchy, the power dynamics. It can be comforting when you’re a young cook trying to learn your place in the world but can so easily shade over into an architecture that exists solely to buttress egomania and abet exploitation. It was simply The Way Kitchens Were Run for so long that it was rarely even questioned when I was coming up, and it’s still the standard in many fine-dining kitchens today. Nok has certainly seen her share of it over the years, in kitchens run by other chefs. But Kalaya’s kitchen doesn’t run that way.
“Yes!” she says, drawing out the word like she was just waiting for me to catch up with the logic. “I use my parents’ system in my kitchen, yes.” Because she treats her staff the way her mother used to treat those drivers. Every night, she thanks each member of her team by name. The women who work there sometimes bring their kids with them to sit and draw or read or play on their phones — to sleep, if they can, while their mothers fold dumplings, just like she used to do at the market. If workers get hurt or get sick, if they have no health insurance, Nok will pick them up, help them find a doctor. (One day, while we spoke on the phone, she was in the middle of driving an employee to the doctor’s office.) During the pandemic, she ran the place as a takeout business, feeding neighbors and struggling restaurant industry employees, setting up tables on the sidewalk to do curbside prep and pickup like her own small market. Those early, bad days were also the only time Kalaya has done delivery. She employed her servers as drivers, but Nok always did the longest runs herself. She always did redeliveries if something got lost or forgotten.
“It is very Thai in our kitchen,” she tells me. “Very cultural.” No one yells. No one throws things. She’s concerned with her staff’s wellness as much as their productivity. “In order to do this, the staff has to be happy.”
Because that way, when the floods come, they’ll help you lift the furniture.
Meanwhile, Back in Yan Ta Khao
“Every day, people come over to eat,” Nok tells me. “The friends, the neighbors. It was the most happy time of the day. My mother, my father, they didn’t get along, but they could sit down at the table and get along there.” She pauses, says, “When we’re not eating, that’s when I worried,” then brightens. “But at the table, I can deal with that feeling later.”
The Trouble With Later Is That it Always Comes Eventually
“We lost our house because my father, he’s a gambler,” Nok tells me matter-of-factly one day. She remembers having to go pick him up in the middle of the night — scraping him up off the street after he’d been beaten for his gambling debts. She remembers the drinking, the shouting, the money trouble. And while the dinner table was a fine escape from her day-to-day life, it was never going to be enough. She started having panic attacks, so when she was 15, her mom sent her north to Bangkok for high school, 900 miles away along the Gulf of Thailand.
Nok went alone. She’d only been to Bangkok once before, at seven or eight, but her grandmother lived there. There was an uncle who ran a boardinghouse — 15 people and one bathroom — and Nok would stay there. She came with $80 in her pocket, thick glasses and an address. Everything else was up to her.
“I was on my own to choose a school,” she tells me. “To make all these decisions.” And she had no idea what she was doing. No plan. None. This was 1983. There was no Google, no GPS, no cell phone. In Bangkok, in her uncle’s neighborhood, she found a girl roughly her age who had the same southern accent she did. Together, they got on a bus and rode it, chose the first school the bus passed by. Nok went in, filled out the paperwork, was accepted. Turns out it was one of the best high schools in Bangkok. Just luck.
But here’s the thing about luck: You feel it once, and something in you gets attuned to the frequency. If you fail, you walk through the rest of your life fearing failure. Success, though, breeds a kind of survivorship bias. You think to yourself, Well, having no plan worked the first time, so why wouldn’t it work again?
For the rest of her life, Nok would live fearlessly. Which isn’t to say Bangkok was easy. She hated the traffic, struggled at school (which she never liked much anyway). She lived on the $25 a month her parents sent. It was never enough, but she learned how to spend it, always putting a little bit aside for a taste of something finer. “Even when I had no money, I spared something for good food,” she says. She got to know the cafes and street vendors in Bangkok, walked through the markets, sat with her grandmother on special occasions, eating homemade meatballs in clear broth at Louk Chin Sri Yaan. At newsstands, she’d pick up magazines and page through them for glimpses of a world beyond Yan Ta Khao and her uncle’s boardinghouse. (“I read everything!” she tells me. “Books, magazines. Because to a kid from the south, they could bring me anywhere.”) And in those slick pages full of beautiful people in beautiful places doing beautiful things, she could see something wavering in the middle distance. Not a plan for the future, necessarily. Not a path. But the feeling of a destination.
