Chef Nooror Somany Steppé is petite, attractive and vibrant. She grew up in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province, has a shy manner and says she finds it difficult to sing her own praises: she explains that it’s part of Thai culture to be modest. But don’t let that quiet manner fool you – Chef Nooror is the founder of a successful international chain of Thai and Indian restaurants.
The Blue Elephant did not first see the light of day in Thailand but in Northern Europe. Nooror says “I went to Belgium while my brother was there, to study French and to learn French cooking.” Between her culinary and linguistic lessons she found time to meet and marry Karl Steppé who was an antiques dealer in Belgium. “I knew that I wanted a career in food, because of our family business. I had started pounding curry paste when I was 9 years old. My Mum and my sister cooked a lot and used to send rice and curry to the market; and Mum used to make Massaman curry paste for friends’ weddings and celebrations, and I remember helping to make those pastes.”
Chef Nooror didn’t at first anticipate that cooking in Europe would become such a big part of her life. She could very easily have become a designer as that was one of her first loves. “I used to cook for our friends and they said it was so good that I should do it professionally. Almost as a hobby, we set up a small business in Brussels. I didn’t expect the enterprise to become as big as it is now, but Thai food has increased in popularity over the last couple of decades.”
All the restaurants in the Blue Elephant Group are beautiful. There are two Indian restaurants in their portfolio – one in Brussels and the other in London, and both called La Porte des Indes. The London branch has an award-winning chef, Mehernosh Mody, and remarkable décor featuring a sweeping terracotta staircase and a waterfall. It’s considered by many to be the most attractive Indian restaurant in London.
The Blue Elephant Thai restaurant in London has just moved from Fuham to Imperial Wharf. I asked Nooror if she felt that a move, after being so long established at its original location, had impacted the restaurant. “The move of Blue Elephant from Fulham to Imperial Wharf was important for us. The location is much more beautiful now, on the river, like in Bangkok, and I think the area is much more charming.”
The Blue Elephant at Imperial Wharf is to Thai food what La Porte des Indes is to Indian food. It’s modelled on a traditional Thai house of dark wood, carvings, flowers and statues. The lower ground floor Dragon Bar dominates the space and is a vision of shimmering gold in the evenings. Everything here is in impeccable taste. “I give credit to my husband for the concept and design of the restaurant – he loved Thailand and tried to make ‘the best of Thailand outside Thailand’. There will soon be a cooking school (opening in September) on the 1st floor. The restaurant chefs will run mini-classes that will teach people how to make curry pastes, desserts, salads, and how to carve fruit.”
Had Nooror found it difficult to start a Thai restaurant in Europe all those years ago, when hardly any of us had eaten Thai food and few people had visited the country? “Thirty years ago we had to arrange the import of Thai ingredients directly from Thailand to Brussels. Now exports of Thai produce are very important to the Thai economy. The increase in the number of Thai restaurants outside Thailand really helps the farmers. Things like lemongrass, galangal used to stay in the ground, but now they are exported.”
Even after living outside Thailand for many years Chef Nooror does all she can to support her homeland. She is still a proud Thai who wants to help and promote her country and its people as much as possible. Nooror has restaurants and cooking schools which employ locals but she also has her range of sauces and pastes, produced in Thailand from local ingredients supplied by local farmers. “I send my curry pastes to 26 countries and they earn 15 million baht for the economy. I am developing stir-fry – a lot of people don’t want to eat curry made with coconut milk, due to health concerns, so this month we are launching sauces for stir-fry. Our customers want fast and healthy dishes. Next year we are looking at ready-cooked products to which one just adds meat. I never stop creating – I just love cooking!”
Although the Blue Elephant Group is a well-respected international company it’s still very much a family-centred business. Nooror and Karl have three children and two of them are already working for Blue Elephant in Thailand. Their son is in charge of the new Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school in Phuket, while daughter Sandra heads the Bangkok operation. “I hope that one day my daughter will take my place – she’s better at the PR than me, she’s more extrovert, where I am shy.” Karl is in control of the finances, but takes over the cooking when they are both at home, and is said to cook ‘delicious’ steaks for his wife.
It’s evident that Nooror is a long way from retirement. She is a youthful dynamo of professional energy. How does she envisage her future? “I want to continue to evolve the business, I’ll train my staff, and I’ll develop my products. I work with the Thai government to produce TV shows, and I teach a lot of chefs – I don’t hide my recipes, I share what I know.” Nooror says that she is often approached by people who want to open their own Thai restaurants: they want advice and Nooror is always happy to encourage those who will promote Thai food across the globe.
“My life’s so busy! I think I’m a lucky person – there are a lot of chefs better than me, but I have had good luck.” But she is indeed talented and is now at the helm of a fleet of restaurants that have drawn the benchmark to which others aspire. Chef Nooror Somany Steppé would never be so bold as to describe herself as Thailand’s Culinary Ambassador, but she truly is that …and a very modest one.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018