Fascinated by Flavor

Pam George

Wit ‘Thai Guy’ Milburn fuses ethnic cuisine with spice and a whole lot of fun

In 1987, when Kamphon Milburn opened Jeenwong Thai Cuisine in Booths Corner Farmers Market, most area diners were unfamiliar with her home country’s cuisine. As a result, she also offered Chinese dishes.

Fast forward to 2019. Kamphon, Milburn’s restaurant, now located in the Riverfront Market in Wilmington, is on the cutting edge. Southeast Asian flavors, including Thai, continually rank among food writers’ top trends.

Now the next generation is making its mark. Today, Kamphon’s son, Norrawit “Wit” Milburn, has a restaurant in Booths Corner Farmers Market. He also owns a popular food truck, and he manages Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar, the full-service restaurant that his parents, Kamphon and Norris “Buddy” Milburn, opened on the Riverfront.

As if that isn’t enough, Wit Milburn is a founder of Rolling Revolution, an association for mobile and food truck vendors. “Wit has been an instrumental player over the years in ‘moving’ the food truck movement forward in Delaware,” says Greg Vogeley, owner of Drip Café, who had a food truck called the Brunch Box. “He has a charismatic personality, and he’s always willing to help someone out when needed.”

Milburn’s wife and partner, Jody, would agree. “He always puts other people first,” she says. “He’s such a caring person.”

Quick to smile, Milburn maintains his affability despite having a lot on his plate. “He’s a perfectionist and proud—rightly so—of his product,” says family friend Rick Betz, owner of Fat Rick’s BBQ Catering. 

Delaware’s Thai Guy

The self-professed “Thai Guy” was born in Cleveland but raised in North Wilmington. His parents met in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, where Buddy was stationed with the Air Force. They wed in 1975. In addition to Wit, they had another son, Narrinchai—“Chai” for short. Following his discharge, Buddy, a Delaware native, worked for DuPont, first in plant manufacturing and then corporate human resources.

Milburn was just 8 when, like his brother, he started helping his mother at the Booths Corner restaurant, which was open two days a week. “I bused tables and took orders,” he says. In 2000, the restaurant moved to the Riverfront Market. Milburn helped out between classes at Delaware Technical Community College, where he studied business and marketing. While working in mortgage sales for ING Direct, he continued to help his mother and also put his black belt in jujitsu to good use as a bartender/doorman at Bank Shots.

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Wilmington University in 2006, he moved to Mexico to work as a bodyguard. A year later, he was back in Delaware taking cooking lessons from his mother. His dad, meanwhile, taught him about restaurant bookkeeping.

Baptism by Fire

When Milburn’s parents decided to open Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar, they sent him to Thailand to learn from his uncle, who would be the restaurant’s chef. Unfortunately, his uncle passed away a week before the restaurant opened. The job fell to Milburn, and he hit the ground running.

Ubon, which opened in 2010, originally had about 90 seats. The kitchen did not “shy away from fiery heat,” wrote News Journal writer Patricia Talorico in 2011. “If it’s tears that you want while eating, they aren’t afraid to deliver them.” She praised the Thai Guy sticky wings.

Although Milburn was the chef, Ubon was his father’s vision. Buddy, who’d retired from DuPont the year that Ubon the restaurant opened, was a jazz enthusiast who wanted to showcase live music and upscale cuisine, Milburn says. By 2013, Milburn was itching to get out on his own. “We were on different paths,” he says.

Milburn in front of his Kapow food truck with his kimchi tacos and kapow roll. Photo Joe del Tufo / O&A File Photo

He was full of ideas. In part, credit wife Jody, whom he married in 2013. The couple met when she called on Jeenwong Thai Cuisine to sell advertising. She’d recently moved from California and was craving Southeast Asian food. “I got some food to go, and I really enjoyed it, so I kept going back for the food,” she recalls. “And he never bought any advertising!”

But on a personal level, he was sold. He invited her to the Best of Delaware party and offered to pick her up. “We became best friends for six months, and then he asked me to be his girlfriend,” she says.

The couple dreamed of opening a restaurant but lacked the funds. Jody had lived in California, where food trucks were popular. Why not start small? Demonstrating their social media savviness, they raised money for a used vehicle through a crowdfunding platform. Kapow hit the road in March 2014.

