“Grilling, broiling, barbecuing – whatever you want to call it – is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.” So said James Beard in Beard on Food. Meet Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong, chef/owner of Chabaa Thai Bistro and Yanako in Manayunk, Pennsylvania, just a few miles outside of Philadelphia. It’s no surprise that servings at Moon’s restaurants are visually stunning. Raised in Bangkok, Moon holds an MFA in photography and approaches each plate as if it’s a roll of blank film which she cooks into a stunning photograph. We first experienced Moon’s artistry when on a CityEats.com assignment to Yanako, Moon’s Japanese restaurant on Main Street in Manayunk, late last year. Upon entering, we were greeted by a peaceful, three-story atrium by the sushi bar that provides the airy feel of a traditional Japanese home. Among other bites, we dined on delicacies like oysters on the half shell (served with ponzu sauce and wasabi salsa), octopus takoyaki (delicate dumplings with bento flakes, tender bites of octopus and sauce), fresh sashimi, amazing lobster tempura and an outstanding green tea creme brulee. A few weeks later, CityEats.com sent us out on an assignment to Moon’s Chabaa Thai Bistro, which was named “Best of Philly” (Thai Restaurant) by Philadelphia Magazine in 2007 and voted “Best Thai in Philly” by Zagat in 2009. At Chabaa, we sampled, among other bites, po tek (a seafood hot pot soup), pad thai, gaeng keaw wan (green curry) shrimp and panang special beef. At Chabaa, many dishes are graced with a calming hibiscus flower (“Chabaa” is Thai for “hibiscus,” the cheerful, delicate tropical flower). Both dining experiences were like being whisked away to a serene “moon” dream — peaceful, artistic and delicious. This year, we reached out to Moon to wish her a Happy New Year, and she was very excited about doing an interview with us. It’s been our honor to converse with Moon, a lover — and master — of the arts and food, as she shared her (Chocolate Covered) Memories …
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
From grade school through my college years, I helped my dad cook staff meals for the workers and guests in his vegetable farm and orchard. My father also had a produce stand at a farmer’s market in Bangkok, and I have fond memories growing up around farming and cooking.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
One of my most vivid memories is looking forward to “grilled pork” from boat vendors at a floating market along my way home from school. When I was in primary school, I had a small allowance, so my mom always packed my lunch. I had no choice but to eat whatever my mom cooked which, to be honest, was not always good. I saved my limited allowance for “grilled pork” on bamboo skewers. Those thin, soft and fatty pork slices, with their irresistible sweet coconut aroma, were the best in the world to me. My dream was to one day have a good job that would earn good money so that I could buy unlimited grilled pork!
Where does your love of food stem from?
For me, the love of food means the love to eat, the love to cook and the love to see people enjoy food. My dad inspired me to cook. He taught me every thing he knew in Thai cuisine. He taught me to take every ingredient seriously and taught me what each ingredient had to offer. Bangkok street food carts and food boats (not trucks) were huge impacts on my love for enjoying a wide variety of food.
What foods remind you of childhood? Favorite foods growing up?
Street food reminds me of how much fun I had when I was young. Home cooking reminds me of growing up in a big family. Dishes with the strong presence of fermented ingredients, fresh herbs and spices have always been my favorite. Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine are quickly adding to my favorite list.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
It was my first time cooking for a big birthday party at Chabaa. The whole party enjoyed our food very much, but there were not many choices of dessert to choose from. Dessert was my weakness. It still is. The young lady who hosted the birthday party asked if I had any complimentary dessert for the birthday boy. I really wanted to please this customer but had no special dessert to offer. I told them that I was, in fact, not a classically trained chef but a visual artist. Food was my medium. The best I was able to offer was the reciting of a poem while I served them mango on sweet sticky rice. Everyone was very pleased either with my recitation or the mango on sweet sticky rice.
A few years later, the same young lady came back for her own birthday and asked for a complimentary birthday dessert. Our server sent “Kanom Touy” to her table. When she asked for me, I went over to her table not knowing why. She then told me who she was and asked for a recited poem, but I did not have one prepared. When I asked her about the birthday boy, she told me they had broken up.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
As a child I was an easy eater and still enjoy anything. I think the only thing that I do not particularly like is chicken liver, even if I love all other parts of the chicken. However, lately, I have learned to enjoy it at Parc [Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia]. There are also a number of Vietnamese hoagies with liver paste served in South Philly which I enjoy.
Any childhood cooking accidents in the kitchen? Any as an adult?
As a child, I would play make-believe with colorful flowers as ingredients for my “cooking.” I could spend hours arranging those flowers, weeds and leaves. I never thought such child play would become a part of my lifelong career.
As an adult, a lot of what I am doing still comes as a surprise, as it all originally started with no specific plan. A few years ago, one of my young chefs left me right after I committed for a cooking gig in New York. I had about a month to learn the art of Thai fruit and vegetable carving. I was in a panic, and our kitchen team was under a lot of pressure. But we did well at the event. Was this considered an accident? If so, I am so glad to have survived such an “accident” in the kitchen.
Growing up, what was your favorite food to eat outside of work?
