5 Aug 2013

RESTAURANTS: Nooror Somany Steppe

Special Envoy of Thailand’s Cuisine (for Vertu
NOOROR Somany Steppe orders enough dishes to paint the table. ‘I dream in food’ she says.

The youngest of seven, Steppe was born in Thailand’s Chachengsao province when it was only accessible by boat, to a butcher father and mother who made and sold curry paste. At age nine, Steppe crafted her own version, fragranced with holy basil. Now in her 50s, she dispatches one million Thai Baht of units each month internationally from Bangkok airport. ‘All herbs have meaning,’ she explains. ‘Detox with lemongrass, use ginger for the blood; galangal is anti-cancer.’
Steppe landed in London at 3am to oversee her brigade at her recently relocated Blue Elephant restaurant (there are 12 in Europe, Middle East and Asia). Its harshly modern exterior belies an interior adorned with antiques collected by her Belgian husband, Karl.
Steppe shows no fatigue despite having spent three days filming after cooking for a Thai boxing squad in Norway. ‘They wanted meat, so I made duck salad and peppered steak with lemongrass,’ she says. It comes as little surprise to learn that it takes two secretaries and a battalion of PRs to bring order to this albeit softly-spoken dynamo.
Strong boned catfish with fried betel leaves protected under delicate batter arrives. ‘Morsels shouldn’t be bigger than the spoon in Royal Thai food’ advises Steppe, sipping jasmine tea.
Although her cooking has long roots, Steppe is unafraid of modernising dishes. ‘In Tokyo Bay I found raw salmon bland, so I designed my own dish.’ On cue, fresh tuna tartare with enduring garlic, perky homemade chilli, crunchy shallots and earthy wasabi lands. It is from the ‘future’ section of her menu.
Steppe consults for the Royal Thai Project, which, like her own empire, is three decades old. The foundation seeks to replace opium fields with farms, and protect hill tribes and territories. ‘I make prawn salad with avocado,’ says Steppe. ‘Some say avocado isn’t Thai, so I say of course it is because the King grows it in Chiang Mai!’
I taste the same steaming soup offered to remedy the sick King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a European visit. Infused with lemongrass, ginger, lime and chilli, its heat makes my eyes water. ‘The English love spice,’ says Steppe before revealing that she adores London and Bangkok on account of their ‘demanding palates’. She is also impressed by Shanghai, particularly the vista from the 68th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, where her daughter treated her to noodles spun with truffle. Steppe considers me. ‘You should meet her!’
Although working with ingredients daily, Steppe has another passion. ‘I’ll disappear for hours in a shoe shop. I could have been a designer. Sometimes diners find it odd to see me in beautiful clothes rather than chef’s jacket.’
Via her restaurants and TV, Steppe has done much to upgrade the image of Thai cuisine globally. Providing London’s re-launch runs smoothly, another opening is planned in New York.
For Vertu