Less is More

Thitima Sanitniam, better known as Gai, opened Thai by the Sea on Oak Island 11 years ago. The colorful bowl she holds is the only one left of a set that was inspiration for the upbeat color palette used in the restaurant. Photo by Bethany Turner

Thitima Sanitniam, better known as Gai, opened Thai by the Sea on Oak Island 11 years ago. The colorful bowl she holds is the only one left of a set that was inspiration for the upbeat color palette used in the restaurant. Photo by Bethany Turner

Whoever coined the concept “less is more” must have been thinking of the owner of Thai by the Sea in Oak Island, Thitima Sanitniam, or Gai, as she is more commonly known.

At 9:30 a.m., Gai arrives at her restaurant wearing a blue jean skirt, a white short-sleeved cotton shirt and brown sandals. Her black, shoulder-length hair is tucked modestly behind her ears, swinging slightly as she bows her head and introduces herself. Stud earrings, a gold bangle, her wedding bands, and a seemingly out of place pink hair tie looped around her knuckle are the only embellishments to her person. She is quiet and soft-spoken at first, but as the conversation about her restaurant and the work she does progresses, it is obvious this modestly clad woman has a personality as bright, colorful and diverse as the pink, green, blue and yellow hues that cover the surrounding walls.

Located about a mile down Oak Island Drive, Thai by the Sea sits just off the road. The pale, cream-colored building is small, the branches of the tree next to it able to reach and extend across much of the roof. Blue trimming matches the cloudless sky, one almost melting and blending into the other. That and a picnic table of the same color add a little bit of pop to the outside of the building.

Once inside, the atmosphere and décor begin to imitate more of Gai’s character. The color on the walls alternate in no particular order among blue, green, yellow and pink. The blue and green color was originally inspired by a ceramic bowl with a design of the same colors that Gai proudly runs and retrieves to show. Decorating the walls are a variety of trinkets, some purchased and selected by the owner herself, some given as gifts from customers, and still others the product of Gai’s do-it-yourself spirit.

Drunken Noodle. Photo by Bethany Turner

Drunken Noodle. Photo by Bethany Turner

Gai opened Thai by the Sea in 2003 with her husband, Bob, after moving from Phoenix, Arizona in 2001. Since the age of 10, Gai’s life has been about Thai food. Growing up in Thailand, Gai was a helper in her family’s restaurant. She would accompany her mother to the market every morning to get the necessary items for her family’s recipes. It was here that Gai began to learn to cook the authentic Thai food that she makes for her customers, popularizing Thai by the Sea.

One of five sisters, Gai admits that she is the only one that could “do it like mother.” In Thailand, Gai learned how to make Thai chili paste from scratch, as well as what plant and pepper in her family’s garden would turn green curry green and red curry red. In the summertime here at Thai by the Sea, Gai is able to mimic that organic ideal by using ingredients from a garden, tended by Bob, in the backyard of the restaurant.

Open for 11 years, Gai and Bob no longer have the trouble they did in the beginning finding customers. When they opened in 2003, they would often wonder how many people they were going to get each night. Now, they have no such worries. With the summer season, holidays and long weekends being the busiest and most successful in terms of money, the restaurant is often packed. Bob mans the front of the restaurant, serving the tables with the occasional help of a friend coming in to work part-time and lend a hand. But in the kitchen, it is just Gai.

Pad Thai. Photo by Bethany Turner

Pad Thai. Photo by Bethany Turner

This is the first year Gai has been the only person to work in her kitchen. Before, Bob made sure there were three or four workers to help her, not believing his wife could reasonably handle their large customer base each night. Gai smiles a little as she describes Bob’s friendly opposition and then his eventual recognition of Gai’s amazing ability to work the many facets of the kitchen quickly and successfully.

“I can do it, easy,” Gai says. An emphatic believer in her own work, Gai loves the freedom and pride she has working by herself. “This way I can show what I do wrong or right and I know for sure the customers are going to get the good stuff from me.”

This attitude is not reserved for just the cooking. It also boils over into the cleaning and organization of the restaurant. As she scurries across the dining floor she stops here and there, moving and arranging various objects to her liking. She insists on cleaning the restaurant and kitchen herself, believing it can be done much better by her own hands rather than hiring an outside service to do it. It is because she has so much pride in her business and the work she puts into it, that this is true. The kitchen and dining room is immaculate, leaving no evidence of the events that occur each night.

Gai’s personality is bubbly and sweet. She smiles and laughs often, nodding her head with the anecdotes of the conversation. But in the kitchen, she seems to bottle all this, compartmentalizing her fire into the professional energy she needs to receive the orders, man the woks and then present it nicely on the oval plates.

Pineapple Fried Rice. Photo by Bethany Turner

Pineapple Fried Rice. Photo by Bethany Turner

As she prepares to cook Pad Thai, Drunken Noodles and Pineapple Fried Rice, Gai pulls her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck and ties it with her pink elastic. She slips a black apron around her waist and fires up the woks. As they heat, she grabs the ingredients from a bowl and sets it aside. At night, when the restaurant is open, she has everything lined up so she can get the orders out fast.

But fast is almost an understatement. Each dish is finished and placed on a plate in under three minutes. The ingredients and elements to each one are simple, stripped down of overwhelming tastes, flavors and spices, the food is best at its most basic roots. When Gai finds a new recipe, she says she will look at it and cut it down to its truest form, making it her own.

Gai stir fries all three dishes in her various woks, mixing in the different noodles, rice, chicken and other elements as she goes. In the Pad Thai, the noodles and chicken are cooked just right—the meat still juicy but not undercooked while the noodles are not cooked so much that they slide through your fork. An array of vegetables like carrots, lima beans, celery and onions add a crunch to the dish and provide a good variety of flavor, taking the place of often overwhelming oils and spices. The Fried Rice and Drunken Noodles have more color with the addition of chunks of tomato, zucchini and squash. The Fried Rice’s spice is offset by the addition of pineapple, adding a nice complement to the chicken and tomatoes. The Drunken Noodles is a savory dish, with soy and fish sauces melding on the palate amongst a plethora of vegetables.

For the end of the meal, it should be obligatory to finish the experience with a slice of Gai’s homemade coconut cake. The coconut is almost as fresh as if it had been shaved from coconuts that came from a tree in the backyard garden, but there is no such thing in Gai’s and Bob’s plot. The cake itself is light and fluffy, the saturated pores making it almost like air, save for the honeyed frosting and coconut shavings on and within the dessert.

Coconut cake. Photo by Bethany Turner

Coconut cake. Photo by Bethany Turner

Every dish, including the cake, is capped with the addition of a butterfly beautifully crafted and cut from a carrot and placed on top.

Upon finishing the dishes for myself and my editor, Gai cheerfully announces that it is time for her to get ready to work now. The restaurant opens for lunch at 11 a.m. and for dinner at 5 p.m. She bows her goodbyes and returns to the kitchen to prepare for the inevitable rush that will come within the next hour. What with Gai’s vibrant disposition and the food produced by her own hands, it is no wonder Thai by the Sea is in its 11th year and the parking lot is consistently full with customers returning time and time again.

Thai by the Sea is located at 8300 E. Oak Island Drive in Oak Island, North Carolina. For more information, call the restaurant at (910) 278-6420.

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