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Randolph chef earns James Beard nod for her traditional Thai cuisine

A couple stands in front of a restaurant-grade stovetop.
Mikaela Lefrak
Nisachon and Steve Morgan run Saap together.

Inside the historic Kimball House, an old blue Victorian mansion on a hill in Randolph, you’ll find Saap, a Thai restaurant run by Nisachon and Steve Morgan.

The inviting smell of freshly cooked sticky rice wafts out of the kitchen. In the kitchen, Nisachon, who goes by Rung, prepares the broth for an herbaceous chicken soup called tom yum ghai isan.

In goes lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal, a ginger-like root. Together, they comprise the holy trinity of Saap's kitchen.

“We eat food really different from Bangkok,” explains Rung. “Customers like Bangkok food—pad thai, pad see ew, panang curry.”

While some of those dishes are available at Saap, the menu is dominated by traditional dishes from Isaan, the northeast Thai province where Rung grew up. Isaan is rural, arid and very hot. Its cuisine often features pickled vegetables, meat skewers, epic spice levels, courtesy of chiles, and lots of sticky rice. To get some of these ingredients, the Morgans often have to travel to Asian markets in Boston.

The pair started Saap as a way to share their love of cooking. Steve worked for years as a cooking instructor at the New England Culinary Institute and a chef at Gifford Medical Center. He met Rung online over the dating site Match.

A bowl of soup in a white bowl and a plate of noodles on a black table
Mikaela Lefrak
Two dishes from Saap, where the menu highlights cuisine from the Isaan region of Thailand.

After talking on Skype for about six months, Steve flew to Thailand to meet her in person. He recalls her meeting him at the airport with bags of fresh fruit and other local snacks. He started falling for the food in Isaan at the same time as he was falling for Rung.

Following a few more successful in-person visits, the pair got married and Rung moved with her daughter to Vermont. She remembers arriving in New England for the first time in late fall, and asking Steve what had befallen the poor trees. It’s just winter, he told her. They’re not dead – the leaves will come back.

Rung got a job cleaning rooms, but at night she’d tell Steve about her dream of opening a Thai restaurant in her new hometown.

Eventually, they took the leap. They rented the Kimball House space and decorated with a mix of Vermont and Thai decor—red plaid curtains here, Buddhist statues there. They also selected a Thai word, saap, for the new restaurant’s name.

“It means delicious,” Steve explains. “I was like, saap, that sounds like a Vermont word!” (Saap, sap, maple syrup…you get it.)

When concocting their menu, Rung pushed for including well-known Thai dishes like pad thai to attract customers. "We eat spicy [food] all the time," Rung says. "American people? 'No, I don't eat.' They don't eat too much spicy [food]."

Steve, however, pushed to stick to their vision of a restaurant featuring traditional Isaan cuisine. “I knew if she cooked food like it was from home, and we paired it with local beer, local cider, people would drive for it,” he says. "It helps me being from Vermont when we have Vermonters come in here who have never had Thai food. I can kind of guide them through their dinner."

A sign in Saap announces chef Rung Morgan's James Beard nomination.
Mikaela Lefrak
A sign in Saap announces chef Rung Morgan's James Beard nomination.

They eventually reached a compromise on pad thai, too. The menu features a dish called pad thai sai khai—similar to pad thai, but with the addition of an egg crepe and special garnishing to make it feel “a little bit different,” as Steve puts it. "There are really adventurous eaters and there are some that aren’t, and that’s fine."

The restaurant is very much a family affair. Rung is the restaurant’s only chef, and most of their employees are family members who squeeze in shifts amid other jobs.

Whatever she’s doing seems to be working. She recently found out that she is a finalist for a prestigious James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northeast. The four other finalists are in Portland or Boston, cities with diverse food scenes.

And even though Vermont and Thailand are so different, Rung says she’s not homesick. The James Beard news has brought in a lot of new business, so more than anything else, she says, she’s busy.

“I can’t believe, top five in all of New England,” Rung said. “I happy, and I want to say thank you.”

Broadcast on Friday, May 6, 2022, at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Mikaela Lefrak on Twitter @MikaelaLefrak.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.