Ketchum • Nina Chitnatham has but one desire: to acquaint Americans with true Thai food.
It’s why she has put down roots in America, cooking the dishes she grew up watching her mother cook. It’s why she has opened not one restaurant but four — in Hailey, Twin Falls, Boise and Ketchum.
“I ate well as a kid. And I want my friends in America to know true Thai food,” she said. “Too often restaurants that call themselves Thai put not the right ingredients into dishes. They put milk in coconut soup. They use cheap ingredients.
“I use the right ones, even though they’re expensive — like kaffer leaf, which I put in my curry. It costs $35 for a pile, but it’s important for me to do it right."
Chitnatham grew up in the Pattaya Beach resort of Chonhuri near Bangkok. She helped her parents in their restaurant there when she wasn’t attending school.
“Thai school is much harder than American schools. There you have to carry a big pack full of books. Here, I see students carry one book, one pencil. I went to school five days a week, and then I went to another school Saturday and Sunday because I wanted to make No. 1 in school."
Chitnatham attended college to learn secretarial skills. It paid off when she opened her first restaurant.
“That’s why I can do everything myself, bookkeeping and all.“
She came to the United States in 1987 to visit her brother, who owned a restaurant in Los Angeles. She never left.
Los Angeles was too big and busy, however, so she moved to a small town in eastern Oregon where she helped with another restaurant. It was there that she heard of a Thai restaurant for sale in the small town of Hailey, Idaho. She drove four hours to Boise and found she needed to drive another three hours. But in 1999, she became the proud owner of her own restaurant.
“When I work for others, I do like (I’m at) my own business, so why not? I know I can do everything, so why not?“
Chitnatham changed the name of the Thai House to Taste of Thai, and she revamped the menu to include everything she liked growing up.
Since then, thousands of tourists and locals, including celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Harrison Ford, have sampled her cuisine.
“I was having dinner with a friend there one night when the waitress began to tell us about the lady who cooked the meal,” said Bill Smallwood of Ketchum. “Nina came out to check on us, and she really looked like an Oriental peasant woman — definitely not the kind you’d expect to put together and supervise four restaurants. And on top of that, the food is incredibly delicious.“
Chitnatham serves traditional Thai food that only emerged on the world’s gastronomic plate in the 1960s when Vietnam and Southeast Asia were gaining attention.
“I cook like homemade food. I don’t cook like the big (chain) restaurants do. I ate well as a kid. I saw my mother cooking every day, so I watched what she and my father did, and I learned from them.“
Chitnatham cringes when people lump Thai food in the same category as Chinese.
“Thai food is more tasty. We have sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and we use a lot of spices and herbs rarely found in the West,” she said. “Chinese is too much oil, not enough spice, just a lot of oyster sauce and a lot of MSG.“
Chitnatham has two sons, both in Thailand. One is running an American-Italian restaurant using recipes he learned from his mother, who has been known to make spaghetti sauce from scratch at home. The other is in college.
Chitnatham says she can’t visit them — not while working five days a week in her Hailey and Ketchum restaurants and one day each in her Boise and Twin Falls restaurants.
“The young one wants to come back,” she said. “He says, ’I miss my home in America.’ But I have no time to visit them.”
Chitnatham also has no time to ski, hike or do the other things Sun Valley residents do.
Her few moments of spare time are spent concocting new specials, such as mango curry and barbecue pork with spicy Thai sauce.
“I love to work, so I don’t like to go out,” she said.
Chitnatham said she manages four restaurants with good help, including Narong Kongrit, who hails from Thailand, and her niece Aida Trihiran, who is working in the Ketchum restaurant as she prepares to study biology as a freshman at the University of California-Davis.
“I feed them good so they do good work,” Chitnatham said. “You have to take care of your employees first and next your customers.“
Trihiran has fallen in love with Sun Valley and has gained a new appreciation for her aunt.
“She’s amazing to watch. She’s hard-working, and cooking is her passion,” the niece said.
Chitnatham said her jobs is easy, given the communities in which she works.
“Nice people. Quiet place. I never have to lock my car door. I go on a walk and everyone say, 'Hi.’ In Los Angeles, you talk to people you don’t know and they look at you like, 'Who are you?’” she said.
Her hard work pays off when she sees a smile on the faces of those who love her food.
“I love that people love my food."