WHEN Blue Elephant opens in Hong Kong’s Harbor City mall near Nathan Road and the Star Ferry Terminal in Kowloon later this year, it will be the 11th outlet.
The Royal Thai cuisine chain, founded by husband and wife team – Mr Sandra Steppe and Mrs Nooror Somany Steppe – is the result of a romantic journey that began 40 years ago.
“I first came to Thailand in 1972 when I was a young man of 27,” Sandra recalls.
“I was able to come often as my brother was working for an airline and I could travel and bunk with him.”
In 1976 he met by chance Nooror while on an errand for his brother and the chanced encounter turned into love.
“Her family did not approve of me being a foreigner. They were not pleased and did not talk to her for more than a year,” Sandra said.
They eloped and lived in Brussels where in 1977 their first child was born.
“When her parents saw the grandchild, a girl, everything was fine again,” he added.
“Nooror was a top student. Her parents blamed me for disrupting her studies and her goal of becoming a doctor.”
But fate, or as cupid would have it, brings opportunities that would otherwise not have happened.
Now, what could be better than being a doctor?
You probably guessed it, a celebrity chef with a global following and authoring cookbooks as well as having some of the world’s who’s who as your ardent customers.
“We were living in Brussels when Nooror had the idea of opening a Thai restaurant. She asked if I would be a partner, you know: a silent one.”
That became the first Blue Elephant that opened in 1980.
Today, Nooror still calls the shots. But Sandra plays a big part in the operations which includes not only five-star restaurants and a cooking school but also merchandising Thai food products they market worldwide.
Their second child Kim is now general manager of the Bangkok outlet. It is housed in one of Sathorn Road’s last surviving historic mansions. Called Thai Chine Building it possesses spacious grounds, over three floors, with a driveway.
The yellow structure is located just a few steps from the Surasak BTS Skytrain Station.
The Hong Kong project in Kowloon is a franchisee arrangement where the investor uses their name and products to champion their menu to the people of the territory and the millions of tourists who go to Hong Kong each year.
The 500-square-meter property in Harbor City, which can be accessed from the Star Ferry, is indoors during rainy days or during bouts of foul weather.
It will seat 150 people, double that of the Bangkok restaurant that has 70 seats.
“We do about 150 seats per day in Bangkok with a lunch crowd and fine dining in the evenings.”
Blue Elephant today has outlets in London, Paris, Dubai, Bahrain, Copenhagen, Lyon, Malta and Phuket.
“In our expansion we were lucky to have Mr Thaviseuth Phouthavoing to help us in the financial aspects.
The Laotian vice-president looks after the company’s overseas business including the Hong Kong venture.
A lot of hard work and dedication went in to building its success and reputation. It was not, as you may suspect, easy.
They had not just to get guests in during the early years. They had to educate customers about what the Thai kitchen was about.
The literature on Thai food was relatively sparse and its unique tastes still relatively unknown. For many it was just fried rice and phad Thai.
“When we opened in London in the mid-80s, there were only 50 Thai restaurants in the UK,’ said Thavisauth. “Today there are thousands.
“Some English pubs even have phad Thai,” he laughed.
“The most difficult thing in those years was actually getting Thais to patronize our restaurant.
“In those days they tended to favor other cuisines,” Sandra said.
Then in the Nineties, when Thai food took off, they started to come, wanting to be part of “talk of the town” places where the cool people go.
Even with increased competition, Blue Elephant continued to grow in strength.
Even now, there are just a handful of truly great Thai kitchens that has survived 36 years of unmatched excellence.
Nooror recently opted for greater use of natural herbs and plants with medicinal properties to enhance the value of the dishes.
The restaurant also courageously employs fusion dishes such as foie gras as well as mixing a range of regional styles. As a starter the “Kanonda Foie Gras” is mandatory. Stir fried or seared, the foie gras is topped with organic Kanonda sauce served with pink pomelo salad.
Nooror says eating nutritious herbs and ingredients is healthy as they have medicinal qualities.
For a main course, the “Riceberry Vermicelli with Green Beef” tastes amazing and “Grilled River Prawn” is also outstanding.
For vegetarian diners, there is a great selection on its special menu exclusively for non-meat eaters.
TOP: Blue Elephant outlet in Bangkok is housed in the historic Thai Chine Building on Sathorn Road
INSET: A delicious and healthy Thai salad with a namphrik or chili paste.
BELOW: Nooror still calls the shots at Blue Elephant.
FURTHER DOWN: Sandra Steppe plays a big part in the well-known restaurant chain’s operations.
By Cimi Suchontan