“The Journey From Art Student to Manayunk’s Top Chef”
By Megan Douress and Leksey Maltzman
Photography by JPG Photography
When you sit down to dine at any of Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong’s three restaurants on Main Street, it’s as if you’re sitting in a piece of art — one that she carefully selected herself. The atmosphere is clean but earthy, open yet somehow warm and welcoming. And then, there are the sounds and smells of her Thai restaurant, Chabaa Thai Bistro. They immediately transport you to Moon’s hometown, Bangkok, where she originally found her passion for food.
“I was always in the kitchen,” Moon explained, “especially when I was very young.”
She credits her father for her early introduction to the the wonders of the kitchen.
“I helped my dad do the prep and the clean up,” Moon continued. “I learned a lot from my dad because he was the chef for my family.”
It wasn’t only her father who influenced Moon’s interest in food, but also her Thai culture that made cooking for others so important to Moon’s journey to becoming a chef. Moon shared that food was a central part of her culture, both in the home and on the street.
“In my culture and in my family, everything is about enjoying eating, the company, and storytelling,” Moon said. “When we drink and eat together, we share stories about today’s activities, memories, and hopes for the future.”
Moon was always surrounded by amazing food because in Bangkok, street food is ingrained in their culture.
“The culture in my country is full of food everywhere,” Moon elaborated, “on the street, on every corner. In this country, when people see you on the street, they say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and talk about the weather,” she continued. “In my culture, people say, ‘Hi, how are you? Did you eat yet?’”
Despite this early introduction and fascination with cooking Thai cuisine, Moon did not immediately pursue becoming a chef, nor did she ever imagine she would. Instead, she studied business, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Thammasat University, then moved to Chicago for her M.B.A. at North Park University. Her boyfriend at the time — now husband, Pat Powitoon, — convinced her to move to Rhode Island with him. There, she begrudgingly worked behind a computer crunching numbers for a few years before following her more creative dreams.
“I had more fun having a party,” Moon laughed. “I always throw the party — I cook and feed my guests. I enjoy that.”
She continued, “There was something inside me that said, ‘You still have more,’ and I wanted to express it. I’m not a nine-to-five kind of person. I’m not structured. I want to use my hands to create.”
Moon was enthralled by the art world, particularly the performance art trend called Happenings, which is usually a temporary experience, event, or performance that often did not take place in a museum or gallery setting. This need to create lead Moon back to school, but this time for her M.F.A. in black and white photography from Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I quit my job and moved to central Pennsylvania with my cat to be with my husband,” Moon remembered. “I found how to express myself, connect with people, to go inward, and to be honest with myself about what I like.”
And, while she always knew she liked art, what she liked the most was cooking.
“If photography is a tool or medium for the artist to express him or herself, why not food?” Moon asked herself while she was in art school. The thought sparked Moon to cook for her photography thesis show. It was then she realized her passion: cooking as an art form.
Upon finishing her thesis, Moon soon found herself in Philadelphia where she wanted to start her own business. One friend recommended opening a cafe in the “quaint” neighborhood of Manayunk, a place Moon never heard of. She visited Manayunk one winter looking for a small building, and fell in love with 4371 Main Street.
“I looked around the second floor and the beautiful chandelier and I said to my husband, ‘I like this building. I think I can cook here,’” Moon smiled as she recalled the day.
Moon opened her first restaurant, Chabaa Thai Bistro, on the west end of Main Street in 2007. Moon would perfect her art in the back of the house while a friend would serve her food. But, food wasn’t the only thing she had in mind with this new adventure. Moon wanted the space to be artistic as well. She shipped clay plates here from Thailand, and eventually, purchased dinnerware and table decorations from local artists she found at the Manayunk Arts Festival.
“I wanted to portray my culture in the restaurant by making it welcoming, and have the food be pretty to make people happy,” she said. “I wanted it happy, friendly, small.”
The success of Chabaa Thai lead her to her next adventure, something she has always had an appreciation for — Japanese food. But why Japanese?
“I love challenging myself because I always start with love,” Moon shared. “I’m a very emotional person, and sometimes, I just go by my gut.”
Moon was fascinated by how Japanese chefs can pick a raw fish from the ocean, and create with it — from seasonings to sauces and presentation — and her eye (and taste buds) for detail made it happen. In 2012, Moon opened Yanako Japanese Kitchen & Sushi Bar at 4255 Main Street. Her theory in opening another Asian restaurant was, “If you have good food, people will follow.”
“Japanese food is simple, minimalistic,” Moon said. “Simple is not easy to do. It’s a nice clean plate with nice clean lines — it’s fresh, delicate, and complex all in one.”
Moon went on to explain that if a Japanese restaurant makes a good miso soup, then the kitchen tends to make everything else on the menu well.
When asked what her favorite dish at Yanako is, Moon hesitated, and then answered with a laugh, “We have good miso soup.” Complimenting her head chef, she also likes when he creates new sushi rolls, such as the Almond Joy roll. As for her favorites at Chabaa Thai, she has to agree with her customers — Jungle Curry, which is made of flat noodles with a light soy gravy, fermented beans, and Chinese broccoli. So, how does she differentiate her two businesses?
