It’s a busy—and deliciously fragrant—Sunday at Thai @ US. Kids crunch on freshly fried spring rolls while adults ponder which level of spice will be just right. Sharp notes of lemongrass, ginger, and Thai chili mingle with the scent of sesame oil. Waiters hustle to refill creamy Thai iced teas and deliver large plates of noodles while from behind the front counter, Nan Choomafari smiles broadly, overseeing it all.
In the kitchen, there are other sites and sounds: dishes and pans clang, hot oil bubbles, woks over open flames toss fresh vegetables, and the sounds of spices being chopped create their own symphony. Conducting this orchestration of ingredients is chef Than Choomafari.
Behind the well-oiled machine and the smiling faces, however, is a classic story that defies cliche. It’s a story of immigrant Americans finding their path, overcoming odds to great success, and not waiting one second to give back. But it is also a story of love that comes in many forms and that sparks a shared vision for making the world a better place one plate of food at a time.
Born Beneath The Same Stars
Nan and Than’s upbringings have many similarities. They were both born in Phra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya, Thailand, though neither knew each other at that time. And both families struggled simply to afford food and rent.
Nan was a gifted student, but her family had no money for college. Her teacher at the time—who she calls “mother,” a Thai tradition for those in your life with a mothering influence—had a father who worked at a local newspaper. The teacher’s father published a story about Nan’s academic potential and her inability to pay for college. It went viral. Thousands of dollars in aid poured in and the letters of support poured in as well. She was featured on news shows, radio stations, and was even contacted by the king and queen of Thailand to receive a royal scholarship. It looked as if her luck had changed, and college was going to be a real possibility.
One check she received, however, really caught her eye. It had been mailed from the United States, and it had come from a town called Paducah, Kentucky. Than Choomafari had migrated to Kentucky from Thailand and was working in the kitchen at Jasmine where he ultimately became the local restaurant’s head chef. Although Than was on a limited budget, he was moved by Nan’s story and sent her money for school from his new home in Kentucky.
After emailing him a heartfelt thank you, Nan and Than struck up what she describes as an uncle-like mentorship through email. He provided her with encouragement and a listening ear when times were tough. And because her own parents had both passed away, that steady voice of support and love helped her tremendously.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree in Economics, Nan completed her master’s degree in Business Administration. But despite her academic success, finding a job wasn’t easy. Nan was born with a physical disability—a fact that doesn’t impact her ability to be a business leader—but stereotypically impeded her ability to be hired.
After years of frustration, she decided to try her luck in the U.S. And because she only knew one person in this vast new country, she decided to move to Paducah. Surprisingly, she didn’t let Than know she was heading his way. When they met in person for the first time, Nan bravely stated, “I’m here. You can help me, or I’ll figure it out by myself. But I’m staying.”
A Partnership Is Formed
Than was shocked, but he also knew that it was now his job to help this courageous woman. He did, and when the pandemic hit and he lost his job at Jasmine, she was able to return the favor tenfold. Like many restaurant workers in 2020, things were looking a little bleak. But rather than give up, Than decided to strike out on his own, and the mentorship he had provided Nan turned into a partnership as they learned to navigate the waters of American small business ownership.
With her business training, Nan set to the task of an in-depth study of opening a business in her new hometown. “It was way different than what I was used to in Thailand, and there was a lot to learn,” Nan notes. “I was still working on my English at the time, so it was even harder because we had to work through some language barriers. But I knew we could figure it out, and we did!”
While she worked on the business aspects, Than created a menu and supplied the kitchen. Like many of us, you probably remember dying for a taste of good takeout in a time when going to a restaurant wasn’t possible. So you may remember the couple’s 2020 opening. They started as a takeout-only restaurant at their Lone Oak Road location and built a loyal customer base. Once they were able to open for dine-in, customers couldn’t wait to get a table.
A Marriage of Like Minds
Over time, their mentorship turned partnership turned into something even more. In the pragmatic way they communicate about their business, Than asked Nan if she wanted to marry him and form a NEW partnership. She contemplated the proposal—and these are her own words—eventually said, “Yeah, ok, that will be fine.” And as matter of fact as it sounds, she says it with soft eyes and a big smile.
Appropriately, the couple was married in their restaurant. Five staff members catered the wedding, celebrating with the couple and coming out of the kitchen to watch the ceremony. Than and Nan then bought their first house together—the first home either of them had ever been able to call their own. The same giving spirit that has been the foundation of their relationship is also the cornerstone for how they live their life. After buying their home, the couple purchased a second home to provide free housing for some of their employees. Other employees get assistance for housing costs, and the owners also provide many free meals to employees.
“We have a passion for helping our staff achieve their dreams. We are so thankful that since coming to America we have been able to succeed, and we want that for others!” the Choomafaris say. “We believe everyone should have a chance at the American dream.” One example of that dream-making was a scholarship of $4,000 given to one of their employees for cosmetology school. “Helping Courtney go to cosmetology school gives us so much joy,” Nan comments.
The most full-circle move, however, has been the establishment of a charity that provides financial support for children in Thailand—like Nan—who attend public school. It was public school, says Nan, that provided hope for her and her peers. This new project, called the Hope, Hugs, and Opportunities project, provides money, education, scholarships, and food to school children in the US, Thailand, and beyond. In February of 2023, the owners donated 200 orders of food to the school that Nan attended as a child. They’ve now contributed financially to six different schools in Phra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya. They’ve also sponsored programs and donated food to local schools.
Their giving isn’t limited to school children, however, and the impact of their generosity extends both near and far. In December of 2022, they catered meals for First Baptist Barlow’s International Mission Study Program. In 2021 at the height of the pandemic, they donated meals to Mercy Health Hospital and Baptist Health Paducah, and they donated meals to Mayfield relief workers after the tornado hit.
“By coming to the US, we have been able to achieve our dreams, and we are so thankful for that. When we came here, we started with nothing. America has been a wonderful country that gave us a chance,” they state. “Because we have so much support from our wonderful customers, we have been able to start the Hope, Hugs and Opportunities project which allows us support others. We want our community to know that by supporting Thai@US, they are by extension, serving everyone who is impacted by our mission.”
Each time I’ve left the Choomafari’s restaurant, it’s been with a free Thai iced tea and/or food in hand. Than carefully makes the food in the back while Nan thanks me for the time and asks about coming back with my kids. Her final statement as I left on my last visit really says it all.