Waltham’s Manita Bunnagitkarn, 39, came to the United States from Bangkok as a teenager. She got her culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales University, worked under star chef Todd English, and now runs two popular Thai restaurants of her own: Kala Thai Cookery near Faneuil Hall and Cha Yen Thai Cookery in Watertown, where her innovative menu — quail eggs, hot basil sliders, shrimp doughnuts — has drawn a loyal following. In her spare time, Bunnagitkarn enjoys the piano, an enthusiasm she shares with her husband, area pianist Edvard Lee.
Why did you come to the United States?
Since I was young, I dreamed of traveling. I trained and worked with Todd English during my formative years, for seven years, where I learned many of his advanced fine-dining techniques. It was a very valuable experience.
How did you meet Todd English?
He was so famous at that time. He was like a local Boston celebrity. [He] had a very popular restaurant at that time in the Boston area called Bonfire, right by the Boston Park Plaza. Upon graduation, I sent in my resume and was very grateful to have gotten called back for the position. It was a fairly rigorous process at that time. I learned so much during my time at Bonfire. Todd was a great teacher.
What led you to open Cha Yen Thai?
At that time, I really wanted to see better offerings of authentic Thai food in the Boston and Watertown area. I wanted to see more Asian restaurants that offered very high-quality, authentic, healthy yet affordable food options to better serve the local community, as well as the visitors [to] Boston and Watertown. As a resident, I felt that great and healthy food would greatly uplift the health and quality of life for families and households. That was the reason I started Cha Yen Thai Cookery.
We started out as a very small takeout restaurant (five to eight seats) and we have expanded to 20 to 30 seats. Now, we are about to move Cha Yen right down the street with 86 seats [to] keep up with the demand and to better serve our very beloved community.
Let’s talk a little bit about your food. For people who’ve never been to either of your restaurants: Can you describe what you cook?
Cha Yen Thai Cookery [uses] many staple and household Thai dishes. ... I have revisited and refined these recipes with my fine-dining training experience. I have some dishes here where I have re-imagined them with some of my French fine dining techniques. Some of our customers have described our food to be like Asian comfort food, [wherein] your mom and dad would cook these dishes for you. We do also have an underlying theme of health in our restaurants. ... We really put a lot of effort in emphasizing the freshness of ingredients (meat and vegetables) and to make sure our food increases the quality of life for all who come eat at the restaurant.
Why did you choose to open a location in Boston, too?
Because I wanted to give my employees the opportunity to run the restaurant. They are young and very hardworking. That’s why I opened the second one: to let them be chefs and do what they would love to do. And hopefully, sometime in the future, I just want to let them own it.
Wow. How do you find your employees? How do you know that you’re hiring the right people?
I interview them myself, and even [if] they don’t have any experience, they’re willing to learn. If we have the same mindset, it doesn’t matter whether they have experience. I’m willing to teach them how to do everything, how to run the restaurant, and how to be successful. I’m so glad; I’m so happy. I am so lucky that I still have the same team over the past six or seven years.
Where’s your favorite food in Boston? Do you have a favorite restaurant?
I like tapas. I like Toro. I like French food as well. I like to travel to Europe. I’m trying to bring a new concept into Boston for my restaurant.
When you were growing up in Bangkok, did you know you wanted to work in restaurants?
Growing up in Bangkok, I loved art and music as well as food. I had to cook for my big family of 6 siblings daily. My dad taught me a lot about cooking traditional Thai dishes. I don’t think I remember particularly if there was a moment where I consciously chose to be a chef growing up; I feel that it was something that started small, and it turned out to be something I was very passionate about, and I was able to impact society in a positive way through this skillset. I’m very grateful to be in this position.
Where do you grocery shop now?
I go to the Asian wholesale supermarkets near Boston Medical Center. I also shop for poultry from Mayflower in Newmarket Square and Food-Pak Express, also nearby, and Restaurant Depot. I feel that these are some of the freshest options that we have locally in Boston …
We used to get a lot from Russo’s in Watertown. ... The concept of Russo’s was an inspiration to our restaurants, a [haven] of really fresh yet affordable ingredients that can benefit the whole community. Everyone looked forward to going to Russo’s to do their grocery shopping
What’s your favorite dish on your menu?
Curry puffs and shrimp doughnuts! The curry puff was actually my favorite snack back when I grew up. At Cha Yen and Kala, I reimagined the curry puffs, and I use French puff pastry instead, in replacement of what we do in Thailand, just to make it more healthy and more flavorful. That’s my favorite thing on the menu.
For the shrimp doughnut, I like the way it looks, the taste, and the plum sauce pairs really well. People are always really curious; I encourage customers to order it, and then they love it.
Last but not least: What do you watch on TV in your spare time?
I like to watch art history and cooking. I usually just like to go on personal blogs for travel, and I like to read any kind of Thai cooking books. Any kind of cooking books, I’d read!
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.