Blue Elephant is one of Thailand’s most famous restaurants. In the last 30 years it has become well known all across the world. Kim Steppe, one of the family members behind Phuket’s prestigious restaurant of royal Thai cuisine, told RL-Phuket all about his own background and the restaurant’s history.
The punk black sheep of the family
I grew up in Brussels, as a teenager I was a bit of a black sheep in my family. Maybe because I was into punk rock and reggae, I loved NOFX, Pennywise, Sex Pistols. I was into skateboarding and snowboarding. At the same time, other members of my family were into theatre, arts. Generally one part of my family was more bohemian and another was more into business and I was just in the middle.
Actually I won a snowboarding competition when I was 14 or 15 and I was even sponsored for 2 years by Rossignol (a sport brand). I mean they gave me free equipment. I dyed my hair every single color you can imagine. I had piercings, played guitar. At a certain point I went to study in Buffalo, New York. At the age of 16, the headmaster of my International school said to my parents: “You know, your son is a great kid but there’s one thing that he lacks and that is discipline.” So my parents sent me to a school in the middle of nowhere, not far from Niagara Falls. There were 147 students. The school had a military style structure. I was always in a suit and tie, my shoes had to be polished, hair not longer than my eyebrows. Actually, when I got out of that school I felt like I was out of prison. After I came back from the US I went to a British International school in Brussels and I did a special business orientated program. When I was out of the school I said to my father that I didn’t want to continue to study, I had a different opinion about life. I told him that I wanted to work and learn from a real life experience. He got me on that one. He took me to the front door and said “You want to learn about real life? Go out and get a job.”
My first job was with Nespresso, I was 18 and my job was to arrange all the coffees. By that time I already spoke several languages and it was easy for me to communicate with people. My real first stable job was selling shoes. At nights I helped my mom in our Indian restaurant. Then I had a third job as a bartender in the first hip-hop bar in Brussels. It was really cool, there were two DJ booths and the two DJ’s had battles at night. Very quickly, I was promoted and became a bar manager. I remember the owner came to me and said: “I have to fire you. You break too many bottles.” because I liked to throw the bottles. If someone asked me if I could pass a Bacardi I took a bottle and just threw it to them. One day my father came down to the bar for drinks and asked me to come for breakfast at the Blue Elephant the next day. During that breakfast he said: “We are going to launch a new restaurant, I want you to join the company because it’s better to make money for your own family instead of doing it for somebody else.” It was a very good argument so I jumped into the project and went to London.
My mother is Thai and my dad is Belgian. My uncle was studying in Brussels when he became friends with my father, who in the 70’s had started getting into Asian art and antiques. My uncle organized a trip to Thailand for my father, to show him the country, and that’s where my father met my mother. They actually got married in secret. My grandfather was really angry and didn’t talk to my mother for two years because he didn’t approve of the marriage. My grandparents in Europe had the same issue. Recently they celebrated their 40th anniversary of their marriage.
I helped my parents on weekends as a kid. Once my father made an arrangement with the staff that I should get something and so he agreed with the staff that I would keep any tip I received. I remember when I would give the coats, I’d stand there with my hand, making a big smile like I’m waiting for my tip. I collected a crazy amount of tips and got on the nerves of the staff. One customer gave me five hundred Belgian franks. For one frank I could buy four candies.
Starting from a small restaurant
Blue Elephant started in 1980, that’s the year I was born. It started as a small restaurant in Brussels. They moved up from 40 seats to 120 seats in 6 months time because the restaurant was always full. At that time Asian food, like Thai food, had connotations of Chinese, Laosan, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. It was never perceived as one cuisine, it was mostly viewed as Chinese food. So what my parents did was very different. They made a Thai restaurant which was only Thai. The biggest investment was first in the kitchen. Chinese food in the 80’s had an image of being cheap and dirty. So the first thing that my father and mother wanted to do was invest a lot in the kitchen. It was Thai but on a European model of what a kitchen should be. They were so proud of the kitchen that they invited every customer to see it.
My grandmother was an antique dealer and my father actually followed in her footsteps. She specialized in European antiques but my father decided to specify more in Asian antiques. That’s how he got a very big collection of Siamese antiques, which he placed in their restaurant as if it was an art gallery. That made the restaurant quite different from other restaurants. My parents decided to do more research into Thai cuisine and go more into Royal Thai cuisine than into street food.
