PAI is something of a Toronto institution. Since opening the doors of their first restaurant — Sukhothai — in 2008, the husband and wife co-owners have been sharing their passion for Thai cuisine and culture with local diners.
The story behind how the dynamic duo, comprised of Chef Nuit (Executive Chef and co-owner) and her husband Jeff Regular (co-owner), came to serve up some of the most authentic Thai cuisines in the city is nearly as remarkable as the food itself.
Before journeying to Canada to pursue life as a chef and entrepreneur, Nuit was a self-taught chef and practicing nurse in Northern Thailand. Backpacking through the area years ago, Regular “met the girl of [his] dreams.” The pair fell in love, eventually opening up a cozy little restaurant in Pai, Thailand, called the Curry Shack where Nuit would spend her nights cooking after shifts at the local hospital.
Soon after, the couple relocated to Toronto, where they opened their first restaurant with the help of friends and family. Astounded by the overwhelmingly positive response from locals, they continued to expand throughout the city. Today, their family of restaurants includes Sukhothai, Sabai Sabai, Kiin, and PAI — each offering unique takes on Thai cuisine.
“When we moved to Toronto, we really missed Pai, so it was always a desire of ours to open a restaurant that would celebrate the town that we love so much. We wanted to bring the fun, hippie vibe of Pai to Toronto diners — from the music to the laid-back atmosphere and friendly hospitality,” says Regular.
For Nuit, what really sets PAI apart from other Thai food restaurants in the city “is that we don’t cut corners,” — from hard-to-find imports to quality ingredients, everything is made from scratch using the very best. “It’s very important to me to maintain that high-quality standard in order to capture the traditional flavours of the Thai food that I grew up with.”
“Many of the recipes are based on Nuit’s family recipes and she keeps with the traditional way of northern Thai cooking. There’s a real authenticity and deep-rooted tradition to her dishes,” Regular tells us.
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For Nuit, it’s also about melding that world of traditional Thai cooking with other international influences. While PAI is inspired by its owners’ origins, its menu was developed with a sense of exploration for new flavours and techniques — something Regular says we can expect more of in the future.
Recalling her early days as a restauranteur eager to please diners, Nuit tells the story of receiving a laughable customer grievance — upset about their order, they called to complain that there wasn’t any ketchup in the Pad Thai. Genuinely concerned that locals might not warm to her traditional way of cooking, Nuit remained determined to continue making the version she grew up eating.
Today, it’s the restaurant’s best-selling dish. “We would sell hundreds of these a night,” she says. Other popular dishes include the Khao Soi, a rich, creamy, curry noodle soup or the Pad Gra Prow, which includes holy-basil stir-fry with ground pork served over rice with a crispy Thai-style fried egg. Regular points out, “these are three northern Thai dishes that I really helped popularize and put on the food map here in Toronto.”
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But like many business owners, navigating the pandemic has been anything but easy. “It’s forced us to think outside the box,” Regular says. “It’s been heartwarming to see everyone just come together and help support one another — from our customers to our staff. We strive to keep morale up as much as possible, so it’s been inspiring to see everyone come together.”
Shifting to takeout and delivery-only throughout lockdown required some tweaking and streamlining. The owners also quickly adapted to emerging trends, creating meal kits and expanding their grocery offering via the By Chef Nuit online marketplace to allow people to recreate their favourite Thai dishes from home.
“We’ve tried to find ways to continue to engage with our guests, either through virtual cooking classes with me and teaching people how to cook Thai food with the help of my cookbook, Kiin, which [was] released in the fall, or Jeff sharing his specially-curated playlists to recreate that fun PAI vibe at home,” says Nuit.
After receiving so much support from the community, giving back has also been paramount. To pay it forward, the restaurant has donated funds and meals to local charities and non-profit organizations, hosting cooking demos for virtual fundraisers like OBIA’S Nix the Mix and sponsoring fundraiser events like Eat to the Beat and Recipe for Change.
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As a former nurse, Nuit understands first-hand “the long hours and stress these health care workers are going through right now, so for us to help them in any way we can — even by providing a hot meal — it’s our way of showing our thanks and appreciation for keeping our community safe and healthy.”
For Nuit and Regular, PAI is a passion project that encapsulates who they are as people. “When guests come to PAI, we want them to feel welcome and comfortable and at home. ‘Don’t worry, be hippie!’ — that’s our motto! We’re all about being positive and spreading that positivity to our guests, to our staff, and to our community at large,” says Regular.
While PAI’s creators can’t wait to reopen for dine-in service, locals can enjoy takeout or delivery from one of the restaurant’s many locations, including their original flagship downtown, new uptown location at Yonge and Eglinton, or Etobicoke Kitchen Hub location.