Owner and chef director at Chaophraya and Thaikhun respectively, Kim Kaewkraikhot is truly an inspiration.
She may not have had the easiest start in life but she hasn’t let it get in the way of achieving her dreams.
Kim had many challenges in her early life. Born in Kirimart village, Sukhothai province of Thailand, she lost both her brother and her father at a young age.
One thing she always found comfort in, though, was food.
“My passion for food has come from a young age. I loved cooking with my mum,” she tells us.
“It was very different growing up in Thailand. Times were tough.
“But I had a big family around me and we all worked together. We loved going out fishing and cooking fish together as a family – I think I always knew I wanted to work with food.”
Despite only having a limited education, she built up her own multi-million pound restaurant empire from scratch.
Kim left her village at just 15 for the bustling streets of Bangkok, setting up her own garment factory in the city before making her move into cheffing and hospitality.
It wasn’t until 1993, though, that she found her true calling – and started serving up tasty Thai food to the masses.
She began with a small pad thai cart and, through dedication and hard work, expanded to several stalls and winning an award for her delicious pad thai recipe in the process. A recipe that is still used in her restaurants today.
It was in 1997, whilst working on her street stall, that she met her now partner Martin – and everything started to change.
“It was around 2 o’clock in the morning and this charming Englishman and his friends came to buy some food from my street stall.
“They were in Thailand on holiday. Martin was hungry but his friends were tired and wanted to go back to the hotel. He managed to convince them to come get some food.”
Their romance blossomed and, eventually, she moved to the UK in 1999 to create a base in Martin’s home town of Leeds.
She worked as a waitress and kitchen porter in a Japanese restaurant before setting up her first restaurant in the UK – a Thai venture that she opened with her twin sister.
Unfortunately, their partnership came to an end quite quickly leaving Kim back at square one.
Not to be put off, in 2004 she decided to try again – this time teaming up with her partner Martin to open Chaophraya, their first fine-dining Thai restaurant.
Specialising in refined Thai dining, the brand soon took off, leading to an extension of its popular Leeds site as well as a string of new openings across the UK.
The success of Chaophraya was followed by casual dining spin-off Thaikhun – which opened its first site in Manchester in 2014. A play on words – it is pronounced ‘tycoon’ – it has an ethos that celebrates street food sellers like Kim as real foodie entrepreneurs.
Today, Kim has 20 restaurants across the UK and employs over 750 members of staff. Not only has she created many jobs, she’s also been instrumental in bringing Thai food into the mainstream here in the UK.
She regularly travels back to Thailand to hunt out new recipes and flavours, making sure to test them out with her number one foodie influence, her mum.
“I try to get back once a year if I can as my mum still lives over there so I like to spend as much time with her.
“It is great to go to all of the street vendors and new restaurants and then go home and try out the dishes for my mum.”
When asked to reflect on her career, she’s full of enthusiasm and humble thanks.
“My partner and I have always had a dream of owning our own place and we were lucky that this came true. I still pinch myself now, I can’t believe we have 20 restaurants across the UK.”
And any advice for budding street food traders hoping to make a go of it?
“Follow your heart and trust your instinct, times can be challenging but it is always worth it.”