Sparing a Moment for Laura Ingalls Wilder and TiTi the Pom
“You know Laura Ingalls Wilder?” Nok asks.
“I do. Of course.”
“There was this book. A Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Something about a big wood.”
She means Little House in the Big Woods, the first of what would become Ingalls’s Little House series.
“I love that book growing up. I love it because they built a house on the creek just like we did on the canal. And for the food? Oh … pie and oyster crackers, it was all so different.”
I tell her yeah, it must have been strange. A kid growing up dreaming of shrimp paste and smoked stingray, reading about the pioneer foods of the American Midwest? It must have seemed so … alien.
“It did,” she says. “But that’s how I travel. I could escape from home, from responsibility. And when I was young, I would bring home books from the library for me and my mother to share.” So when she went wherever she went, she could bring her mom along, too.
We talk about books for a while. About the library in Yan Ta Khao where Nok would hide away. She (of course) remembers books for the foods in them. Tea with milk. Scones with clotted cream. Her voice takes on a hungry edge, wistful and lusty at the same time. Caviar! Oh, caviar …
In the background, her three-month-old Pomeranian puppy, TiTi (short for Tong Tai, which means “little boy”), is yipping and snapping. She stops every minute to gently scold him.
“TiTi! No biting!” Books, books, books, books. “TiTi! No biting!” Books, books, books.
She says, “I’m trying to get him used to the grooming brush,” and I can hear TiTi barking over the phone like a cartoon dog, high and squeaky, so that I can almost see the YipYipYip in a word bubble above his head.
When we speak, Nok has had TiTi for about a month. She got him after returning from a trip home to Yan Ta Khao to eat, see her mother in the hospital and help her move back home, do menu research for Kalaya Fishtown and eat more. A hundred meals, a thousand conversations, every one of them helping her shape the image in her head of a restaurant that will teach Americans how to eat like Thai people eat, how to love this food the way Nok loves this food. Her last Pom — her beloved Tong, an exclamation point with feet and hair who for years went with her everywhere, cradled like a child in her arms — died while she was gone. So TiTi is the new boy: cute, though nothing but trouble.
“TiTi! No biting!”
If Yan Ta Khao determined who Nok was going to be when she grew up, books showed her where she was going. The market stall, the smoked stingray, the lumber trucks and oxtail soup: that was where she came from. But images of London and Paris and Pépin, Wisconsin, of afternoon tea, biryani and caviar — these gave her both something to recognize and something to reach for.
“Hey,” she says. “You want to adopt a three-month-old Pomeranian? I’ll deliver him to you right now.”
And she’s kidding, of course. Later, she’ll text me a picture of TiTi — just a puff of white fur with black button eyes. He’s trouble, sure, but he’s adorable.
Not That Story
For college, Nok went back to the south. Not home, but closer. At 18, she enrolled at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani to study Thai and English.
“Because I liked to be able to bring my book to the exams,” she tells me, laughing. “I’m very lazy.”
Two years later, she graduated. Twenty years old. I ask her if she thought about going back home, and she says no. Not once. “I was never tempted to go back,” she says. “I knew I needed to make money.”
She needed money to send to her mother. She needed money to make sure Supaat and Som Pop could get an education. She had a degree, her mother’s hustle, a hunger, and she followed them right back to Bangkok, where she found a job as a telephone operator for a Japanese company. It wasn’t her dream, but it was something.
A few months after she graduated, her father hanged himself. Nok tells me that her mother found the body.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
“It was hard,” says Nok. Then she says nothing. Then she says, “But I had to work.”
In Little House in the Big Woods, Pa is always there for Laura. He chops the wood and shoots the deer and salts and smokes the meat, and he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t gamble. Sometimes he’s too tired to play the fiddle at night, but then the children ask him, and most of the time, he plays the fiddle anyway.
