Nod for prestigious James Beard Award stuns owners of Thai restaurant Saap in Randolph

By BETSY VERECKEY

For the Valley News

Published: 06-07-2022 10:00 PM

RANDOLPH — Until this spring, Nisachon “Rung” Morgan had never heard of James Beard.

She grew up on a farm in Isaan, in northern Thailand, with eight brothers and sisters and had never cooked professionally. Before she and her husband, Steve Morgan, opened Saap, a Thai restaurant in Randolph, she worked as a housecleaner 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 for pioneering American chef and author James Beard, the awards are the nation’s most prestigious food industry honors.

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

Most nominees are selected by food critics and industry insiders who scout restaurants undercover.

Saap hosts a lot of skiers and out-of-towners who drive up from New York or Boston to visit Burlington or Montreal. Steve suspects someone might have stopped in and spread the word, remembering the time that Franklin Becker, a well-known New York City chef, paid them a visit.

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

Whatever the source, the nomination has changed the restaurant’s trajectory.

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The creation 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 took up online dating after a divorce. He met Rung online through an acquaintance and went to visit her in Thailand. The two married in 2010 and opened Saap in 2014. Ever since, they’ve run a small operation, with a small waitstaff and an occasional dishwasher.

Walking into Saap, located on the bottom floor of the historic Kimball House, you’re greeted by a large fish tank and a blackboard with drinks and food specials. There’s also plenty of authentic décor: musical instruments from Isaan, Thai silk and minnow traps that have money inside them, a superstition that is said to bring good luck.

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

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

“We don’t like too much meat,” Rung said. When they prepared meals, they picked leaves and stems from neighboring trees and plants and used them in dishes grilled over charcoal, eating sticky 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 even within Isaan, authenticity is hard to pin down, Morgan said. What is authentic might differ drastically between villages.

“To say it’s authentic, is how your mom makes it,” he said.

Over time, they adapted the menu to make it feel more American and added fan favorites, such as pad thai.

On a recent Saturday night at Saap, my dining companions and I enjoyed crispy vegetarian spring rolls and tofu pad Thai sai kai, sweetened with palm sugar and tamarind. We also ordered massaman curry, pad see ew with delightfully thick noodles, and pad pak, lightly stir-fried vegetables.

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

We played it safe with a one, but there was still a fair amount of fire by Western standards. At the end of the meal, we turned to each other and dared to wonder: Would we have survived a five?

As a vegetarian, I appreciated that dishes could easily be made without meat, others gluten-free. “You can have anything on the menu made vegetarian,” Steve said, noting that they use a special vegetarian fish sauce when requested. And the meal is still so good that “you don’t even feel like you’re sacrificing.”

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 they can. They haven’t raised menu prices since opening, acknowledging that passing on the cost of high-quality ingredients to diners hasn’t been easy.

“We tried to introduce locally raised pork or chicken, but people are not going to pay $20 for pad thai because it has Misty Knoll chicken breast, but they’ll go to an American private table restaurant and pay that much for a hamburger because it’s a local beef,” Steve said. “Trying to bridge that gap has been difficult.”

He added that he hopes Rung’s nomination will make it easier for them to get more creative with menu items. “It kind of changes the game when you win this type of accolade,” Steve said. When people come into the restaurant and see a sign announcing Rung’s James Beard nomination, “they want to celebrate her food” and are more likely to “eat something that they don’t understand” or haven’t tried before.

It’s been a flurry of activity ever since Rung’s nomination, but a welcome one. They had to curtail operations during the pandemic, relying mostly on takeout orders. The day I stopped in to talk to Morgan and Rung, the phone started ringing before noon and didn’t stop.

Despite all the success, Steve said that he and Rung are happy where they are, with no plans to open a bigger restaurant elsewhere, though they are contemplating other avenues: a line of sauces, cooking classes or a cookbook.

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

“There’s this huge expectation,” Morgan said. “Some of the people who we are up against have entrees on the menu that are $100. They have teams of trained chefs making brilliant food.” He can’t quite grasp how their restaurant, on a “dead-end road in a weird Victorian building” got so lucky. “It’s like being struck by lightning.”

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

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