Kalaya Owner “Nok” Defends Her $95 Tom Yum Soup

Five years after she opened her juggernaut restaurant Kalaya, the James Beard-winning chef talks being the best, meeting her husband on a plane, and why she scoffs at “New American.”

nok, the owner of the thai restaurant kalaya in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia

Nok, the owner of the Fishtown Thai restaurant Kalaya, pictured with Titi / Photograph by Michael Persico

On April 10, 2019, the Thai scene in the entire Philadelphia region was upended when a woman known as Nok opened Kalaya, a tiny restaurant in South Philadelphia. Five years later, Kalaya is now in a much larger space in Fishtown, where the restaurant has drawn national accolades. Here, Nok gives us some insight into what makes her tick.

My full name is … Chutatip Suntaranon. “Chutatip” means “crown jewel.” And my family name was given to us by the king long ago. We ruled the village since the olden days. It’s a very renowned name.

But you can call me … “Nok,” which means “bird.” My mother called me “Louk Nok” — little bird — because I was always hungry and standing there with my mouth open.

Lots of people mispronounce the name of my restaurant Kalaya,­ but … I speak English with a broken accent, so you can speak Thai with a broken accent.

I grew up in … Trang, a small province in southern Thailand. Everybody knows each other. I could never misbehave.

These days, I live in … Queen Village.

I met my husband … when I was a flight attendant and Ziv was a passenger on a flight from Bangkok to New York. We had a global relationship for two years. We married in 2008. He’s a Wharton professor.

If you’re wondering who the dog is on my Instagram page … that’s Titi, my prince. Titi is half Pomeranian and half paper-shredder.

When somebody asks me if the food at Kalaya is spicy … I tell them that rolling my eyes is my best exercise. No one has ever died.

When somebody asks if they can request less spicy … I roll my eyes … again. And then I don’t speak.

The most expensive item on the menu at Kalaya is … the tom yum, at $95. But it’s actually not expensive. I fill the tom yum with seafood. If people can buy a raw seafood tower for $125, they can certainly pay for my tom yum.

My first job in life was … helping my mom in the food market. So I smelled like shrimp paste every day.

I decided to open Kalaya because … I wasn’t thinking. And I needed a hobby.

I moved the restaurant from South Philly to Fishtown because … bigger is better. I added 126 seats, most of which are filled all the time. Last weekend, we had 946 people on the waiting list.

If you want to learn to cook Thai … buy my cookbook, which should be out by the end of the year.

I buy most of my clothes at … Issey Miyake. But also NINObrand, Kin Boutique on Pine Street, and Wayward Collection in my neighborhood.

One thing I miss about doing business in South Philly is … my neighbors. I miss my friends in the Italian Market. And I miss places like Claudio’s and Esposito’s.

The chances of my ever opening another­ restaurant in Philly are … very slim. But opening Kalaya elsewhere is possible.

In 10 years, I hope to be … retired. Opened this restaurant at the age of 50!

The only person I let touch my hair is … Erin at Whirligig. Well, and Judy Tran at Omnia Spa. She sets it just perfect.

The second-best place to get Thai food is … my home kitchen.

When I’m not craving Thai, I’m wanting … Italian at Fiorella, Palizzi and Zeppoli. I get all of it.

One restaurant trend I’m tired of is … “New American,” or “Progressive American.” That’s what you call something when you don’t know what to call it.

Something that sets the Philly restaurant scene apart is … hospitality. Compared to other cities, we are very real. Not pretentious.

I’m usually in bed by … 11:30, but it takes me a couple hours to fall asleep. My job requires so much energy that I still have that rush when I get home. I understand why substance abuse is a big problem in this industry. It’s a difficult lifestyle.

If I weren’t doing this, I would probably be … a housewife. I loved being a housewife. It’s the best job. Pays very well.


Published as “One of Us: Nok” in the April 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.