But this is not that story.
In many chef narratives, this is the point where the chefs dedicate themselves to cooking, to honing their skills and working their way up through the ranks. Here would be the training montage — knife work, prep work, carrying flour sacks up and down the stairs while some gin-blossomed Swiss-hotel-school graduate screams French profanities at them. They’d move from shitty restaurants to less-shitty restaurants to pretty good restaurants, cap it with a stage at Arpège or the French Laundry, then a place of their own. The ego given form and flavor.
But this isn’t that story, either.
Foie Gras and Caviar at 40,000 Feet
“The best canneloni I ever had was in Lahore,” Nok tells me. “The best crepes were in Paris. The best roast pork, in Spain.”
In Bangkok, she ate the way she’d always eaten. The only exposure to American food, up until this point, was fast food. “All I know is Pizza Hut and Sizzler!”
Then, in 1990, she saw an ad in the paper for Kuwait Airways. They were hiring flight attendants, so she applied. There was no grand plan. No sense that this — this job, this opportunity — would be the one that opened the world to her. It was just a job. Good money. Looked interesting. So she went for it.
This was summer, she thinks. August. Know what else happened in the summer of 1990? Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — the beginning of the Gulf War. For months, she heard nothing about the job, because for months, nothing flew in Kuwait that didn’t have an American flag on the tail.
The war ended in February of ’91, and Nok was told to get on a plane almost immediately. She’d never flown before. But now she was packing a bag and boarding a jet bound for Kuwait City.
“It’s very strange flying into a war zone,” she tells me. “You remember the Gulf War? All those burning oil fields, fighter planes on the ground. Handsome pilots.”
In Kuwait, she was trained to work the first-class cabin. There were lessons on how to stand, how to walk, how to do her makeup and hair. More important: They had culinary classes.
“We had to understand the food so we could talk about it with the passengers. You know, béchamel, Gulf prawns — such beautiful prawns, best in the world. So they taught us.”
It was the first time Nok ever really enjoyed school.
In Bangkok, she’d had problems with the traffic. She got motion-sick, had vertigo. Flying was so much worse. (“I threw up every flight for the first year,” she says.)
But she learned. She learned a lot. And when she started seeing the paychecks? They were huge, Nok says. Big enough to change her brothers’ lives, her mother’s. Certainly enough to change hers.
For a year and a half, she would fly all over the world in the first-class cabins of Kuwait Airways, giving the safety lectures, demonstrating the seat belts, pointing out the emergency exits, serving caviar and foie gras to some of the wealthiest people on earth.
“Whole lobes of foie gras, Jason,” she says, still almost breathless remembering. Foie gras in aspic, full tins of Iranian caviar, fresh-squeezed juice on every flight. She’s such a snob about juice now. Because Kuwait Air (which serves no alcohol) had the best juice bar in the world.
After a while, the airline expanded, opening Bangkok Base. Nok transferred, happy to have somewhere familiar to return to. Then she got a job with Thai Airways that she’d keep until 2011, flying to every city she’d ever dreamed of while curled up with her mom, reading books in Yan Ta Khao, or scouring Bangkok’s newsstands for food and fashion magazines; laying over in musty global capitals and sparkling new metropolises just long enough to stalk their markets, try their restaurants, raid their boutiques and be gone.
But being Kalaya Suntaranon’s daughter, this wasn’t the only thing Nok did. She ran a jewelry business on the side with a friend. She became an international Birkin hunter — chasing down the ridiculously expensive, impossible-to-find Hermès bags wherever she landed, then bringing them back to Bangkok to sell at a profit. She made more money in the transcontinental handbag game than she ever did as a flight attendant, she tells me, giggling at her misspent youth and shady days as a handbag smuggler.
These days, she collects Birkin bags for herself. She has them custom-made.
