Five dynamic women talk about how passion, perseverance, and self-belief have been the secrets of their success
The hotel and restaurant industry in Thailand has seen some daring and dynamic women, who have been creative, active, and extremely successful—not just in expanding their own brands, but also pioneering new trends in the hospitality fields. To maintain these high standards, they have started hotels, restaurants, and even cooking schools. More importantly, their progeny is now carrying on the names, and the brands, forward and into the future. What’s more, all of the women profiled declared that they did not feel “deterred” being a woman. Having “self-belief” seems to be all that truly matters.
Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui
As founder of the magnificent, multi-brand Dusit Thani hotels, Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui is top of the list when it comes to the ‘Grand Dames’ of Bangkok, as she has so many “firsts” to her name. In 1929, she was the first woman to open a hotel in Bangkok—The Princess—and a modern one too, complete with a swimming pool. She later went on to open the city’s first luxury hotel, the Dusit Thani, and in a pioneering move, registered it on the stock exchange. She also started the first signature spa in the city—the Devarana—and she is also responsible for launching the first school for hospitality education.
During her nearly eight-decade tenure, Dusit hotels sprang up all over Thailand, and this dynamic woman even launched the first overseas property of the hotel chain. Today, the Dusit Hotels have as many as 29 properties, with 45 more projects coming up in the future. One of her ardent supporters throughout was HRH Princess Galyani, who “opened” all the Dusit hotels—up until 1997—starting with the The Princess, which was named after her.
Amazingly, all this success came with no formal hotel training or education, but just pure “hands on” experience, according to her son Chanin Donavanik, who took over the hotel chain when Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui officially retired in 2004. “Her aim always was to develop Thailand as a world-class tourist destination,” her son stated.
Chanin admits that no one could match his mother’s “can-do attitude and incredible work ethic”, which were inspirational to him and the entire staff of the hotel chain. After he retired, his son Siradej Donavanik took over the reins of the family business and is now the Director of Development for the hotel chain, which recently started Thai cooking classes at select properties, both in Thailand, and overseas.
The multi-faceted, and multi-talented, hotelier Kamala Sukosol is also well-known in Bangkok’s society circles as an accomplished jazz-singer and dedicated charity-organizer. She did her Master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia, in New York, but knew nothing about hotels when her businessman-father threw her into the fray. She bought some land in Pattaya and launched two hotels—the Siam Bay Shore and the Siam Bay View. Thanks in part to the efficient staff, the two hotels did exceedingly well.
Kamala then opened the Siam City Hotel (now the Sukosol Hotel) in Bangkok in 1990. At first its location was remote, but today with the sky-train and airport rail-link at its doorstep, the hotel attracts both the business and tourist markets. This widely-travelled hotelier speaks French, Spanish, some Italian, and has also done a Russian Studies course—and her international “vision” has truly helped to develop the international image of her hotel chain.
Kamala is particularly proud of the family’s two most recently opened hotels. The stunning Siam, located by the riverfront, is currently rated as the most expensive hotel in town and has attracted many Hollywood celebrities and assorted VIPs. Meanwhile, the Wave Hotel, in Pattaya, is the newest in the fleet and has been designed like a Miami-style property. Both properties are managed by her two sons, Krissada and Suki respectively.
But the girls are also in on the family business, and Kamala’s daughter Marisa is Operations Manager of their five properties, while second daughter Darunee, who formerly worked on Wall Street, manages the finances.
“My family handles the hotel business totally,” Kamala says with pride, adding that the latest family member to suggest “ideas” for her hotels is her recently graduated grandson Dino. “One has to be open minded,” she states, “and one also has to be very passionate and tenacious!”
Alongside her hotel success, Kamala has also found fame in the music business—as a jazz singer—and her yearly charity concert, where her entire family and staff participate, is one of the premiere social events in the city. Her jazz-prowess even brought Kamala into close contact with the late King of Thailand, a jazz-lover, of whom she has “unforgettable memories.”
Like her super-hit CD Live and Learn, this 80-year-old dynamo admits that she has never stopped “learning”.
Nooror Somany Steppe
“Every visit to my restaurant is a trip to Thailand,” exclaims the culinary queen. What’s more, this superb chef not only preserves the classic Thai recipes, but has creatively added to them, contributing to a new dimension in Thai cuisine.