The truck’s menu offers far more than Thai dishes. Heavily influenced by Hawaiian flavors, the Milburns were among the first in the area to offer rice bowls, including the Huli-Huli bowl, a blend of teriyaki chicken, bell peppers, onions and pineapple topped with sesame seeds and cilantro. Jody is of Korean descent, and their tacos include a version with kimchi, a Korean dish with salted, fermented vegetables.

Wit handled the food while Jody worked the food truck’s window. (She also manages social media.) Kapow soon became a familiar sight at festivals. “He’s definitely a go-getter and has established a good brand and following over the years,” says Leigh Ann Tona, owner of the I Don’t Give a Fork food truck.

In the nascent days of the food truck business in Delaware, Tona and Milburn realized the benefit of strength in numbers. Milburn is a co-founder of Rolling Revolution, an association for food truck owners and mobile vendors that addresses their concerns.

Operating a food truck is not easy. Owners need a place to park it when it’s not in use, as well as a place for prep. To solve both issues, Milburn in 2015 began renting space in the Booths Corner Farmers Market for Kapow Kitchen. The farmers market restaurant not only has a commercial facility that’s up to code, but it also has an expansive parking lot. He now has a second vehicle for the Philly market, which is friendly toward food trucks.

Kapow and Kapow Kitchen feature several of the same dishes, but the eatery lets Milburn flex his culinary muscles. The greatly expanded menu includes appetizers, rice and noodle dishes, bowl and soups. 

From the Ubon menu: honey chicken with broccoli. Photo by Butch Comegys

Navigating the Ups and Downs

While opening two restaurant businesses and starting an association, the Milburns experienced significant life changes. In April 2017, Milburn’s brother, Chai, died of colon cancer at age 41. Buddy died from complications of a stroke in December 2018. But there also were joyful occasions, like the birth of Jody and Wit’s son, Joseph Chai (“J.C.”), in January 2018.

With his father’s death, Wit Milburn stepped up to manage Ubon and put his own spin on it. “I didn’t want to try to do what my dad did and not do it right,” he says.

He has freshened the décor by adding modern touches, including soothing neutral gray tones and woods. “It’s more relaxing,” he says. Over the years, the restaurant has expanded to accommodate 145 seats, including the popular patio. He plans to up that number to 155 by increasing outdoor seating. “Summer down there is fantastic,” he says of the Riverfront location.

He’s also updating Ubon’s menu, which he originally crafted using family recipes. “My food has evolved so much,” he says. “I wanted to bring what I know works. I’m about creative food and pulling together different ethnicities and come up with something awesome. There are a lot of different flavors, but it’s simple. It tastes so good.”

He’s big on spice. “If you’re coming to a Thai place, there should be a kick. It’s worked well at Kapow Kitchen.” Happy hour items at Ubon may include his food truck favorites, such as Thai sriracha tater tots with cheese and crab, sriracha Buffalo shrimp or Korean tacos.

Some longtime Ubon customers aren’t thrilled with the changes, he acknowledges. However, with 27 employees among the three businesses that he’s overseeing, it’s essential to attract new customers and keep them coming back. He’s playing with vegan options to appeal to younger audiences.

While Jody works full-time for ADP Payroll, she is still involved in the family businesses. “We work extremely well together,” she says. “Wit is such a good listener and has an open mind.”

To say the least, they’re busy. When the Milburns are not working, they emphasize family time, he says. They recently took their son to a Thai festival to experience the culture. “I want him to know about his background because it creates who you are in the future,” Wit says. “You should be proud of your heritage, especially if you have more than one.”

You can rest assured, however, that even in his downtime, Milburn is coming up with new ideas for his restaurants. “Nothing is ever perfect,” he says. “I’m always pursuing how to make something better.”

Jeenwong Thai Cuisine
3 S. Orange St., Riverfront Market
Wilmington | 655-5140

Kapow Food Truck
635-0041
kapowtruck.com

Kapow Kitchen
1362 Naamans Creek Rd.,
Booths Corner Farmers Market, Garnet Valley, PA
484-480-8442 | kapowkitchen.com

Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar
936 Justison St., Wilmington
656-1706 | ubonthaicuisine.com

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