Antonio’s Italian Experience
In Bangkok, Nok met a man, Antonio Armenio, who was helping his brother run a restaurant — a wild spot called Scoozi that was on the first floor of an apartment building, the parking lot packed every night with supercars, the dining room full of politicians, celebrities, members of the royal family. They got married, and in 2003 he opened his own restaurant, called Antonio’s Italian Experience, on Sukhumvit Road. Soon enough, Nok started using her layovers to fill the restaurant’s pantry: delicate zucchini flowers, Italian truffles, whatever the kitchen needed. She’d find the best producers, the best prices, fill her bags and then fly home loaded down like Lois Byrd, Henry Hill’s babysitter in Goodfellas. It was exactly what she’d imagined when she was a child, dreaming of smoked stingray. She could walk into any market in the world now, buy whatever she wanted, eat it all.
But it didn’t last. Like so many restaurants, Antonio’s did well right up until it didn’t. On the phone, Nok tells me about bad decisions being made by her then-husband, canceled deliveries, orders being rejected by suppliers; about pawning her wedding ring — a two-carat diamond — to cover bills at the restaurant that were going unpaid.
She called her mom, asked what she should do. Kalaya suggested Nok talk to some of her friends, sell shares in the restaurant to them. So Nok did, raising thousands of dollars and putting it all right back into Antonio’s business. She also took over the management, the finances, the menu. She figured she’d already spent years eating at the best restaurants in the world, years before that watching her mother in their tiny kitchen at home, feeding multitudes. So this was something she could do.
She added white asparagus to the menu, wrapped in Parma ham and dressed in a gorgonzola cream sauce. Whole mud crab over capellini with garlic and hot chilies. They were her inventions, her dishes.
“I always knew there was a market for the good stuff,” she says. Australian lobsters, Japanese Wagyu, black truffles. “People will pay for that luxury.” And they did, which was a lesson she held close, carried with her for years. It explains, in part, why Kalaya’s shaw muang cost $18: because Nok finds the best ingredients; because she and her crew spend hours rolling and filling and crimping them; because she’s spent a lifetime learning how to do all of that; and because a dumpling in a Thai restaurant should be worth just as much as a raviolo in Marc Vetri’s restaurant. The shaw muang cost $18 because people will pay $18 for them. And they’re $18 because they’re worth it.
Things at Antonio’s restaurant stabilized. And while Nok might be long gone from Thailand now — her first husband has become her ex-husband, and she traded Sukhumvit Road for 32 seats on South 9th Street and a former warehouse in Fishtown with good bones and nice skylights — her invented dishes are still on the menu at Antonio’s today.
“I got everything back,” she tells me. The ring, the money, every dime. She yelled a lot. Fought with every supplier, every employee, accounted for every dollar. “You fuck me once, you’re D.E.D. dead,” she tells me. That was how she handled her business then. “Everything turned around, but I was a bitch, Jason! I was awful!” And Nok didn’t like being that person.
“I never see the beauty of running a restaurant until I come here. Until I open Kalaya.”
Ladies Who Lunch
Nok spent seven years working at Antonio’s, and all the while, she was still flying with Thai Airways, still bopping from city to city, market to market, restaurant to restaurant. She met her current husband, Wharton professor Ziv Katalan, on one of those flights. Ziv flew all the time. He was a regular. They fell in love and married in 2008. Nok moved to Philadelphia a couple years later. She thought she was going to retire.
Wisdom: Being one of those ladies who lunch is a fabulous way to live, according to Nok. Brunch with friends. A little yoga. Maybe some shopping. Dinner and drinks. A blurry smear of days becoming weeks becoming years. “And I’ve done that, but I don’t think I can do it for another 10, 20 years.”
In the background, TiTi has lost his blue ball. It’s an emergency. Nok bounces off the phone, apologizes.
She spent nine years in Philadelphia, cooking for her friends, her neighbors. Just making food, giving it to whoever was around. It was, in many ways, not unlike what her mother did. Nok was re-creating something.
But she wanted more. She applied for work at restaurants, at Williams-Sonoma, but got no interviews. No one even called her back. Her life — the things she knew, the experiences she’d had — it was hard to put that down on a résumé. So in 2011, she decided to go back to school, first at the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the Institute of Culinary Education), then, briefly, at the Art Institute in 2017. True, she was coming late to the industry. Trying to find a kitchen job in your 40s isn’t easy for anyone, especially a woman in an industry that’s still male-dominated. Even after all she’d done, Nok was mostly worried because she thought no one would take her seriously as a chef unless she had those kinds of credentials.