I always enjoyed other ethnic foods such as Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Mexican. If I ate out at other Thai or Japanese restaurants, I couldn’t help but think of work or feel that I was at work.
Do you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular?
Mornings, I enjoy eating at the Trolley Car Cafe in East Falls, where I bring my laptop to finish some work or chat with people. At night, after work , I like to go to Tai Lake Restaurant in Chinatown with my chefs.
Any benches you love to eat on?
I especially enjoy sitting on a low wooden chair, enjoying my staff meal or a food tasting, while my head chef gives me a massage.
What do you think of big business Thai and Japanese food in America today (from hibachi restaurants like Benihana’s to frozen Thai food from Trader Joe’s)? Do you ever eat such food?
This is a good sign to see that the American palate is expanding, and it indicates that Thai and Japanese cuisine are doing well. The big business plays the part of increasing the customer base, as they have a higher handle of exposure. My hope at the end is that these new customers will step up for the “real food” and try “new dishes” at the restaurants. In my opinion, those ready-to-eat Thai or Japanese foods are still far from substituting authentic Thai or Japanese chef-prepared food.
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden and Starbucks, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
The evolution of the food industry is the constant response from the social media boom. The industry continues to get more attention. I never thought a chef in the kitchen, who once was considered “blue collar,” would possibly become a celebrity! Today, it is refreshing to find more and more women in commercial kitchens, not just in the home.
Franchises and popular restaurants are the response to the expansion of customers. The effect of Yelpers and food bloggers is a double-edged sword for chefs and restaurateurs, since we know that anyone can be a critic. Everywhere we see self-appointed “foodies,” and the food world or trends are certainly influenced by these groups of food operators and consumers.
My concern today is how small quality restaurants can keep up with everyday challenges that go beyond competitors and demanding consumers.
How do you juggle your love for both art and food? Do they naturally overlap? Or is that something you had to master?
Cooking-as-art requires a good combination of skill and energy. For me, it comes together when I am in the right state of mind. I wish any good dish would come easily from a smooth routine or a happy accident in the kitchen. The reality is this is not always the case. It requires a lot of work and repetition, which could drain oneself if the heart and mind are not one with their food.
Creating a new dish requires a lot of thought and planning before execution. When I cook, I just cook. I enjoy the act of cooking and engaging with my chefs. It is an artist’s statement for the other to enjoy.
We always hear about the “farm to table” concept of cooking and serving. I only wish people would also talk more about “heart and hand” type of cooking. “Heart” is where the love of food is, while “Hand” can mean more manual and less pre-processing ingredients.
It is hard to maintain purity in cooking in the restaurant. I often find myself in the gray area of making art/craft or just simply “making a dish.” I am seeing how I approach food differently today than I did 10 years ago. People around me are very important. They keep me going. I hope one day I can cook conceptual food as a fine art form, just as I did in college with worry-free ambition.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
At home, we can make our own chili paste from scratch. Today we may find a variety of chili pastes at any convenience store. Pre-made curry is convenient; however, I would suggest adding the key herb and spices to the curry paste. Enjoy my classic version of homemade Green Curry!
Inspired by her upbringing in Bangkok, Chef-Artist Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong grew up helping her father prepare exotic, robust dishes with fresh ingredients from the morning market. She learned at a young age, the value of preparing quality food from the most wholesome ingredients — the secret to her success as a chef.
Having absorbed her father’s dedication to providing nourishing meals to the workers on her family’s farm, she understands the power of food to express love and respect to people and, just as importantly, to make them feel welcome and cared for. This humble philosophy has dictated her culinary journey, enabling her to turn customers into friends — and vice versa.
A woman of numerous talents and interests, Moon originally studied business, earning a Bachelor’s in Economics from Thammasat University and an M.B.A. from North Park University. It was when she was working on an installation for her M.F.A. thesis in photography at R.I.T. that she discovered her true passion: cooking as an art form.
She found herself in Philadelphia and, with the support of her husband, family, and close friends, opened Chabaa Thai. At Chabaa, Moon’s lifelong dream of bringing something small but beautiful to the world finally came to fruition. Loved by food critics, community members and visitors, Chabaa Thai was named Best of Philly in 2007 and was voted Best Thai in Philadelphia by Zagat in 2009.
Outside her restaurants, Moon has enjoyed substantial recognition as a chef, educator and tireless volunteer. In 2008, she was one of three winners in the Taste of Elegance Pennsylvania Chef Competition and was inducted into the all-female culinary organization, Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI) in 2009. One of her highest honors came in April of 2011, when she was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City.
Along with the business side of her culinary life, Chef Moon gives generously to area non-profits and fund-raising events. Her true philanthropic passion though lies with E.A.T.S. (Eat Along the Street), a street festival and culinary competition supporting Wat Bodd Voraditth orphanage, which provides housing and day-to-day care for nearly 600 orphans whose parents have lost their lives to AIDS or simply couldn’t afford to keep their children. Chef Moon looks forward to meeting new challenges and constantly seeks opportunities to grow as a chef and an artist. She remains as passionate as ever, as her dream continues to grow.