- Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon was named best mid-Atlantic chef by the James Beard Awards in June.
- Her flavor-forward, southern Thai cooking at Philadelphia restaurant Kalaya has made her famous.
- The former flight attendant’s career took off after stepping into the kitchen at 48.
Before her eyes are fully open, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon checks Resy on her phone.
She scrolls through the reviews for her Philadelphia restaurant, Kalaya, and if there are any negative ones she looks up whoever wrote them and gives them a call.
The James Beard winner — named best mid-Atlantic chef at the awards ceremony this June — says she isn’t calling to grill the person; she’s calling to ask what could be improved.
It’s how Suntaranon, 55, starts each day, she tells me at a table in the airy dining room of Kalaya, the restaurant that’s made her and her flavor-forward, southern Thai cooking famous.
The menu features impeccable dumplings; bright curries made with in-house curry paste; a hot-and-sour tom yum soup made with jumbo river prawns, barramundi, mushrooms, shallots, evaporated milk, and chili jam; and for dessert, a trembling tower of shaved ice, Kalaya’s grand finale. Like anything Suntaranon does, it’s served with style. (At one point, she tells me a story about cooking in couture until someone in the kitchen told her she was “highly flammable.”)
On the Tuesday morning in June when I meet Suntaranon at her Fishtown restaurant, it’s the first time I’ve seen the dining room empty.
She walks to meet me at the restaurant’s side entrance in a matching set with a bold, retro pattern and her energetic Pomeranian Titi in tow and kisses me on both cheeks as though we’re old friends. We’ve met briefly before at Machine Shop, one of my (and, it turns out, Suntaranon’s) favorite bakeries in Philly, and another time when I was having dinner at Kalaya.
Suntaranon is a regular at her restaurant, where she often stops at diners’ tables in one of her signature Issey Miyake jumpsuits (she loves the designer so much, she has a buyer in Thailand) to ask how they’re liking the food. After conversing with her, I now realize she wasn’t just being polite — she genuinely wanted to know.
A little after 10:30 a.m., the dining room is quiet but things are already happening in the kitchen. As I follow Suntaranon into her domain, a pleasant clash of scents and spices hits my nose as the chef says good morning to her staff and checks in on one of the cooks who had left early the day before to see how he’s doing.
It’s important to Suntaranon that she’s on the ground when she can be. “I never feel like I’m coming to work,” she tells me. “I always say, ‘I’m going to the restaurant.'”
And she’s not above getting feedback.
“People make mistakes,” Suntaranon says. “Learn from your mistakes, listen, and just make it better.”
“My feet still touch the ground,” she adds. “I know that I’m not perfect. And I know that there’s still a lot of room for improvement. We’re never too good.”
These are humbling words from a woman who has just won a James Beard award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the culinary community.
For Suntaranon, however, it hasn’t been a straight line to the top. And though she didn’t start working in kitchens until the age of 48, she says food has always been part of her life.
‘Food always got my attention’
At 5, in her hometown of Yan Ta Khao in the southern province of Trang, Suntaranon helped her mother — who Kalaya is named after — sell curry paste at the market, while her father worked as a hospital administrator and ran his own trucking business.
Suntaranon says it wasn’t an easy childhood. At one point, the family lost their home due to her father’s gambling, she told Philadelphia Magazine‘s Jason Sheehan in 2022.
“Before I left home, from 1 year old to 15, all I saw was struggle,” Suntaranon tells me of her upbringing. “And how hard my mother worked to have the roof cover our heads, to provide the food for us, and to make us happy and just have whatever we should have.”
“Our family went through a lot together,” she adds. “My mother is my hero.”
Growing up, Suntaranon found an escape in the library, where she read books that took her “worlds away.” Naturally, food stuck out to her on the page. “Food always got my attention, even when I read,” she says, adding that she wondered what pasta or Victoria sponge cake tasted like as she read about them.
Suntaranon seems to have been inspired by her mom, whose Hainanese background influenced her home cooking. She also modeled a love of cooking for others, something Suntaranon has inherited. The way she describes her mom — the “most generous, hardworking, and very witty” — sounds a lot like the esteemed chef.
Still, Suntaranon tells me she learned her love of cooking and a sense of adventure from her grandmother. She loved to try whatever treats her paternal grandmother would bring back from Bangkok whether it was butter cookies or doughnuts. Her grandmother would even make them herself, Suntaranon remembers. The chef tells me she was interested in the ingredients, and would even taste pure margarine straight from the tub.
When she moved to Bangkok for high school, Suntaranon lived with her grandmother and her uncle in a boarding house there. She describes her grandmother as “super cool” and “sophisticated,” a woman who would wear cat-eye sunglasses and cone-shaped bras. She’d go to the coffee shop every morning and read the newspaper, Suntaranon tells me, and go to the market and talk politics.
She even inspired the chef’s approach to making dumplings. “She combined all the flavors, all the ingredients into one tiny little bite,” Suntaranon says. “I think that’s had an influence over me because my dumplings are big flavors in one little bite.”