Her schooling worked, though it shouldn’t have needed to. She got an internship with chef Fred Ortega at the Rittenhouse Hotel, worked three weeks at a French bakery but didn’t like it, then spent two years in Jose Garces’s pastry production kitchen at the Kimmel Center. She started catering out of her own kitchen at home, doing increasingly larger and more complicated parties for friends, then friends of friends. She made Thai food, Italian spreads, French, croquembouche towers for 130 people — all cream puffs and caramel and spun sugar. She’d have to borrow space in the coolers at restaurants close to home. But eventually, she asked Ziv if she could get a small space of her own outside the house — just a little room where she could work on her catering. Nothing complicated, nothing expensive.
That was what she was looking for when she saw the space at 9th and Catharine that would become Kalaya. She fell in love instantly.
February 10, 2019
“I know I came in very green. I have no business plan. All I have is this food. I want to tell them about my food. I want to tell them about my mom. And I want to win the James Beard: Best New Restaurant.”
Nok signed the lease for Kalaya on February 10th. Ziv, who put up the money, thought it was a terrible idea.
“My husband is the most brilliant guy, and he says, ‘The way you’re doing this, it’s going to close in six months.’”
Ziv himself remembers things a little differently. I catch him on the phone while he’s traveling (of course), and he says no. That’s not how he put it at all. “Nok is the most fabulous cook I know,” he says. “A one-of-a-kind talent.” But when he was talking with Kalaya’s landlord about backing her, he was speaking from his experience as a risk-management expert. “I told him, I’m not quite sure what I’m dreading more — success that will take my wife away because she’ll be spending all her time at the restaurant, or failure and a write-off of the investment.”
Still, he chuckles warmly when I tell him Nok’s version. “Ah,” he says. “Yes, well, if that story adds to the mythology of Kalaya, then I’m fine with that.”
April 10, 2019
Kalaya had one night of friends-and-family, two seatings. Nok couldn’t afford a third.
“We ran out of money,” she explains. Then she laughs.
I ask her about the first night of service, and she says, “I didn’t know what to expect. I cooked one pot of rice, one chicken curry, one crab curry.” After a while, she looked out into the dining room, and it was full. There were 20 people waiting on the sidewalk. “I was like … whoa. I guess I should make a bigger pot of rice.”
The first draft of Kalaya’s menu was 100 items long. The final menu? Fifteen dishes.
“I just keep going back to it,” Nok says, replacing old dishes with new ones. They’re her mother’s recipes, her grandmother’s recipes, foods she knew as a child, flavors she’s been seeking out across decades and hundreds of thousands of miles. Beef curry with heart and tripe. Oxtail soup. Stinky bean. She named the restaurant after her mother because she sees every night of service as an opportunity to talk about her mother — Kalaya’s food, Kalaya’s work ethic, the way she fed everyone and the peace of her table. The last time she came home from Thailand, she did it with 50 pounds of curry paste in her bag. Old habits die hard.
On the floor, Nok still moves like a flight attendant, gliding from table to table, making sure that everyone is comfortable, everyone feels recognized, explaining the food to those who may not understand its roots. She smiles, laughs loudly, goes from the kitchen to the floor and back again with effortless grace in designer clothes that she wears because she loves them. Because clothes are meant to be worn, not bagged and hung in some closet somewhere. She showed up to work one night in an Issey Miyake dress because she’d come straight from a party and did her entire shift in couture.
“Three years of talking to people,” she says. Three years of convincing the back-of-house staff to trust that people will enjoy these flavors, three years of showing the front of the house how to talk to people about the food. “I take a lot of pride in my work, my food. At the end of the day, people aren’t dumb. They know when something is good.”
In 2020, she got the James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant — the one she wanted — but at that point, she was already talking with Greg Root and Defined Hospitality about expanding into a second location. Ziv knew Greg from back when Greg was working at Pod and Ziv was a regular. Nok knew him from Parc, where he often ate with his girlfriend (now wife) Danee. Nok trusted him and his partners: Nick Kennedy, Al Lucas and Roland Kassis.
