Philly’s Kalaya Thai Kitchen feeds a community in crisis

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Kalaya Thai Kitchen, a 35-seat restaurant in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Philadelphia, had been open for only about 14 months when it hit the same crisis that has shuttered restaurants around the country.

Chef/owner Nok Suntaranon, whose Thai family recipes made Kalaya a semifinalist for “Best New Restaurant” from the James Beard Foundation, didn’t waste time as the pandemic hit Philly. The moment she heard about the shutdown — on Sunday night, March 12 — she knew she had to rally her team.

Kalaya’s food earned attention from the James Beard Foundation

“The next morning, with our staff, we had the meeting,” she recalls. “We have to keep our restaurant open, because people will need food.”

It’s not only the customers she had in mind.

“I heard about so many restaurants that closed and laid off their staff,” she says. “There will be a lot of people who need food. We’re going to feed them.”

On March 17, Kalaya rolled out Phamily Meal, a Philly twist on “family meal,” the off-hours in-house staff meal that restaurant workers sit down to together. From 3 – 5 p.m. every day, Kalaya is offering free food to-go for restaurant industry folks who are stressed about rent and food since losing their hours at work.

The idea that anyone in the restaurant industry would be hungry or have trouble paying their bills or getting groceries in unacceptable. Not while there’s something that we can do about it.Austin Boyle, Kalaya

“The idea that anyone in the restaurant industry would be hungry or have trouble paying their bills or getting groceries” is unacceptable, adds Kalaya General Manager Austin Boyle, “not while there’s something that we can do about it.”

Suntaranon and Boyle called on an enthusiastic local network, and food donations began to flood in.

Kalaya chef/owner Nok Suntaranon

As restaurants shut down due to COVID-19, their walk-in refrigerators were bursting with food that was “going to go in the trash unless we could find a place to start purposing this food,” explains Boyle.

Kalaya put out the call, and businesses from Federal Donuts to local sandwich legend Middle Child to Four Seasons destination Jean-Georges stepped up.

As Suntaranon and Boyle spoke with Keystone Edge about getting Phamily Meal up and running, they were readying for a donation from Fishtown’s Liberty Kitchen, one of a host of eateries lending a hand.

Many donated raw produce and other raw products, plus pre-prepped food from walk-ins around town that the Kalaya kitchen has been able to repurpose. Gifts have also included paper and plastic goods that Phamily Meal participants can use to carry food away if they don’t bring their own containers (which is recommended). While Kalaya has not been soliciting financial donations, many community members have stepped up with money to support the effort — some in the form of exorbitant tips from customers. And some of the effort is simply coming from the restaurant’s own pocket.

“Phamily Meal” at Kalaya in Philadelphia

“Initially the idea was that we’re going to take care of the [restaurant] industry,” says Boyle, but the attitude was not an exclusive one. They’ll serve folks who don’t work in food service, but who’ve lost their jobs in the pandemic just the same. He estimates that the restaurant has served Phamily Meal to at least 1,000 people — between 20 and 70 a day.

Kalaya is also offering a boost to local hospital workers (not just medical professionals, but all hospital staff): a 30 percent discount on takeout orders. It’s a way to say thank you, says Boyle, and an acknowledgment that it’s pretty hard to shop and cook for your family when you’re working 18-hour shifts.

Whether it’s Phamily Meal or take-out (the only food Philly restaurants are able to serve while the COVID-19 lockdown continues), Suntaranon and Boyle note that Kalaya is following the strictest safety guidelines, from the kitchen to pick-up to delivery workers, so that everyone stays healthy.

“If you need food, we have it,” says Boyle. “And we know what to do with it.”

ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary. You can visit her at her blog, where fiction need not apply

Images courtesy of Kalaya Thai Kitchen.

Region: Southeast

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