Meet the Chefs: Sabai Sabai’s Chef Noi and Tip
Meet Chef Noi. That means “little chef” in Thai, “but he’s not little,” joked Noi’s wife, Tip. And she’s right, Chef Noi (officially named Thammarong Uttamang) is anything but little. He not only has a large stature, but also a large heart and large dreams. Chef Noi and Tip (who’s real name isn’t Tip, it’s Taphatsnun Sinpaksawat) moved to Middlebury five years ago with the hopes of running their own restaurant.
In 2014, the previous owners of Sabai Sabai sold to the Middlebury couple and Chef Noi’s life-long dream of owning his own restaurant in the US came true.
“It’s him,” said Tip, who met Noi while they were both working at the Royal Orchid restaurant in Montpelier. “He had the dream.”
Tip is in charge of the business and operations side of things, and lets her husband focus on the food.
“As a young boy, I started cooking with my mom to sell food in the market,” Noi remembered. “We grew up in northeast Thailand in a rice paddy. We grew up in a very poor part of the country; there was no electricity, and we used a charcoal fire to cook everything.
“Like all boys, I was lazy,” said Noi, the eighth of 11 children. “But mom needed me… We worked really hard to help the family. I learned how to make everything from mom; like curry paste by soaking the chilis from mom’s garden.
“After I learned what mom could teach me, I found as many other jobs as I could,” said Noi. He’s been all over the U.S. and Southeast Asia cooking and working to support his family.
“Everywhere I go, I still keep mom’s original style, and then I mix it with the culture from wherever I am,” he explained. “That’s the recipe for success.”
Noi moved to Vermont in 2004 and then came to Middlebury with Tip and their 1-year-old son Tiger. Tiger now lives in Thailand with Tip’s parents ? in fact they’re all in the same house Tip grew up in, in Bangkok.
“We Skype every day” Tip said, “Thank you Microsoft!”
“It was harder when he was younger,” she continued. “Now he’s almost six and he understands why we are so far away… It’s important that he grows up in Thailand so he knows his culture.”
Originally from Bangkok herself, Tip calls her self a “city girl.” But not anymore. Now she and Noi live above the restaurant on Merchants Row in downtown Middlebury.
“Many of our customers have been to Thailand,” said Tip. “People ask all the time about different things around the restaurant, and I’m grateful to share our lifestyles with them.”
For example, every morning a fresh plate of food is put out in front of the restaurant for the “house spirit” ? a common tradition at Asian restaurants, Tip said, but maybe something we don’t see every day around here. The food offering is a way of saying thanks, and expressing gratitude for the good fortune of each day. (Former Addy Indy intern and writer Megan James wrote a great piece about it for Seven Days this spring, check it out.)
But these days, Middlebury “feels like home,” said Tip. “It’s a really nice community. I want to say thank you to the community and our customers. We try to make good quality food. We do the best we can, and try to give more than 100 percent every day.”
“We’ll keep going for as long as we can,” said Chef Noi. “And do our best to give people new choices (like the BBQ Rib noodles, people are loving those).”
Or like the new sushi chef, Chef Lee, they hired a couple months ago.
Chef Lee, also a native of Thailand, got his start as a sushi chef while working in a Japanese restaurant in Albany, N.Y. “I did a lot of work as a prep cook before they let me touch the fish,” he said. “But the restaurant business can be so ‘in-and-out’ that one day I got promoted… I started learning what people like and how to create my own sushi rolls and sauce.”
“I never stop learning,” he said, drizzling not the first, second or third, but fourth different sauce on a plate of appetizers. “That is the art… every time I prepare a plate I think three things: clean, tasty and nice presentation. Those are my goals.”
“Everyone has the same salt,” Chef Noi said, “but it’s about how you measure it that changes the balance in the food, and that makes all the difference.”
“It makes me proud that I learned how to be successful from what my mom taught me,” Chef Noi said. “I’m lucky to have a restaurant in the U.S. But my only real dream is to make people feel good, warm and happy.”
How do you think they came up with the name Sabai Sabai? It means comfortable.
“If I can make all our customers happy, full and feeling good and comfortable, that’s a successful life,” said Chef Noi remembering his mom, who passed a few years ago. “I was born with a good mom. She had a good heart and trained me about the importance of happiness… Helping each other is important. If we’re happy together, we’ll keep forever.”
Ain’t that the truth. After all, moms always know best.