Jungle to concrete jungle: How Chef Nuit Regular brought authentic Thai cuisine to Toronto

By Michelle Boon

Posted on February 23, 2022

Photo: Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

For Chef Nuit Regular, choosing a favourite dish of hers is like naming a favourite child. As the executive chef and co-owner of four of Toronto’s finest Thai restaurants, it’s an understandably tough decision. Instead, she talked about her most popular dishes, including pad gra prow.

This stir fry topped with a fried egg is not a dish that you could find in Toronto in 2006 when Regular came to Canada. Especially with the star ingredient, holy basil, being hard to find outside of Thailand. It wasn’t until Regular started importing this ingredient that Torontonians could taste the dish for themselves.

This dedication to authentic Thai flavours is a standard that Regular, alongside her husband and business partner, Jeff, created. The chef has been cooking authentic Northern Thai food for Toronto for over a decade, and we have an elephant to thank for it.

Coming to Canada

Now the co-owner of acclaimed restaurants, Sukhothai, Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, Sabai Sabai, and Kiin, Regular met her husband, Jeff, in Pai, Thailand. She was working as a nurse, and Jeff was on a backpacking trip. They met when they were paired to go on an elephant ride, and soon fell in love. Later, the couple opened their first restaurant in Pai, called the Curry Shack. Regular would cook in the evenings after her shift at the hospital and Jeff managed the service.

They eventually made the decision to move back to Jeff’s hometown, Toronto. As a newcomer from a small town, moving to a large Canadian city was daunting. But Regular was up for the adventure. “Once we moved from the jungle of Thailand to [the] concrete jungle in Toronto […] that is very challenging, but at the same time, exciting.”

The chef was also happy to move continents to raise her family. “I always wanted a happy family. I am okay to go anywhere my heart is, to stay together as a family,” Regular said.

Of course this also meant leaving family behind in Thailand. The chef shared how homesickness was one of her biggest challenges as a newcomer. In her first few years, she could not afford the expensive flights back home to visit her family.

Travel may not have been a possibility, but Regular was exploring the different cultures in Toronto in the meantime. “When I travelled to Canada I feel like I got to see the world,” she said.

To her relief, that meant she was able to find Thai ingredients at Asian grocery stores. However, Regular had less luck finding Thai food that tasted like home. Some dishes like khao soi—curry topped with crispy fried noodles—she couldn’t find at all.

In 2008, the chef and her husband had the opportunity to bring those dishes to Toronto. With the help of family, they opened their first restaurant in Canada, Sukhothai, dedicated to serving authentic Northern Thai cuisine.

Shifting expectations

This definitely wasn’t the plan when she first arrived in Canada. Regular thought she would continue her career as a nurse after getting Canadian certification. In Thailand, it is common to pick a career, study, and then work in that field until you retire. But life in Canada came with new opportunities, and the chef was happy to embrace them.

Photo: Courtesy of Chef Nuit Regular

Cooking also wasn’t a drastic career shift. Regular was drawn to nursing because she wanted to care for others, and food gave her the same satisfaction. She said, “I was able to take care of my guests with my cooking. Either helping them serve an occasion or making them feel better with my food.”

While an exciting opportunity, operating a restaurant in Canada came with its own set of challenges. Regular’s restaurant in Pai, the Curry Shack, followed Thai rules—cook delicious food and pass a health inspection. She had no training outside of her mother’s kitchen as a chef, and no experience managing a professional kitchen in Canada.

Chef Regular describes herself as someone who can easily adapt in any environment. So the kitchen became her classroom. She learned how to teach her recipes, fine-tune the process, and manage staff members on the job.

She now manages about 100 staff members across all of her restaurants.

Staying true to culture

Sukhothai got many positive reviews, but not every Torontonian was enthusiastic about authentic Northern Thai cuisine. When the restaurant first opened, one guest complained that Regular’s pad thai wasn’t made with ketchup. The chef prepared this iconic noodle dish the way she grew up eating it; with palm sugar and tamarind—no ketchup.

“I believe in what I cook, so I said no to that person, therefore I didn’t make a lot of money that day,” said the chef.

She lost one customer, but her authentic pad thai quickly became one of her most popular dishes. Chef Nuit Pad Thai—aptly named for the chef herself—remains a staple at her restaurants.

The chef is proud to say the only change she’s made to her recipes to make them more “Canadian” is the portion sizes.

Her passion for the flavours of Northern Thailand and bringing authentic Thai cuisine has paid off. Torontonians are hungry as ever for her food. Alongside her husband, she even opened a second location of Pai during the pandemic in 2020. The uptown location has quickly become a popular takeout spot.

Photo: Courtesy of Chef Nuit Regular

Regular, Jeff, and their team have also captured the attention of the Thai government. They were awarded the Thai Select Signature designation for three of their restaurants. This means that the Royal government of Thailand has recognized the quality and authenticity of Regular’s food. Her dishes represent Thai culture and traditions all the way from Toronto.

How she defines success

Regular’s career is like a charging elephant that shows no signs of stopping. In addition to opening the uptown location of Pai, she also released her cookbook, Kiin, in 2020. If that wasn’t enough, you can find her on the Food Network as a featured chef on “Wall of Chefs.”

This successful newcomer has a packed schedule and an impressive resumé, but one of her greatest successes is finding a career that doesn’t feel like work.

The cover of Chef Nuit Regular’s new cookbook, Kiin

“I think my success is how I can remain happy,” she said. “I can continue my happiness, and I can do something that I love to do. I love to cook […] I love to create dishes.”

The foundation of her success is simple: Love. Love for her culture, creating delicious food, and caring for others. Chef Regular is an expert in recipe-making—she filled a whole book with them—so to her fellow newcomers, here is her recipe on a successful life in Canada:

“You have a life to live, you have 24 hours, and you have food to eat.”

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