One of Philadelphia’s top chefs met her future husband on a plane. Then they traveled the world together

Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon still remembers the moment she first saw Ziv Katalan in vivid detail.

It was September 2006 on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to New York City. A Business Class flight attendant, Suntaranon was roaming the cabin and greeting guests as they settled into their seats.

When Katalan, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, stepped onboard, she noticed him right away.

And as that flight to New York took off, so too did their story. Those 18 hours in the air would lead to a globe-trotting romance with glamorous rendezvous around the world and nearly two decades full of adventures together.

A chance meeting in the sky

As one of Philadelphia’s top chefs, Suntaranon has earned abundant praise for her bright, spicy Southern Thailand food at Kalaya Thai Kitchen.

But before she found her calling in the culinary world, she worked as a business and first class cabin flight attendant for two decades.

On the day she met Katalan, Suntaranon was initially scheduled to work on a route from Bangkok to Rome, but Thai Airways reassigned her to New York at the last minute.

And as it so happened, the business class cabin was nearly empty, so she had more time than usual to chat with passengers.

“I always like to talk to people and take care of them, so I offered him red wine and made him two or three cups of espresso,” she says.

“I spent some time talking with Ziv and the passenger in front of him – a really funny guy. I wasn’t flirting, just being friendly and doing my job.”

As the flight neared its destination, the passenger told Suntaranon she should be Thailand’s “Next Top Model,” then turned to Katalan and quipped, “If you don’t ask her out, I will,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was really cute.”

Katalan didn’t let the opening slip away.

“Nok stood out with her personality, charm and beauty – I do a lot of air miles, and I have never encountered anyone at 36,000 feet with Nok’s personality,” says Katalan of first impressions.

Before disembarking, he offered to take her out while she was in New York.

“I told him where the crew was staying and said he could call me there,” she adds. “And he did!”

When opposites attract

After attending a work meeting in Philadelphia, Katalan returned to New York City the next day to take Suntaranon to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

As they wandered through MoMa, Suntaranon and Katalan say they felt at ease in each other’s presence despite some apparent contrasts.

Quiet and contemplative, Katalan is serious and deliberate, with a calming presence and a gift for numbers, says Suntaranon. “He’s the smartest man I have ever met.”

Suntaranon is described by Katalan as having a larger-than-life personality – warm, joyful, generous and compassionate. She can also have a short fuse, he adds.

“It’s kind of an attraction of opposites,” says Katalan. “But on a fundamental level, we have full compatibility because we cherish many of the same things in life.”

As they admired the museum’s renowned collection of modern and contemporary art, they discovered just how much they had in common – a love of art, travel, food and family.

They also found themselves in similar stages of life, having left significant previous relationships not long ago.

Katalan had separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he has a daughter, six years earlier and still maintained a close friendship.

Meanwhile, Suntaranon had divorced her husband just a few months prior and still co-owned an Italian restaurant in Bangkok with him.

“When you enter a second relationship, you don’t work on the same pathways as you do the first time,” says Katalan. “It was much easier for both of us to live in the moment and see where it led.”

Later that evening, they enjoyed a drink at the Royalton Hotel in Midtown, then continued the evening with dinner at Blue Fin, a sleek Japanese restaurant inside W New York in Times Square.

“I remember sitting and talking about my life with Ziv and just thinking how smart he was – I was really impressed with how he talked about numbers. We had so much fun and a lot of good laughs.”

Then Katalan took the train back to Philadelphia and Suntaranon returned to Thailand.

A relationship takes flight

A few months later, Katalan called Suntaranon to wish her a happy New Year. As it happened, she was scheduled to fly to New York again in February, so they planned another date.

Suntaranon felt more reluctant this time – she looked forward to spending more time with Katalan but worried it was too soon to get involved with anyone.

She set her reservations aside for the evening, excited to explore more of the city.

Katalan took her to one of his favorite restaurants, Masa, a renowned sushi bar in the Time Warner Center at the southwest corner of Central Park.

“We loved every bite of it. We talked about the restaurant scene in New York, chefs like David Bouley,” she says. “I had traveled the world, so I knew a lot of great restaurants but none in New York. So we exchanged notes and just really bonded over food and travel.”

The next day, Katalan invited Suntaranon to join him on a three-week trip around Asia and the Pacific, with stops in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

“I told Ziv, ‘I have never been with anybody that long. Three weeks is a long time,’” says Suntaranon.

“And I remember him saying, ‘Even for three hours, three days, three weeks or forever, I am happy to be with you.’”

Three weeks went by fast – a pleasant surprise for two very independent individuals.

“We spent so much time together, walking, talking and eating delicious food,” recalls Suntaranon.

