Amy Chanta, the pioneering restaurateur who championed Thai food and culture in Australia with her Chat Thai restaurant group, passed away last Wednesday, March 10, after living with cancer for two years. She was 63 years old.
You only need to look at a photo of Chanta to feel the magnetism and energy radiating from her. “She leaves us with her light, her immense passion for living a full, vibrant, spiritual life, generously giving and loving to all those who had the fortune to exist in her orbit,” Chanta’s daughter, Palisa Anderson, wrote in a tribute to her mother.
Chanta’s was not an uncommon beginning. As a single mum she migrated alone from Thailand to Australia, and worked for two years until she had enough money to bring her children, Anderson and Pat Laoyont, to Sydney.
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Chanta opened the first Chat Thai in 1989 in Darlinghurst. The eatery helped expand Sydney’s understanding of Thai food beyond pad thai, fostering an appreciation for the nuance, diversity and regionality of the cuisine. It was also a place of community, where Thai expats could gather and nourish themselves with plates of spicy larb gai and a little bit of home.
Caring for two children while running a business was a hard slog, so when Chanta couldn’t be home she left love letters in the form of food. “We would come home from school and there’d be nobody home, but there’d be a big pot of food on the stove,” Anderson told podcast The Pass.
Today Chat Thai has seven locations across Sydney, plus sister venues Samosorn, Assamm and Thai-Australian fusion diner Boon Cafe, with its adjoining Asian grocer, Jarern Chai. The empire has also extended beyond making the food to actually growing the food. In 2015, Chanta supported Anderson in her “radical idea” to add an organic farm to the portfolio as a way to address supply-chain issues. “We decided to grow [the produce] ourselves,” Anderson told Broadsheet of the “game changing” Boon Luck Farm, a 45-hectare property in the Byron hinterland that supplies the Sydney restaurants with fresh, organic produce.
Although the Chat Thai family has expanded over the past three decades, its ethos remains the same. “It’s Thai food as Thai people eat it,” Anderson said in a video for food festival and dining series Taste of Sydney.
The approach has solidified Chat Thai’s reputation, and helped change the face of Thai food in Australia. Chanta’s influence has even crossed international borders. Talking to SBS Food in 2019, Anderson recalled being approached by a stranger while shopping in Milan.
“This woman came up to me and told me she still remembers going to get Thai food every afternoon for lunch. People remember and associate Thai food in Australia with mum,” she said.
At a point in life when many would be winding down to retirement, Chanta’s rare energy saw her ushering the Chat Thai empire to expansion, and kept her involved in the creation and evolution of the food the restaurants were serving.
Anderson shared a photo of her and Chanta on “the last [research and development] trip my mum and I took together at the end of 2018”.
“My god did we have fun on that trip – eating, country disco-ing and exploring markets and wild food in Isaan. It will always be etched in my mind what a beloved person she was wherever she went.”
With Chanta’s passing, a light in the industry has been extinguished; Thai cuisine in Sydney has lost its matriarch. Anderson put it best when she wrote, “I feel like shouting, ‘a great, giant, ancient old-growth forest tree has fallen’”.