Restaurant Awards

Amy Chanta, recipient of Gourmet Traveller’s Outstanding Contribution to Hospitality award for 2022

We remember the chef, visionary and founder of Sydney's Chat Thai who irrevocably shaped the city's dining scene.

This year’s recipient of Gourmet Traveller’s Outstanding Contribution to Hospitality award is sadly no longer here to receive the honour.

Amy Chanta passed away in March but her legacy lives on. We asked her friends and colleagues to share their memories of the chef and business woman who founded the Chat Thai empire and physically cultivated Australia’s Thai food scene.

There are many stories you can tell about Amy Chanta, the beloved Sydney restaurateur who helped Australians fall in love with Thai cuisine. There’s her story as a migrant, newly arrived in Australia and sewing pockets for 50 cents each in Sydney, eventually saving enough money to relocate her children from Thailand in the 1980s. There’s her story as a McDonald’s employee who, decades later, was invited to cook for Copenhagen’s acclaimed Noma restaurant. There’s her story as the founder of Chat Thai, the restaurant empire she began in 1989 – at first, she catered to Western tastes, offering chocolate mousse and crème caramel, only to evolve into the standard-bearer for Thai food as it’s cooked in Thailand. There’s her story as a force behind Sydney’s Thai Town, which in 2013 was recognised as the world’s second Thai Town after Los Angeles. And there’s her story as someone who helped the Thai culinary scene physically grow, cultivating unique ingredients for her own restaurants and helping others add them to their stir-fries, curries and soups.

“When my mum died, I got so many sweet, kind messages from people all around the world,” recalls her daughter Palisa Anderson, who continues to run the Chat Thai empire and grows an ever-increasing assortment of unique, organic produce at her Byron Bay property, Boon Luck Farm.

Many were from Chat Thai customers, who recalled how personal she was in her interactions. “She’d have a pet name for them and would write that on their order slip.” Chanta may no longer leave her personal stamp on dishes or orders, organise cultural events in Thai Town, or witness the coming harvests on her farms in Thailand and Australia, but her legacy thrives with every community-minded act and initiative she seeded in her time.

DAVID THOMPSON | chef and restaurateur

In the 1990s, there were Thai nightclubs where Thai Town currently stands. This is where Thompson first encountered Chanta. “Nightclub is a highfalutin word and euphemism for late-night dining place. There’d be some bands on occasion. Being avidly and naively interested in Thai things, I’d turn up on occasion and they had nice booze. I met Amy around there,” he says.

At the time, he was running Sydney’s Darley Street Thai and well aware of her impact. “She was one of the first to make Thais feel at home,” says Thompson. She had adapted the cuisine to local circumstances – and was groundbreaking in other ways. “She was the first to grow and get ingredients into the Sydney market for people like me to use.”

JOY THAISPORI ROCHE | CEO Thai Town Business and Thai Community Association

Joy Thaiposri Roche’s friendship with Chanta began three decades ago. “At the time, not many Thai businesses were in [Haymarket] at all,” she says. Over time, thanks to the pioneering work of local operators – like Pontip Walpole (who ran beloved Thai grocer, Pontip), Chanta and Thaiposri Roche – Thai Town began to develop.

“Thai Town started as a community a long time ago, but it was officially recognised by the City of Sydney with the street sign and everything in 2013,” says Thaiposri Roche, who is currently CEO of the Thai Town Business and Thai Community Association. She credits Amy as one of the precinct’s “pioneers”, who actively staged ceremonies and festivals in the area and fostered its proud Thai identity.

“You don’t get homesick when you walk through Thai Town,” Thaiposri Roche adds. It reminds her of travelling through Bangkok’s laneways – particularly when she can eat khanom krok (Thai coconut rice pancakes) at Chat Thai. “You can’t find that dessert anywhere else, even in Thailand, it’s very rare.” She credits Chanta for bringing chefs and recipes from Thailand, and inspiring other businesses. “People in that area compete with each other – in a good way – to make Thai food more interesting, authentic and presentable,” she says. “She was one of the Thai people who actually made Thai food more famous.”

VINITA CHUMSRI | restaurateur

“Amy was very active in the Thai community and everyone’s aunty. She was the true definition of leading by example. Especially for Thais in Sydney wanting to make a jump in their career, she made us all believe that anything was possible,” says Chumsri, who opened her restaurant, Little Turtle in Sydney, as a uni student. “Amy is a chef who created a movement that changed Sydneysiders’ perception of Thai food,” she adds. “She gave us Thais a voice.”

MARTIN BOETZ | chef and restaurateur

“We often saw each other in Chinatown, she’d point out different things if we were shopping,” says Boetz. “I was looking at water lily stems and said, ‘what would I do with these?'” Save the stem for a sour orange curry, she’d tell him. Or add them to a stir-fry.

Their friendship began nearly two decades ago, when Chanta brought staff and family into his Longrain restaurant for celebrations – including her daughter’s 21st birthday. “It meant a lot to me: bringing in a bunch of Thai people to eat Thai food, cooked by a white guy,” he laughs. Chanta was always generous with feedback and appreciation. She was “business-minded, canny and developed many restaurants, but at the end of the day, she was kind.”

ANGIE HONG | former restaurateur

When Angie Hong met Chanta, many years ago, the connection was immediate. “We clicked straight away,” says Hong. They had plenty in common: they were migrant women running multiple Asian restaurants while raising children – who would later go on to join the industry (Hong’s son Dan is one of Merivale’s star chefs). And they understood the responsibility of maintaining restaurants for their Asian communities. “We had to do it well so that these people don’t lose their jobs,” she says.

“You run restaurants and it’s long hours,” says Hong. “We left the kids on their own for a little bit, but I’m so happy that they turned out okay.” Even with help from family, it was a challenge. Even more so for Chanta, who managed multiple businesses as a single mother. “She was on her own,” recalls Hong.

More than 1000 people attended Chanta’s seven-day funeral service in March. “Her life touched so many lives. She left a beautiful legacy.”

RENÉ REDZEPI | chef and restaurateur

“Amy was an institution. Her work, and that of her entire family and team, has contributed so much to Australia’s love of Thai cuisine and its connection to Thailand. Everything she represented is carried on through Palisa and her family today.”

DAVID CHANG | chef and restaurateur

“My very first meal in Sydney was Chat Thai for lunch,” recalls Chang. This was around 2009 and marked the start of a long-standing love affair with Chanta’s food. “I’ve loved eating so many meals there at the OG location and remember taking the ferry a few years later to Manly Beach and being overjoyed to see another branch of Chat Thai there,” he says. “Eating her food made me happy.”

When Chang is in his American homeland, he often wonders, “Why the hell can’t we have something as great as Chat Thai here?” Despite a number of Thai restaurants populating US cities, Chang says “nothing ever seems to hit the spot and hospitality that Amy helped create.”

“She made Thai food accessible to Sydney. Just look at the variety of people in the queue: uni students, tourists, suits from the CBD, foodies. Accessible is the key word here: most of the time it means Asian food gets watered down. Amy’s food was accessible because it was outrageously delicious and uncompromising! She paved her own path.”

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