Thai restaurateur, chef and TV cook Khun Patara Sila-On founded her first restaurant in Bangkok in 1973. Since then the S&P syndicate global restaurant, bakery and frozen business she created has opened hundreds including her first in the UK in 1990.
More than two decades later she remains more involved with the restaurants in Thailand but there are now four eateries in the UK as part of the business which is the world’s largest group of full-service Thai restaurants. They include the original Fulham Road site (now Patara) and Suda Thai, the latest to open in this country.
Visiting the UK to show some Thai diplomats the country, inspire her staff and pay a trip to a windy Taste of London festival, the award-winning 70-year-old restaurateur spoke to BigHospitality about her life and Thai restaurants in the UK which she says are a lot more posh and now boast fresh ingredients.
Thai food in the UK is a lot more authentic. We are able to get many fresh ingredients now with direct flights from Bangkok every day. You can find or order everything.
The ingredients in the UK are better than in Bangkok. Many of our customers ask why the food tastes better here – I say it is the quality meat and vegetables and it might be the better ambience and atmosphere too.
London is the best place to get roast duck. You can't get a better one anywhere in the world apart from maybe Hong Kong.
If a Thai restaurant opens without an owner who is from Thailand, even if there is a Thai chef, it won’t be as authentic as one with a Thai owner.
We had to change the name of our first restaurant. It was on Fulham Road but wasn’t originally called Patara. We called it the Restaurant of Bangkok but another older venue called The Bangkok Restaurant asked us to change the name because their customers got confused and came to us instead.
If you say S&P in Thailand they know it is our restaurant and not a rating agency but we needed a more exotic name in the UK.
I am more involved in the restaurants in Thailand now. My brother’s wife looks after the business in the UK but I visit regularly to inspire my staff and give them and my customer’s confidence!
Suda Thai is more casual than Patara. It is the most like those in Bangkok as it is open all day. We say it is the youngest sister to Patara and it is true because it is named after my sister-in-law.
In the UK we have to invest more than in Thailand. To open one restaurant we have to consider things very carefully – you have to look at the location and the customers who use the area.
It is quite difficult to get staff here. We have to send chefs from Bangkok and the service staff we hire here.
I shouldn’t talk about future plans because I am not in charge of the global business! Our restaurants around the world are doing OK.
We have a potential partner in Japan. A Japanese restaurateur is interested in opening a Japanese restaurant with us in Bangkok. I went to visit his restaurant and thought ‘why don’t we open a Thai place here’ because it is so nice and the beef and seafood is of such good quality.
My family are still very involved in the business. It is how we started and our staff like to see the family. We try to lure our children to work in the company too if they like it!
My brother’s daughter has a lot of talent. She started a new, trendy concept restaurant in Bangkok called Vanilla – I am very proud of her.
I admire Rit Thirakomen, the founder of the MK Suki restaurant chain. Before his business the Sukiyaki/hotpot restaurants in Thailand weren’t high-tech and they used dangerous gas stoves. He switched to induction and I think he is very humble but great man.
I love French and Chinese food. They are both very tasty cuisines but I have Thai food everyday so when I go out I tend not to go to Thai restaurants.
I am 70 and I am retiring soon! I go around my restaurants every day and I love them and my grandchildren.
I am very fortunate. I started when I was 31 and I have enjoyed my work and I have a lot of loyal, hardworking staff.
I am still doing the same thing I have been doing my entire career. I am still hands-on and the business side is handled by the professionals.