Having ordered carryout twice from NAYA in the last two weeks (it's so good), I was curious to learn more about the chef behind all these delicious menu items: bucatini alla carbonara, bulgogi cream pasta, proscuitto di parma and arugula pizza, bulgogi mushroom risotto, honey butter french fries, and garlic bread. This past week, I spoke with NAYA's chef Thad Morrow about what got him into cooking, what makes NAYA's pasta special, and he offers some tips for carryout. 


A nighttime exterior shot of NAYA's Green and Third Street location. There is a lit streetlamp and one pedestrian. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Smile Politely: Hello! Can you introduce yourself and what you do at NAYA?

Thad Morrow: I am Thad Morrow, Chef at NAYA restaurant in Champaign, Illinois.

SP: You've been a chef a long time. What started your journey with cooking?

Morrow: I started cooking at a young age probably around 10 or 11. Mostly helping my mom and grandmothers around the kitchen. I really started to get into cooking from cookbooks and magazines when I was in high school.

Instead of taking my high school girlfriend out for dinner on special occasions, I would cook for her using recipes from Bon Appetit. I may have been the only student in my high school to have a subscription to Bon Appetit. Then during college, I worked at a French bistro called Le Petit Cafe and started taking wine classes. That is when it really set in that I loved food and wine.

A portion of rigatoni pasta tossed in a bolognese sauce with grated parmesan and chopped herbs on top sits in a gray circular bowl on a wooden table. Photo by Jessica Hammie.Photo by Jessica Hammie.

SP: What's your favorite food to cook? 

Morrow: Obviously I love Italian food, but I really love all types of food. French, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Mexican. I love exploring regional cooking. Food is so diverse in different regions that one could spend a lifetime just exploring regional Chinese food, for example. 

My favorite food to cook is a simple roast chicken with potatoes and buttered peas or asparagus.

SP: Do you prefer wine or cocktails?

Morrow: I'll never turn down a gin and tonic. But wine is my love! I took my first wine class over 20 years ago and haven't stopped learning or drinking wine since. It is a magical beverage.

It has allowed me to travel all over the world — both literally and by reading about it in my apartment. And most importantly, it has brought me together with some of the best people and friends a guy could ever have. I am a very lucky and fortunate guy.

Three pizza pies on circular metal trays are arranged in a triangle on a wooden table. The leftmost pizza is a smoked burrata and mushroom. The pizza at the top is a pepperoni. The third pizza is a NAYA supreme pizza which has sausage, pepperoni, banana peppers, mushrooms, olives, shredded mozzarella and provolone with a fried egg on top. There is a glass of water on a menu, a black napkin holding silverware, and two rose gold salt and pepper shakers on a wooden table. Photo by Anna Longworth.Photo by Anna Longworth. 

SP: What's your favorite dish on the NAYA menu?

Morrow: I don't think I can pick a favorite. But I do love the black truffle pizza.

SP: Things have changed so much in the last few weeks. How have you and your team been affected since the Governor's mandated closure of restaurant dining in?

Morrow: Unfortunately, we had to lay off the majority of the team. It is just myself and the sous chef left in the kitchen. But we are hopeful to bring everyone back on staff in the future.

SP: What has changed in your restaurant and your job since the closure?

Morrow: Like many other restaurants, we are trying to pivot to curbside and delivery service. We have had to scale back our menu as many of the items we served were imported from Italy which has also been severely impacted. Also, certain items on the menu do not translate well to delivery, so we are adding new items such as Napolitano style pizza.   

SP: What has remained the same at NAYA?

Morrow: Our commitment to bringing delicious food and wine to the Champaign area.

A pasta dish in a circle plate is centered in the image. The pasta is rigatoni noodles with a light sauce. A small red sign reading  Photo from Naya's Facebook page. 

SP: Can you talk a bit about your Grab and Go dinner kits? They look delicious.

Morrow: Thank you. I worked for a few years in NYC for a pioneering company in the meal kit delivery service. I am drawing on that experience to bring simple, easy prep meals to the community. We hope to continue to develop and expand our options. I see it as a fusion of restaurant dining and home cooking.

SP: That's awesome. Can you talk a bit about the adult beverage options for carryout?

Morrow: We have a fantastic selection of wine, beer and spirits. Many of which you cannot buy retail. We are offering all of these at discounted pricing.

SP: We are all looking for something good to order for carryout and eat at home. What are your recommendations for dishes on the menu that are good for carryout?

Morrow: I'd have to say our pizza and also the Grab and Go pasta kits. We supply the sauce and amazing pasta from Azienda Agricola Mancini. You cook the pasta, warm the sauce, and toss the pasta with the sauce. Cooking the pasta at home creates a much better experience. Just remember to cook the pasta in plenty of water that is salty like the ocean. And reserve a little of the pasta water to mix with the sauce if needed.

SP: I'm not familiar with Azienda Agricola Mancini. Can you talk a bit more about why you get pasta from Azienda Agricola Mancini?

Morrow: I think there is a common misconception that fresh pasta is superior to dried pasta in the States. But the type of pasta used really depends on the application. Using a super high quality pasta such as Mancini delivers amazing flavor our pasta dishes. Our pasta is simply dressed (condimento) with the sauce. The sauce needs to complement the pasta — not overwhelm it and be covered in sauce. We love Mancini because the flavor of the wheat really comes through.

A plastic Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: Great tips! Do you have any tips for ordering carryout to go?

Morrow: It may sound strange, but I prefer to cook the protein at home if possible. Something like steak. It allows the guest to practice their cooking skills and fills the kitchen with beautiful aromas. 

SP: What about one-time use carryout products? Should customers let you know if they do not need silverware or napkins?

Morrow: Yes, it seems small, but these little expenses really add up for a small independent restaurant. Plus less plastic is always good for the earth.

On a white circle plate, there is a toasted piece of garlic bread with grated Parmesan covering all but the edges. In the middle of the plate, there is a bulgogi mushroom risotto. On the left in the background is a bottle of beaujolais, a glass of red wine, and an open pizza box with proscuitto di parma with arugula on top. Photo by Alyssa Buckley. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: Should customers pay by cash or credit?

Morrow: Either.

SP: Lastly, how can loyal NAYA fans help in this time?

Morrow: If you have the ability, buy some wine from us.

SP: Thank you, Thad for your time!


NAYA
212 E Green St
Champaign
T-Sa 5 to 10 p.m.

Top image from Blue Apron.