Randolph-Based Thai Restaurant Saap Awarded a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef In New EnglandJul 27, 2022 07:57PM ● By Rose Terami
Q: How did Saap start, and how has it changed over time?
A: My wife couldn’t get a good job doing anything else; she’s a very good cook. We just came to the White River Craft Center and built a kitchen here, and opened a restaurant.
I was the culinary instructor for the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) for 12 years. My wife has never cooked professionally outside of Saap. She kind of runs things.
Since we were awarded Best Chef in New England by the James Beard Foundation, it has tripled our business. We’re reservation only now and we don’t do takeout anymore, at least for now.
Q: Where does your inspiration come from for the restaurant and its menu?
A: Some of it is inspired by where my wife is from and her style of cooking. Cooking food how she would cook at home is basically how it evolved.
My wife is from northeastern Thailand; it’s a region called Isan. It’s more Lao-inspired than Bangkok, it’s not Americanized Thai food.
The use of real, authentic ingredients is a source of inspiration. A lot of Thai restaurants use Chinese oyster sauce or Chinese soy sauce or stuff that’s inexpensive, but we use the same stuff she would use in Thailand. Our oyster sauce is made in Thailand, our fermented yellow bean paste is from Thailand, we use palm sugar, and we use a lot of stuff out of our garden. We go to Burlington and pick up stuff for specials (a whole fish or a lot of herbs that you see in Thailand all the time but you don’t see in the United States on many menus).
Q: Where does the name Saap come from?
A: Saap means delicious in Isan. In that region of the country, they speak the same language that they speak in Laos. In Thai, you would say aroy for delicious, but in Isan, you say saap. So, I said, “Oh, that sounds like a Vermont word.”
Q: When are you open and how can people dine with you or enjoy your food?
A: We’re open every day except Sunday from noon to 2pm and then from 4 to 8:30pm. The way you can get in here is to go onto our website, make a reservation through our Eat portal, and then we’ll reply with a confirmation whether you can get in or not.
Q: Where are you located?
A: 50 Randolph Avenue in Randolph, Vermont.
Q: What do you like about having a restaurant?
A: Just owning our own business and expressing ourselves creatively through art. Customers really appreciate the authenticity, and the food feels good. There are also a lot of other things that are a big struggle, like our belt on our overhead hood broke three days ago and it’s been 160 degrees in the kitchen every night, and we’re working 16 hours a day, six days a week. It’s work. The Thai call it “riding a tiger:” if you fall off, the tiger will eat you, so you just have to hang on and keep riding.
Before it was kind of an offensive game, when we were building this thing and cooking recipes, but now that we’ve won this big accolade, it’s a bit of a defensive game where people have these super expectations. Not everyone has the same opinion as we do or the James Beard Foundation has; people are used to eating American Thai food and when they come here and get something that’s not like what they get at their local Thai place, they might think it’s been made incorrectly.
Q: What is your most popular item on the menu and what's in it?
A: People order stuff across the board, it’s hard to say what the most popular thing is. And because something is the most popular doesn’t necessarily make it the best. Like everybody orders Pad Thai, which to me is kind of boring. You can get Pad Thai anywhere, but it’s still really popular.
I think the Tum Yum Talay is one of the best menu items. What’s in it: lemongrass, basil, broth with lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, seafood, and noodles.
Q: What is your favorite dish to cook or eat and why?
A: My go-to thing is Pad Kee Mao, which is drunken noodles. I like the flavor profile: basil and garlic and oyster sauce. I don’t think any of us have a favorite thing to cook. Also, a good percentage of the stuff that we eat is not on our menu.
Sometimes we’ve changed things over the years because a lot of Americans aren’t ready for authentic Thai ingredients…you put liver or anything with blood in it on an Asian menu, people are automatically on their heels. A lot of people that come aren’t ready for that, but they’re getting there. I think the culinary explosion on television and radio has caused people to be looking for some authenticity more than they used to be.
Q: What was the James Beard award process like and how has your win impacted the restaurant?
A: I came in one day and there was a message on the phone from Darren Perron from WCAX looking to pronounce my wife’s name. I called up to the TV station and he said, “Oh, you haven’t heard?” I said, “Heard what?” and he said, “Your wife is a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Best Chef in New England award.” We were over the moon, practically in tears.
There were 20 chefs in the first semifinalists round. Then came the finals. We were in the top five, so we knew we were going to the Lyric Opera House in Chicago for the Academy Awards of food. Out of those five, they chose my wife as the best chef in New England.
Our parking lot is full of out-of-state plates. People are driving from New York City, from Boston…the word is out in the culinary community.
Q: What do you want people to know about Saap?
A: The biggest thing right now for customers to know is that we’re learning how to deal with this new popularity. With a new reservation system online, we don’t want to exclude our local patrons that supported us all through the pandemic when it was to-go only and before this James Beard award.