Valley News – Nod for prestigious James Beard award stuns owner of Thai restaurant Saap in Randolph – Low Calorie Diets Tips

RANDOLPH – Up until this spring, Nisachon “Rung” Morgan had never heard of James Beard.

She grew up with eight siblings on a farm in Isaan, northern Thailand, and had never cooked professionally. Before she and her husband Steve Morgan opened Saap, a Thai restaurant in Randolph, she worked as a cleaning lady while learning English.

To this day, they don’t know who nominated Rung for a regional James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast. Named after pioneering American chef and author James Beard, the awards are the country’s most prestigious food industry awards.

“When we got the call that we were semifinalists, I tried to explain it to her,” Steve Morgan said. “I was in tears.”

Most nominees are chosen by food critics and industry insiders who covertly scout restaurants.

Saap hosts many skiers and out-of-towners driving up from New York or Boston to visit Burlington or Montreal. Steve suspects someone may have stopped by to break the news and remembers the time Franklin Becker, a well-known New York chef, paid them a visit.

“One day I walk in and he’s sitting at the bar,” Steve said. “And he said to me, ‘If you had this place in town, you’d have a line out the door. You can’t find that anywhere.’ ”

Regardless of the source, the nomination changed the course of the restaurant’s evolution.

The making of Saap – which means delicious – begins with Steve and Rung’s whirlwind romance. A former New England Culinary Institute instructor, Steve lived in Vermont and began dating online after a divorce. He met Rung online through an acquaintance and visited her in Thailand. The two married in 2010 and opened Saap in 2014. Since then they have run a small business with a small waiter and occasionally a dishwasher.

As you enter Saap, located on the ground floor of the historic Kimball House, you will be greeted by a large fish tank and a blackboard with specialty drinks and food. There’s also plenty of authentic decor: Isaan musical instruments, Thai silk and minnow traps that hold money, a superstition believed to bring good luck.

“The idea is that money comes in and can’t get out of the restaurant,” Steve said.

Saap’s menu is inspired by dishes from Rung’s homeland, the Isaan region of Thailand. Rung learned to cook from her mother, and many of the restaurant’s recipes were passed down through family members. She grew up surrounded by jungle and water buffalo. Her family got up at 2 a.m. when the markets opened to buy frogs, mussels and vegetables.

“We don’t like too much meat,” Rung said. When preparing meals, they plucked leaves and stalks from neighboring trees and plants and used them in dishes grilled over charcoal, and ate glutinous rice with their hands. Pickled foods were also a staple.

When Saap opened, Morgan and Rung created menu items that were authentic to the region, though authenticity is hard to pin down even within Isaan, Morgan said. What is authentic can differ drastically between villages.

“To say it’s authentic, that’s how your mom does it,” he said.

Over time, they adjusted the menu to make it feel more American and added fan favorites like Pad Thai.

On a recent Saturday night in Saap, my dining companions and I enjoyed crunchy vegetarian spring rolls and tofu pad Thai Sai Kai sweetened with palm sugar and tamarind. We also ordered Massaman curry, Pad See Ew with deliciously thick noodles, and Pad Pak, lightly fried vegetables.

“What’s your spice level, from one to five?” asked our waiter.

We played it safe with an A, but there was still quite a bit of fire by western standards. At the end of the meal we turned to each other and dared to ask: Would we have survived a fiver?

As a vegetarian, I appreciated that dishes can easily be prepared without meat, others gluten-free. “You can have everything on the menu made vegetarian,” Steve said, noting that they use a special vegetarian fish sauce if requested. And the food is still so good “that you don’t have the feeling of sacrificing yourself”.

Fresh ingredients are a must at Saap, a throwback to Rung’s childhood in Isaan, where they bought everything at the market. Morgan and Rung work with a supplier and travel to Burlington or Boston when possible. They haven’t raised menu prices since opening and admit that passing the cost of quality ingredients on to diners hasn’t been easy.

“We’ve tried introducing locally-raised pork or chicken, but people won’t pay $20 for pad thai because it has Misty Knoll chicken breasts in it, but they go to a private American restaurant and pay that much for a hamburger because it does.” a local beef,” said Steve. “Trying to fill that gap has been difficult.”

He added that he hopes Rung’s nomination will make it easier for them to be more creative with menu items. “It kind of changes the game when you win that kind of award,” said Steve. When people walk into the restaurant and see a sign announcing Rung’s nomination for James Beard, “they want to celebrate their food” and “rather eat something they don’t understand” or have never tasted.

Since Rung’s nomination there has been a lot of activity, but a welcome one. They’ve had to scale back operations during the pandemic, relying mostly on takeout orders. The day I stopped by to speak to Morgan and Rung, the phone started ringing before noon and wouldn’t stop.

Despite all the success, Steve says he and Rung are happy where they are and have no plans to open a bigger restaurant elsewhere, although they are considering other avenues: a range of sauces, cooking classes or a cookbook.

Recently, the Morgans got even better news. Rung made the final cut. As a finalist for the James Beard Award, she will compete alongside four other chefs from Portland and Boston, and will travel to Chicago with seven family members on June 13 for a black tie awards gala.

“There’s this huge anticipation,” Morgan said. “Some of the people we deal with have appetizers on the menu that cost $100. They have teams of trained chefs who prepare excellent food.” He can’t quite understand how their restaurant in “a cul-de-sac in a strange Victorian building” was so lucky. “It’s like lightning struck.”

Betsy Vereckey is a freelance writer. She lives in Norwich.

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