On the menu at Kalaya, there are two kinds: kanom jeeb nok, intricate dumplings shaped like mini birds (a nod to Suntaranon’s nickname, Nok, which means “little bird” in Thai) and filled with caramelized cod and preserved radish; and shaw muang, parcels of ground chicken, cucumber, and Thai chili, wrapped in a flower shape.
Before her career took off as a chef, Suntaranon was a flight attendant for 2 decades
Suntaranon’s love of adventure led her to join Kuwait Airways as a flight attendant in 1991 before moving to Thai Airways in 1994. She spent close to two decades in the profession, working in business and first class.
Though Suntaranon tells me she doesn’t touch plane food now — and chose to pack her own food as a flight attendant — the experience meant she could travel and eat all over the world.
Suntaranon also had a side-hustle selling jewelry with a friend during this time and, in 2003, she helped open an Italian restaurant, Antonio’s, in Bangkok with her then-husband. She continued to assist in running that business until 2009 when she also left her career as a flight attendant behind. That same year, Antonio’s closed.
Suntaranon moved to Philadelphia to join her now-husband Ziv Katalan, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The two met while she worked an 18-hour flight from Bangkok to New York in 2006. They married two years later.
“Ziv was the person who told me that I am a very talented cook,” Suntaranon told CNN’s Kate Springer. “I never thought of myself as a great cook, but he believed in me.”
So, in 2010, Suntaranon studied at New York’s French Culinary Institute, then took a brief internship in France (she told CNN she was kicked out after screaming at the “drunk and abusive” chef), before cutting her teeth in kitchens around Philadelphia. Suntaranon interned for free at the Rittenhouse Hotel with Chef Fred Ortega, helped open J’aime French Bakery, and then worked at Jose Garces’ pastry kitchen at the Kimmel Center.
In 2011, she began cooking for her neighbors and friends. Eventually, she looked for a space where she could do more of it as demand for her food grew. Soon enough, she found a small space in Philly’s Bella Vista neighborhood that would become Kalaya’s first location, a 32-seat restaurant that opened in April 2019.
Within months of opening, Suntaranon had plans to upgrade to a larger space, and following a delay due to the pandemic, in November 2022, the restaurant moved into its home today in Fishtown: a former warehouse that can seat up to 183 people, including bar seating and outdoor tables.
Kalaya’s food has been the talk of Philly’s food scene for years, but the larger space has allowed Suntaranon to spread her wings. In 2020, Kalaya was a James Beard Award nominee for best new restaurant, and in 2021 and 2022, Suntaranon was nominated for the award she finally scooped up this year: best mid-Atlantic chef.
As if that weren’t enough, Suntaranon is working on a cookbook, expected to be released in fall 2024.
She’s one of America’s best chefs, but won’t call herself one
Suntaranon’s career may have taken off, but the chef stays grounded. I’m taken aback when she tells me she doesn’t consider herself a chef.
“People call me a chef because of my position here. But I never look at myself as a chef,” she says. “I am a cook. I’m a middle-aged woman who loves good things, who loves fabulous stuff. I just like to cook and like to share. I am not a chef.”
But to Philadelphians, she’s one of the most famous chefs in the city and she’s earned a place on the global stage.
When I ask Suntaranon what the James Beard win means to her, she tells me plainly that she was right.
“I was not wrong about bringing authentic Thai food to Philadelphia,” she says. “I was not wrong about not changing anything about my food.”
The food at Kalaya is unapologetically full of flavor and heat, the way Suntaranon learned to make it in Thailand — she won’t dial down the spice, nor should she.
“I am very proud about how Thai food at this level is being recognized,” she tells me.
Suntaranon adds that she wasn’t wrong about the prices at Kalaya, either. The chef says many people may know Thai food as comfort food and presume it should be cheap. They think, “If I eat Thai food in Thailand, it costs me $3.” To those people, Suntaranon says: “Be my guest, buy the plane ticket right now and go there.”
As of July 2023, appetizers at her restaurant range from $14 to $28, and entrees cost between $26 and $95. While most entrees are on the lower end of that spectrum, the tom yum soup — shared easily by two people — is priced at $95. These prices are on par with other elevated restaurants in Philadelphia.
The prices, she adds, help her take care of her staff and use the best ingredients for her food.
The chef’s love of Philly is mutual
While Suntaranon’s food is an ode to her home, she describes it as a love letter to the people of Philly.
“I just want to cook good food for my people here,” she says. “Everything has to be the best.”
She’s not just cooking excellent food at Kalaya, but all over Philly. A champion of the city’s food scene, Suntaranon often collaborates with other Philadelphia chefs.
It had been a long, hot, and wet day, and while the fireworks were delayed by rain, there was no slowing down Suntaranon. She’d been there since the morning, preparing to feed the holiday crowd. I catch a glimpse of the chef cooking near the bar and don’t want to disturb her in her element, but later Suntaranon stops by my table to say hi — as she does with her guests at Kalaya.
We talk about the crab cannoli, grilled turmeric chicken leg, and coconut and cashew gelato pops, which I’m still dreaming about.
I ask Suntaranon if she’ll get to take a break the following day.
She can’t, she tells me. Tomorrow’s another busy day.