Thai impresarios Jeff and Nuit Regular on their next big opening
Chef Nuit and Jeff Regular holding down the fort at Pai
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon in the Entertainment District and Pai Northern Thai Kitchen is jumping. On a Tuesday! Owned by Jeff and Nuit Regular, the city’s loveliest impresarios, the restaurant is the crown jewel in their Thai food empire.
In addition to Pai, the pair co-owns three Sukhothais, the recently relocated Sabai Sabai and the upcoming Kiin, an upscale Thai restaurant opening later this month at Peter and Adelaide.
I’m sitting with Jeff opposite my untouched green papaya salad. Although he remains mum on any details on Kiin, I’m getting the rundown on his romantic history when chef Nuit arrives, and the conversation halts.
“You have to eat it immediately otherwise the flavours change,” she says, stirring up the shredded green papaya soaked in citrusy tamarind sauce and coconut sugar before spooning a biteful into my mouth. It’s delicious.
“That’s what I love about my wife: she’s crazy,” Jeff says with a grin. “Such a perfectionist.”
That perfection has bloomed and blossomed since the two met in northern Thailand on an elephant. The year was 2001 and he was backpacking through Thailand, and she was working as a nurse, and they took a ride that would change Canadian cuisine.
“She ended up in front of me and she was terrified. She kept grabbing my arms, and we started talking after that, and that was it,” Jeff says, and then tells the tale of how they opened their first little place in Pai, Thailand: the Curry Shack. The idea was always to spotlight Nuit’s cooking. She’s not trained professionally but grew up cooking alongside her mother and aunts.
“We didn’t have a refrigerator, so everything always had to be made fresh,” says Nuit, who went to her backyard for herbs to make soup the first time she brought Jeff home to eat. He was in love, both with the food and the chef.
“I’m so lucky to have learned my cooking throughout my childhood,” Nuit says, “and get to share it with the people of Toronto.”
Toronto has been receptive to not only the authenticity of Nuit’s cooking — they import Thai ingredients like holy basil — but also the genuineness of their comfortable restaurants.
At Pai, everything from the Bob Marley records to the wooden “We the Northern Thai” sign are lovingly curated, giving the space the same down-home funky feel as the hippie town it’s named after.
For Jeff Regular, the goal was simple: build the restaurant of his dreams.
“I figured right away that I’d rather have a small group of people love it than have a million people say, oh, that’s OK,” says the 40-year-old father.
In fact, what’s happened to Jeff and Nuit is that a million people loved their food. Family owned and operated, their restaurants helped usher in the ethnic “street food” trend that’s swept Toronto and now has us enjoying everything from Hawaiian to Filipino fare.
Jeff Regular didn’t want to make a Thai place in Toronto; he wanted to bring to Toronto the place he fell in love with in Thailand.
“I just knew there was nothing like that here at that time,” he says. “A place a Thai person could come and enjoy and say, this is like home.”
The Regulars live off the Danforth with their 18-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, but that doesn’t stop them from eating all over town. Some of their favourite chefs include Keith Froggett (they went to Scaramouche for their anniversary), Susur Lee and Lynn Crawford.
Chef Lee, in particular, has become a friend to the family, bringing his kids in to enjoy the Regulars’ homemade sausage.
“Chef Lee and chef Lynn, they’re almost like mentors to me,” says Nuit. “Of course I love eating their food, and it truly feels special when I have the opportunity to make something for them.”
The family plays a game where each person gets to choose a place to eat on a rotating basis. Gone are the days when their daughter used to choose Red Lobster for the macaroni and cheese (“though I got her to eat steamed lobster,” says Nuit, laughing).
Now the entire family — including their son, who’s studying cooking at George Brown — are fans of Craig Wong’s food and the chicken at Home of the Brave.
“I think Toronto has a great food scene, and it’s incredible, just in the last few years, how much it’s grown,” Jeff says. “We’re sharing something that’s very important to us and that we believe in, and it’s great to be part of this community.”
The meal I enjoy with the Regulars doesn’t end until I try the khao soi, Jeff’s favourite dish. It’s two types of noodles in a rich curry sauce with coriander and big chunks of butter-soft braised beef. Chef spoons out a bowl for Jeff and one for me, and while I keep asking questions, she implores me to stop, to eat, to get it while it’s hot.
“This is what kicked off Sukhothai,” chef says with her ever-present smile as Jeff and I tuck in.
“When we opened our first place, I just knew that we needed to have this dish,” says Jeff. “The reasoning was: you can’t find this anywhere in Toronto, and I want to be the only place that serves it, so at the very least, if they fall in love with this, they’ll have to come to us — at least we’ll have that.”
For chef Nuit and Jeff Regular, who fell in love in Thailand and have forged a burgeoning empire based on authentic, inexpensive Thai food, love has been the dominant spice of their restaurants.
It’s a vibe that leaves a good taste in their fans’ hungry mouths.
Thai classics to try
Pai: Anyone who’s backpacked through Thailand has chomped on som tum tad — a heat-packing salad doused in tamarind sauce with green papaya, long green beans and red chilis.
Sabai Sabai: Be sure to order up the morning glory or pak boong. A ubiquitous veg in Thailand, this goes-with-everything dish is ideal as a side, stir-fried with garlic and chili to great effect.
Sukhothai: Pad thai, Thailand’s most famous dish, is the real deal here. It comes loaded with bean sprouts, egg, shallots and peanuts and can be ordered up Thai spicy. But can you handle it?