Growing up in Thailand, the last thing a 7-year-old Suchada Johnson wanted to do after school was learn to cook in a hot and steamy kitchen.
She wanted to play with other kids.
“I would cry, ‘Why I have to cook?’” Johnson recalled.
The answer was always, “No, you have to cook.”
But today, Johnson is really glad for all of her experiences in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother and aunt. They taught her everything they knew about how to create really amazing Thai food, and today, Suchada cooks some of the best Thai food in America.
Suchada is the chef for Teton Thai in Teton Village, and she has just been named a finalist for the 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards. These are like the Oscars, except for food instead of movies.
“They take, like, the five top people,” Suchada’s husband Samuel Johnson said. “And they will announce on June 5 in Chicago who the winner is.”
Suchada is one of five chefs on the finalist list for the Mountain category, which, in addition to Wyoming, includes Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. The five were chosen from 15 semi-finalists.
Judges for the competition visit semi-finalist restaurants in secret to rate the food and the experience. Suchada and Samuel believe they were probably visited in Jackson a couple of weeks ago.
“You just sort of begin to realize that you’re getting, you know, looked at,” Samuel said. “So, I believe that we did an event just a couple of weeks ago where they came to check secretly.”
Menu Is Classic Thai
Teton Thai serves all the dishes that Suchada grew up eating in Bangkok.
The menu has very well-known dishes, like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew, along with interesting and more unusual options like Roasted Duck Curry and Pad Gar Pow Duck. The latter is duck breast with basil, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and garlic chili sauce.
The restaurant, which is near Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, is tiny, with room for just 20 diners at a time, though when the weather is nice, there’s additional seating outside.
Despite the small size, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. It’s first-come, first-serve, but it does offer takeout as well.
Suchada estimates they serve around 400 meals on any given single night. This is a feat her husband Samuel says just has to be seen to be appreciated.
“I would say that she is a lot like a high-performing athlete,” he said. “It’s years of experience, and knowing what your limits are, right? Like how fast your car can drive, you know.”
“You can double up orders sometimes and then separate them apart, to customize,” Samuel said.
Other times, it rests on knowing just how long a particular dish has to cook for, and not standing around waiting for it to finish. A different dish can be started on one of the other burners, so that more than one meal is getting completed at the same time.
Suchada, meanwhile, says that she has just learned to “move fast” in the kitchen.
She credits the great team they have assembled as well. They’re on the same page with maintaining consistent quality from dish to dish to dish.
“Over 20 years, we’ve had customers who come back and who say it’s still the same thing, still the same flavor, and the same consistency,” Samuel said.
Growing up in Thailand, Suchada remembers that the family grew many of their own vegetables. That meant every dish came together with the freshest possible ingredients.
While she doesn’t grow her own ingredients for the restaurant, freshness still underpins the flavor of every dish at Teton Thai.
“My restaurant is small, and everything is like fresh,” Suchada said. “So, we make it like day by day.”
Suchado estimates Teton Thai makes between 500 to 800 dumplings a day.
“It’s everyone’s favorite,” she said.
This high demand helps keep everything fresh, Suchada said, as ingredients are basically getting used up every day.
Ingredients are sourced locally when possible, but most of the Thai-specific items — sauces and pastes, lemongrass and other Thai herbs — are shipped from Los Angeles, where there is a large Thai community.
Coming To America
Suchada, in fact, once lived in Pasadena and then Los Angeles when she and her mother first immigrated to America.
Suchada was about 20 at the time.
She and her mother decided they should start a restaurant, and settled on Jackson, Wyoming as their new home because of the resort in nearby Teton Village. Not long after, Suchada met her husband Samuel, and they built their own restaurant together.
Their food was soon winning local awards, and its high-quality quickly attracted interest from a new development in Teton Village, earning them an invitation to open a new restaurant there.
“It was all our own money, so it’s small,” Samuel said. “Because that’s all we could afford. We’re not, you know, billionaires, right? Like we didn’t have all these billionaire friends that wanted to go in on it.”
While the restaurant may be small, in other ways the couple feels it’s quite large. It’s allowed them to make their own way in the world, meet lots of interesting people, and create great food. The two are quite happy with that.
“We love cooking, and we love to make good food, and I want to make other people have a good day,” Suchada said. “Like I just want to see people, like, happy to eat my food.”