“My promise to my husband was five years, and then we can retire, travel. But then … all this stuff. I become a brand.” By which she means famous in Philadelphia. By which she means known. By which she means finally being taken seriously as a chef who came to her success by the most unconventional of paths, and now in a position to take advantage of that. “And I think now it’s go big or go home, right?”
We talk a while about the new restaurant, Nok and I. The opening was delayed by the pandemic (just like everything else in life), but it’s really starting to come together now. She waxes rhapsodic about grease traps, says things like “I always have this dream wok station in mind.” The electric was going in one day while we were on the phone; on another, she was getting ready to go check on an exhaust fan. The space, she says, is very raw, but she loves it. When it’s done, it’ll be filled with greenery, just like home. With beautiful deep banquettes and lots of light. The menu will be another step in the direction of teaching Philadelphians who have never been abroad how Thai people really eat — full of flamethrower curries balanced by cooling papaya salad, of stinging relishes and fermented funk smoothed out by warm coconut rice and bright vegetables. She knows exactly where she wants to go with the restaurant but isn’t entirely sure yet how to get there. Sometimes she’ll visit the space, walk around, close her eyes, just to imagine what it will be like someday.
I ask her if she’s worried that this bigger space, this bigger staff, this bigger menu, will miss some of the magic that made Kalaya special. She pauses to think about it. “It’s very personal,” she says, and for a minute, I think she’s launching into some canned answer — some explanation of how the restaurant will be her personal vision of Thai cuisine and blah blah blah. But I’m wrong. I should have known better.
“I have the same worry as you,” she continues. “That when we get bigger, it won’t be the same. But I didn’t do this for money. I entered this industry at 50 years old. Every day, I get up, I ask myself what happened in the restaurant yesterday? How can I do better today? I’m older. I’m wiser. I learn from my mistakes. Sometimes I’m not so patient. Like with my husband, I’m not so patient. But in my restaurant? I can be patient. I’m arrogant and ferocious, but with me, you know? I’m competing with me.”
(Later, I’ll ask Greg from Defined Hospitality the same question and he’ll tell me how Nok is excited for the challenge. “Invigorated” is the word he uses, as if Nok hasn’t spent her entire life invigorated. “Our team, we are focused on the details of hospitality and systems,” he says. “How will we greet? How will we say goodbye?” There’s always that worry that the magic that animated the original Kalaya won’t materialize in Fishtown, but Greg understands the concern. “The same sense of special,” he says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”)
In the meantime, Nok has other work. She signed a deal for her first cookbook, and every Wednesday, she does recipe development in her kitchen at home. She’s on the phone with contractors, suppliers, driving to pick up a missed delivery. She’s shot TV shows with Phil Rosenthal (Somebody Feed Phil) on Netflix and with Michael Solomonov for Ted Allen’s Cooking Channel show Where Chefs Eat. And she’s still at Kalaya every day.
That’s just what we do, Nok told me the first time we talked about the night her mother broke her arm. Meaning: We do the work and We finish the job and We take care of the people we love by finishing what they start.
And Kalaya Fishtown is exactly that: Nok finishing what her mother started. The Little Bird with her mouth always open, who climbed into the lumber trucks to find wild orchids and slept in her mother’s stall in the market in Yan Ta Khao. The girl on the bus in Bangkok, $80 in her pocket to make a new life from. The young woman flying into a war zone, sick and scared and excited all at the same time. The flight attendant moving through the streets of Rome and Paris and Lahore, hungry-eyed, hunting for $10,000 handbags and zucchini flowers and crepes. The bride pawning her wedding ring to pay the bills. Nok was all those things. All those people in the same skin. From the canal house with no electricity to caviar in the sky.
“It’s not who I am; it’s who I know,” she says. “I live in these two worlds, but I am the same person in both. I know who I am. At the end of the day, I know. I am my mother’s daughter.”
Published as “Finishing What Kalaya Started” in the October 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Editor’s Note: After publication in print, Suntaranon announced that she was closing her Bella Vista location in anticipation of Kalaya Fishtown’s opening.