The Ambassador of Spice

Words by
Brett Martin
Images by
Kriston Jae Bethel

How Chutatip Suntaranon channeled her upbringing in Thailand—and life spent flying around the world—into one of Philly’s most singular restaurants.

Chutatip Suntaranon was 50 when she opened her Thai restaurant Kalaya in 2019, in a 32-seat space in Bella Vista. She had already led several rich lives: a youth spent between her hometown in southern Thailand and school in Bangkok; a culinary education in the first-class cabin of international airlines where she worked as a flight attendant; a side-hustle ferrying Hermès Birkin bags to Asia from her various destinations (she still collects Birkins); a first marriage spent running an Italian restaurant in Bangkok. It’s hard to imagine a chef-restaurateur who was more ready for primetime.

By 2022, when Kalaya relocated to a space in Fishtown almost four times the size of the original, with vaulted skylights and profusions of greenery, Suntaranon, who goes by “Nok,” was a bona fide star, hailed by national magazines, feted by critics, and soon to be named Best Chef: Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation. Even in a kind of golden age for Thai restaurants across the country, Kalaya stands out for its electric, uncompromising version of Southern Thai cuisine—from delicate dumplings to stormy curries, all of it almost (though not quite) as pretty to look at as it is delicious to eat. It’s a place seemingly in every way an expression of its irrepressible, equally uncompromising maker.

Having traveled all over the world, is there a place that Philadelphia reminds you most of?

No. I’ve been traveling to America since 1991, and spent 20 or 30 years traveling the globe nonstop, and I don’t think I could compare Philadelphia with any other country or city. Philly is unique because Philly is real. Whatever you see in Philly is real. It’s not plastered. It’s not fake. Our strongest point is community.

A little more than a year after opening the new Kalaya, how has it been different than you expected?

One thing about my life is that I don’t have expectations. Expectations create anxiety and disappointment. The only hope I had when I decided to open the bigger restaurant is that my staff would be well taken care of. Because at the first Kalaya I did everything. I was a one-woman show, and I took care of my staff. So, I have people who are super loyal to me, people who have been here since day one. I looked at them and I thought: I want my team to have health insurance. I want them to have paid vacation. I want them to work in the bigger organization and just be well-taken care of. That’s what we were able to do by expanding the business.

“I have people who are super loyal to me, people who have been here since Day One. I look at them and I think: I want my team to have health insurance. I want them to have paid vacation. I want them to work in the bigger organization and just be well-taken care of.”

Was it nerve-wracking?

I work like a bull. I’ve almost met nobody that works harder or is more persistent than me. So I believe in myself and the rest is not up to me. We open the door, the customer walks in, and they will like it or not. I cook my heart out. My team builds the most beautiful restaurant with the most wonderful hospitality that we can. But we don’t hold you at gunpoint and force you to like our food. That’s how I opened the restaurant and I’m still operating under the same mindset.

Has it allowed you to relax at all?

I do relax. And I am a shopaholic. I splurge. I treat myself very, very well.

What’s the last present you gave to yourself?

It’s almost every day. Christmas comes every day. Sometimes it’s a very good meal. Or coffee. Or a big thing of truffles. I love handbags. I love shoes. I’m a woman!

I was going to ask you about the Birkin bags. How many do you own?

I can’t tell you. If I tell you, I have to kill you. I have enough….but still not enough. You can never have enough Birkins.

Suntaranon at Kalaya's bar

What did being a flight attendant, especially in first-class, teach you about hospitality?

I think it made me more sensitive to how people feel. I want them to feel good about coming into my restaurant.

I imagine you’ve seen people act pretty badly while flying.

I have. But the thing is, more is factored in there than just the flight attendant. Sometimes you’ve been treated badly at the check-in counter. Sometimes you’ve been waiting in line. The disappointment and anger is something that’s built up prior to getting on the plane and the flight attendant is just the last resort, the person you can lash out at. This is why when I walk around my dining room, and I see people whose body language is off, I always look them in their eyes and say, ‘There’s something wrong. Talk to me. Talk to me.’ I want to figure out, Was it the food? Was it the staff? Or was it their family dynamic at the table? And normally we can make that customer happy.

“I believe in myself and the rest is not up to me. We open the door, the customer walks in, and they will like it or not.”

It feels like Americans have come a long way toward understanding and appreciating Thai food over the past five to 10 years.

I think it’s not just America. It’s the world in general. And it’s not just Thai food. I think the world is waking up. I think people are more considerate and eager to learn about other cultures. When I opened the first restaurant I would answer the phones myself for the first few months: Do you have pad thai? No. Do you have pad see ew? No. Do you have drunken noodles? No. They’d hang up on me.

Do you still encounter the old prejudice about “ethnic” food needing to be cheap?

For me, I would say that as long as I can convince people to come in, sit in my restaurant, try my food, walk out, and have time to write about how pricey it is, that’s a success. But this will always be a world problem as long as people still have that kind of cultural racism.

Are you being offered opportunities to expand to other cities?

Nobody has asked me. People from New York say, ‘You should open in New York,’ and I’m like, ‘No thank you. You can drive here.’

For many years, the narrative was Philadelphia feeling overshadowed by New York.

I don’t think Philadelphia wants to compete with New York. I went up to a table and the people were like, ‘Oh, we’re from New York. We came to eat at your restaurant!’ I’m like, ‘I know you live in New York. But I have a five-bedroom apartment. You don’t have the space I have. You don’t have the community I have. You are lucky you get to drive one and a half hours so I can bless you with my delicious food!’ But I did not say that. Only in my head. The thing is, you walk into a restaurant in New York and they welcome you with attitude. People in Philly are super-accommodating. The scene here is super down-to-earth but with the world class quality. We are not the underdog. We’re the Big Dog.

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