Life and Style: village ethos behind Leeds-based Thai food empire

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Kim Kaewkraikhot started out running a street food stall in Bangkok, now she has 11 restaurants across the UK with more planned over the next few years. Catherine Scott meets her.

“We were very poor, we cooked on charcoal as we didn’t have any electricity and I left school at eight after my father died,” says Kim Kaewkraikhot.

This image of growing up in a remote and impoverished Thai village is a far cry from the sumptuous surroundings of Kim’s successful restaurant Chaophraya in Leeds.

The restaurant, Kim’s first, celebrates its tenth birthday tomorrow, it is also a celebration of how far Kim has come.

With her partner Martin Stead they own the Thai Leisure Group which has 11 restaurants and bars across the UK and has just secured £10 million from Santander to expand further.

“I can’t believe it,” says Kim in her strong Thai accent. “It all seems to have happened so fast.”

Kim was born in Kirimat in Northern Thailand into what she describes as the poorest family in the village.

“We were so poor that when I went to school mum could only afford to send me with rice to eat, where other children had some meat.”

She left school at eight and at 13 moved to Bangkok to work in a textile factory.

She earned very little around 250 Bart, the equivalent of 20 or 30 pence, but was able to send some money back to help support her mother and family.

“I’d get up at 3am to do the washing and then I would cook for the staff. All Thai girls learn to cook from a very early age, helping their mothers in the kitchen.

“I learnt to cook on charcoal as we had no other means of cooking.”

Kim did this for about five years before she decided to make a change.

“All that time I had been watching them make clothes and then started making my own. I started off making shirts for men.”

But Kim found the work extremely hard and the hours very long and so she decided to go back to her first love, cooking.

“I loved cooking pad thai and so I thought why not start a noodle bar,” says Kim who decided to join the hundreds of street traders in Bangkok.

“It was hard at the beginning as I didn’t have the money to open a pitch in a good area.”

But eventually her hard work and determination paid off and her noddle business started to gain momentum.

“I would be at the market at 5am to see what was fresh and then design my dish around that.”

Then one day an Englishman who had heard about her noodle bar, sought her out.

“I had no idea where England was,” admits Kim.

“Thailand was very popular with Americans and Germans but not many English.

“I asked a friend where England was and they said ‘England good’.”

The Englishman was Leeds businessman Martin Stead. Martin was so impressed by Kim and her cooking that he persuaded her to eventually return with him to fulfil his dream to introduce authentic Thai cuisine to the UK.

“It took about two years and three visa attempts,” recalls Kim. “On the last attempt I said if I didn’t get it was going to give up altogether.”

Kim was keen to support herself and worked in a number of restaurants, although she says her primary plan had been to start a family.

Instead, she has given birth and nurtured a multi- million Thai restaurant empire. Her first restaurant Chaophraya opened in the centre of Leeds on December 4, 2004.

“We did have a few teething problems,but when people got their food the response was overwhelming,” says Kim who followed Leeds with restaurants in Manchester and then Liverpool before turning attention to Scotland. Martin and Kim then decided to open Palm Sugar bars in some of their restaurants and then a street food venue, Thaikhun.

With new investment from Santander The Thai Leisure Groups plans for expansion continue with six more restaurants planned for next year and seven the year after.

“This is the calm before the storm,” says Kim whose Thai Leisure Group turns over £25 million and eplaoys 500.

The aim is to have 30 Chaophrayas across the UK and beyond.

While the chain is growing, for Kim the sentiment behind each restaurant has to be the same.

She trains all the chefs herself, spending a minimum of four weeks in the new restaurant after it opens. She designs all the menus and travels back the Thailand to source all the interiors of her sumptuous restaurants. She cook sin the kitchen as often as she can.

But the main priority for Kim is to ensure that her ethos, the ethos which is embossed on the staffs uniforms, remains paramount. “We have a family motto,” she explains. “Ow jai sai” – that translates as “from the heart.”

And it does feel that Kim gives a little bit of her hear to each of her and Martin’s new restaurants. It is hard to imagine how this petite woman manages to spread herself so thinly and yet maintain standards.

It is clear that she has the respect and admiration of all her staff who seems almost as dedicated to her and Martin’s vision as they are themselves.

Although the Thai Leisure Group has become a multi-million success story over the last ten years, Kim never forgets where she has come from.

She travels back to Thailand as much as she can to see her family.

“Martin and I have built a new house for my mother,” says Kim. So rather than being the poorest family in the village we are now the richest. She has all mod cons in the house, but she refuses to cook on anything other than charcoal outside.”

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