“While driving on the Great Ocean Road, there was no GPS, only a map. I was doing the navigation… unsuccessfully. But Ziv was so calm. He didn’t get mad – he was so easy to be with.”

She also saw his nurturing side when Katalan tended to her injuries after a cycling accident in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Suntaranon realized during that trip that he had everything she was looking for.

“He’s warm, genuine and super direct. He’s very smart, kind, and incredibly thoughtful – and sometimes he is a pain,” she laughs.

Round-the-world romance

From there, they started meeting in cities all over the globe – Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan – sometimes just for an hour at the airport during a layover.

“One time, Ziv was on his way back from Ireland with transit through London, and I got called to London, so we met there for just one night,” says Suntaranon with a smile.

It took a lot of dedication and coordination.

“That’s how we maintained a global relationship for 1.5 years. We made it work. Even 24 hours in Paris or London, we made it work,” she adds.

But soon, things grew even more complicated.

In 2008, Thai Airways stopped flying to New York, so Suntaranon had to get a tourist visa – which required hours at immigration upon arrival at US airports – whenever she wanted to visit Katalan.

“So Ziv said, ‘Well OK, then we need to get married so you can have a green card,’” explains Suntaranon. “We are both adults, so it was realistic and sensible. But there was a lot of love behind it.”

Katalan says it may have been a practical decision but also a way to buy more time with her.

“It was romantic but pragmatic at the same time. I wanted something that would enable us to keep this going as long as we both wanted – the longest runway possible.”

Evolving in Philadelphia

On August 8, 2008, the couple married at SALA Phuket, a Thai beach where they invited friends and family to celebrate with them at a pool villa for 10 days.

Afterward, the newlyweds maintained their long-distance relationship while Suntaranon continued to work as a flight attendant and run her restaurant.

She left her airline job in 2009 and, a year later, closed the restaurant and moved to Philadelphia. With nothing to do in her new US home, she spent her days shopping for ingredients, cooking and giving out food to her neighbors.

The following year, she enrolled at what was then the Institute of Culinary Education (later the French Culinary Institute New York) and felt like she had found her calling.

“Every day was like a dream to me – just cooking and eating in different restaurants in New York – and I also had my internship at Jean-Georges (a two-Michelin-starred French restaurant in New York),” she shares, pausing to lovingly scold Titi, her mini pomeranian, for chewing on a shoe box.

“Ziv was the person who told me that I am a very talented cook – I never thought of myself as a great cook, but he believed in me.”

After culinary school, Sutaranon moved to France for a short-lived internship (“I got kicked out because I screamed at the chef for being drunk and abusive,” she explains) and then returned to Philadelphia, where she launched a catering company in 2015.

As the business expanded, she found a larger commercial space in the charming Bella Vista neighborhood, which she would use to open her restaurant, Kalaya Thai Kitchen, in 2019.

Suntaranon’s soulful, authentic southern Thai food and warm hospitality have earned her restaurant glowing reviews and industry recognition, including the James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in June.

Building on her success, Suntaranon recently relocated to a larger, more modern space where 14-foot-tall palm trees and contemporary Thai artwork offer tasteful nods to Southeast Asia.

“Nok always has a vision – always has 20 different things in the making. She’s just an unbelievable entrepreneur, the most impressive person with leadership skills and the ability to touch people’s lives,” Katalan adds.

Named after the chef’s mother, Kalaya showcases the complexity and vibrancy of the food Suntaranon grew up eating in Trang, a small city southeast of Krabi in southern Thailand.

“I grew up very poor. I am who I am because my family sacrificed so much of their lives for me, and my mother is the inspiration for everything I do,” Suntaranon shares.

“She’s tough. She’s a hard worker. She’s super smart and super caring. I wanted to name the restaurant after her, so we can talk about how amazing she is every day.”

Some things never change

After 15 years of marriage and making it work between two demanding schedules, the jet-setting couple say they have always prioritized travel together.

Suntaranon and Katalan have visited Paris and Tel Aviv, Morocco, Italy, Spain and Kenya – often combining work and play.

These days, Suntaranon is kept busy at her new restaurant location. At the same time, Katalan continues to travel extensively for work, bouncing from the Baltic to India, from Thailand to Colombia, to implement new Wharton programs around the globe.

They can’t travel together quite as often as they used to, but that makes each trip all the more meaningful, Suntaranon says.

“I don’t take travel for granted anymore. Now, it’s really significant – and getting older, slowing down, and our perspective is deeper,” she reflects.

“Our travel patterns and conversations have changed, but our bond is strong. We are still the same – restaurants, museums and markets are still part of the plan.”

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