In 1984, they opened a Blue Elephant in London and then in Paris and it just moved forward. At one point they decided to relocate in Thailand. We opened a Blue Elephant in Bangkok in 2001. I was in Bangkok for the opening. At the same time we had bought a new building for a trade office. My sister mostly took care of the opening of the restaurant. I was more involved in R&D and our new trade office products that we were launching. These products are here today on our shelves and are also located in over 40 countries.
In 1989 my father opened a small trade office in Thailand because one of the issues was that we wanted to get fresh foods. With our trade office we were able to supply our restaurants with products directly flown in by airplane. For instance, instead of having a product grown in a container, we would have a nice mango which was collected that day and had a completely different smell and taste.
Why Blue Elephant?
The old Siamese flag was red with a white elephant in it. When the Kingdom of Siam became the Kingdom of Thailand, they added the blue color which represents the Monarchy. The elephant was taken out but my father decided that would be a good combination – blue elephant. It’s something associated with Siamese artifacts and old Thai cuisine traditions as well. That’s how Blue Elephant was born and it quickly moved forward.
Hosting the Russian President
We had a restaurant in Moscow and it was very famous and popular. Actually we hosted Russian president Putin twice in Bangkok. It was because of the restaurant in Moscow, they say it was his wife’s favorite restaurant. But what happened was that the lease was over. Now we’re just at the beginning of discussions about reopening Blue Elephant in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Actually all of our restaurants are franchises. Some of them are owned by the Blue Elephant Group and some of them are pure franchises and now we’re looking for a pure franchise to open in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Why? Because it’s a different market. We prefer to have a strategic partner than going in by ourselves and opening a restaurant there.
…and a Russian Minister as well
We have a lot of land here in Phuket, it’s true. But we don’t want to develop because it’s one of our biggest assets. We do a lot of venues. If I’m not mistaken we had the Russian minister of finance celebrating his birthday in December. There were 30 people, of course they booked the whole restaurant, they had dinner and a party outside and there was even a Russian boy-band from the 90’s. Unfortunately, I don’t recall their name.
The Secret of success in Thailand
Phuket remains my baby. I opened this restaurant six years ago. It was very tough. Blue Elephant in Phuket was our first restaurant not located in a capital. Also, we’re not located on a beach. This is Phuket Town, it’s a different environment. People come to Phuket for the beaches, white sand, сoconuts, so that was really challenging. Also, we are a Thai restaurant. How do you succeed with Thai restaurants within Thailand? So my first target customers were Thai people. In order to succeed in Thailand you have to win the hearts of Thai people.
Thai food vs. Royal Thai food
A lot of people have a misconception of Thai food. They believe Thai food has to be spicy. And by spicy I mean hot, chili hot, which is totally wrong. The chili was brought in by the Portuguese. In the past, Thai people didn’t eat hot chili. So Royal Thai cuisine is not chili hot. It does have a lot of flavors, a lot of spices, but it’s not based on chili. The reason street food has so much chili is because first of all, chili is a bit of a drug. If somebody is used to eating chili and doesn’t have chili for 2-3 days, they get angry. The second reason is that it kills bacteria and third is that it helps to cool down the body. Your body starts to sweat out the heat. Sweat is a way of cooling down the body.
The Famous mansion in Phuket
There was no marketing strategy behind Phuket. As I told you, my father was an antique dealer and he fell in love with this mansion. This building was abandoned for over 40 years but my father knew the owner. It took 9 years before it actually happened. The mansion was in terrible condition when we started, it took us two years just to renovate it. The Thai Fine Art department doesn’t usually do works for private companies, they do jobs to renovate Temples. We’ve preserved and maintained as much as we could from what was left from the building. You can see the original Italian tiles on the floor. Thanks to the Thai Fine Art department, we were able to discover where they were made and we even found a family business that still produces these tiles and we were able to reproduce them.
Being a weird employer
I am probably a very weird employer because I don’t place that much importance on CV’s. I place a lot of importance on the conversation in the interview. I care about personality because that is something that you can’t change. You can work and you can train someone but you can’t work on the personality of a person. Usually, they come in scared and at the start of the interview, they feel confused. One of the questions that I like to ask is ‘What is the definition of trust?’ What does trust mean to them? It’s funny because most of them start off by saying trust is about money. Another thing I ask them about is what their friends would say about them if they had to complain, not about work, but as a person, what would they say? Do you get angry? Are you always late? So generally I ask them very personal questions. It helps me a lot to find the proper person to hire. If the person passes the second interview, it means he’s got the right personality for us. In the last 6 years I rejected maybe 4-5 people after their trial period.
It’s not easy to piss me off. But when I do get angry, I just explode, though usually I know how to control myself. I’ll take a 10 minute walk, cool down and then come back to my senses and talk.