“I think if there is good music, your ear will go, ‘Oh, I like that. Who wrote that? Who composed it?’ If there is good food, you’ll go, ‘Oh, that smells good. I want to try it!’” Moon smiled. “I thought if I successfully created a place that had very good service and very good food, people would follow. It lead to having Chabaa Thai stand on its own.”
People did follow, and after seven years at 4371 Main Street, Chabaa Thai was in need of an expansion. The storage and kitchen staff simply weren’t enough to support the customer base Moon had built in the tiny space.
“I’m really emotional about my first building because it’s like my first baby,” Moon said. “I had little storage, no walk-in fridge, we had to walk up and down from the kitchen — it was really, really tight for the expanded menu that I had and the number of customers I had.”
Moon’s first plan was to expand next door, but with an expiring lease, Moon decided to close all together and temporarily move some of Chabaa Thai’s menu items to Yanako to keep her customer base satisfied. Shortly after closing, the double storefront at 4343 Main Street became available.
“Actually, I liked the space a long time ago,” Moon recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to be a tenant of this building!’ To me, it’s a dream come true, but it required a lot of capitol and time because it needed a full conversion.”
The space didn’t have anything to accommodate a restaurant of Chabaa Thai’s size, and took two full years to completely renovate. In those two years, Moon spent time expanding her menu to fill the stomachs of her growing customer base. Even so, she has kept the favorites consistent, including pad thai, dum yum, hot and sour soup, and the spicy beef salad.
In August of 2016, Chabaa Thai reopened with it’s sidekick, Binto Market & Cafe. Moon’s goal of her new Asian market was to provide food customers can grab or order fresh at affordable prices, such as chicken curry puffs and authentic soups and noodles. But her dream is much larger than that.
“I have a big dream, but many times, the reality doesn’t catch up,” Moon said. “I would love to have people cook healthy Asian food and get the ingredients here. It doesn’t matter how big the space that I want, the reality is, it’s never going to be enough. I always tell my customers, ‘Whatever you need, tell me. I can get it for you.’”
Moon is able to have that extra special personal experience with her customers because she has an amazing team supporting her at all three locations.
“I have a lot of expectations,” Moon expressed. “I am really hands-on and really detailed, which is sometimes a curse! Like this morning, I mopped the floor. I did! I don’t have to, but I want to send a message. I want the first customer who comes in here each night to know it’s clean. We don’t have any excuses with the first customer.”
“It’s around the clock work,” she continued. “The key to getting them going without going crazy is to let them do it. They can do it better than I can. And I have to trust them. We really focus on the small details. You know why? It really reflects how much we care for each other. If you get the foundation — cleanliness, punctuality, reliability, and care — all of these together will move things forward.”
Not only does her staff help run the businesses on a day-to-day basis, but they help her keep the menu fresh and up-to-date with the changing seasons. Moon explains that in order to come to an agreement, there is a lot of experimenting, a lot of tweaking, and a lot of discussion. She looks to her staff — along with her daughter, Tinnah, and her husband — to taste test new menu items.
“They are very critical and very picky,” Moon laughed. “Sometimes, there are politics around the table. I tend to like salty so I have to open my ear to what people think about it. As my friend, Chef Keith, would say, ‘We are as good as our team, so it doesn’t matter how good you are.’ When I get any credit for my hard work, I go to my team.”
When it comes to some of the more unique flavor combinations on her menus, Moon said she starts with the core dish and traditional Thai cooking methods, then often provokes the conversation by saying, “Cook this dish.”
“My job is to make them work harder. My job is to make them play. I think in the kitchen is a lot of playing, challenging, accruing, and even upsetting sometimes. In the end, it’s fun!” Moon said.
She even encourages playing in the kitchen with her customers. Moon recalled a time when a customer was throwing a party and wanted to make a specific kind of Asian noodle he had learned while attending culinary school in Bangkok. He wanted to show off to his friends, so he gave a list of ingredients to Moon for advice on where to purchase them. On the other hand, Moon will have customers come in and ask if she has an ingredient to cook with, and many times, she’ll snip it right off of her sweet basil plant she has growing in the back of her kitchen.
“It’s fun. You need to connect with people and don’t lose sight of where you originally came from,” Moon said. “Sometimes, it’s so fun that I don’t think I’m a chef, but that I’m a woman who knows how to cook.”
As for the future, Moon hopes to host cooking classes. She has always wanted to rebuild that connection with her customers, as she often finds herself stuck in the kitchen many nights.
“I miss when my customers would call me ‘Mama Moon’ and say, ‘Meet my date!’ and really get to know them,” Moon reminisced. “I love when I see some of my original customers and when they say, ‘Hey, Moon, we’ve been following you since your first location.’”
Thinking about how she can build her relationships with her customers circles back to where she comes from. It’s about surrounding yourself with good food, good people, and love.
“If you work for your love, you will enjoy it and you feel like today you made a difference for yourself and for others. Find love first.”