But before all the notoriety, Nooror was just a young woman who went to Brussels to visit her brother. That’s where she met Karl Steppe—her future husband—who loved both her and her Thai food and encouraged her to start a Thai restaurant there in 1980. The rest is history, and today, the Blue Elephant chain has outlets in 10 countries, spread out across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (where they will soon open in Hong Kong).
Her restaurant in Bangkok is in a gorgeous heritage building, which adds to the grandeur of the restaurant experience, and the long list of celebrity diners she’s entertained ranges from Russian President Putin to pop singer Rod Stewart.
Nooror feels “blessed” that her three children have joined the business. Brussels-based son Kim manages the restaurant there, Phuket-based son Chris handles that outlet (which like the Bangkok location also has a cooking school), and daughter Sandra is the PR and Marketing Manager who also does double duty as chef in the cooking schools.
Never content to rest on her laurels, Nooror is happy there are numerous Thai restaurants today, compared to when she started nearly three decades back. “Competition is good, so that we maintain our high brand”, she states with pride.
Best-known for her more than two dozen Thai cookbooks—10 of which have been translated into English and 2 into Chinese—Srisamorn Kongpun is also a teacher to many of the top chefs in the city, including Blue Elephant’s Nooror Somany Steppe. She has advised hotels, restaurants, airlines, corporate companies, even the Royal Women Skills in the Royal Palace. Currently she’s a member of the Evaluation Board for Standard Thai Cooks (EBSTC), which tests Thai cooks all around the world. But this enterprising ajarn and food-guru admits she would now like to write simple cookbooks for students.
“Some students do not know their own local food, but eat Western or applied Thai food,” she laments. “So my project, for the future, is to write cookbooks on local food with simple, easy-to-follow recipes.”
At her Yingcharoen Home Science School, Srisamorn gives regular cooking classes to students, chefs, and restaurant owners. She says the main purpose of the school is to conserve authentic Thai recipes.
“Thai food offers various tastes in one dish. Every true Thai dish also contains vegetables, many of which have medicinal values. That’s why Thai food is traditionally very healthy. Thais observing these standards rarely become obese. They are also protected from heart disease and osteoporosis. It’s because of its extraordinary taste and health benefits, that Thai cuisine has become so well-known internationally.”
For a one-woman story of grit, determination, and hard work, look no further than the tale of Vinder Balbir. Born in Malaysia, Vinder lost her parents during the riots of 1969, was married to a Thai-Indian when barely seventeen, and hurriedly shunted off to Bangkok. She started cooking lessons at home, and later opened a tiny restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 11. None of her ventures worked, however, as—according to Vinder—there was not much knowledge or interest in non-Thai cuisines at that time. But she refused to give up.
Then came the economic boom in India, after which everything ‘Indian’ became popular. That was when she started her flagship Mrs. Balbir’s Indian Cuisine restaurant—almost a decade back, and on the same soi. Today it’s one of the best-known Indian restaurants in the city. “To me attitude is altitude,” she reflects. “One simply has to be positive.”
Today, the Balbir-chain has at least ten outlets across the city, mostly at well-known malls, and more are in the pipeline (she recently opened a branch at Empire Tower).
“I study the area, and the clientele, before I start a new outlet and plan the menu,” admits the chef-restaurateur, who also offers some uniquely creative Indian dishes. According to her, Indian cuisine is unique because, “Every spice adds not just to the flavour, but to the health.”
Mrs. Balbir runs a cooking school above her restaurant, with custom-made classes for people as varied as diplomats, chefs, young brides, even house-maids. World-famous rock musician Sting once sent his chef to learn veggie cuisine at her school.
While her husband handles the finances, her only son Sonny supervises the elegant design and décor, as well as the website. Mrs Balbir has no PR or marketing team, and totally relies on her vibrant food to bring back her numerous repeat-clients. “After 40 years, I’ve learnt that you can win people’s heart by their stomach alone,” she declared.
This vivacious lady has done food presentations at many hotels, conducted popular cooking shows on TV, and remains a well-recognized restaurateur in the city. Her food is in demand with various airlines too. Her team of 100 staff—spread out across all her restaurants—she manages single-handedly, like her own family.
“My brand is alive, because I’m 100 percent involved,” she states with justifiable pride. “It’s not been easy running a restaurant today, as there are so many details involved, from buying the provisions, to cooking, to displaying and serving.”
But “passion and perseverance” are her mantra to success, and she admits she has gleaned the best from the three countries that are part of her DNA—Malaysia, India, and Thailand. However, Bangkok is her “home forever”, and she affectionately calls it the “food-capital of the world.”