How Food turned a Bad Boy Good
Sun Suebsaeng has eaten his way to success, which sounds odd seeing as he has recently been on a fitness regime leading to a 20 kilos weight loss; his shirt hanging so loosely over his frame we had to clip it at the back for the photo shoot. He is feeling good though. He hasn’t been this fit in decades and following a tumultuous career which has seen dizzying heights and the darkest of days, he has finally reached a point in his personal life and career which he says, he always dreamed of. There are no further goals he aspires to.
Just this month Sun was chosen as member of a committee of seven by Shell Shuan Shim, to step in to take over from MR Thanadsri Svasti, the iconic food critic and brand’s co-founder who recently passed away. Shell Shuan Shim, now in its 58th year, has received an injection of half a billion baht investment by Shell Thailand, to rebrand and re-launch itself nationwide, in a bid to retake some of the market share PTT’s thousands of petrol stations have been gobbling up of late. Modelling itself after the Michelin Guide, brainchild of the Michelin brothers in France who wanted to encourage motorists to travel by recommending good restaurants, Shell Shuan Shim awards restaurants and street food across Thailand with a signature green bowl logo which is nationally recognised as a symbol of quality and clean food.
“MR Thanadsri has been a life-long hero of mine,” said Sun, as we sat in one of his three Japanese restaurants in Chiang Mai, *Tengoku+Yaki in Nimmanhaemin. “My father used to play the accordion and MR Thanadsri was a singer in the band that jammed with the His Majesty the late king. I grew up listening to them,” continued Sun, who is over the moon to be stepping into such massive shoes.
Sun Seubsaeng has slowly been heading to this moment all his life…even though it took him many decades to realise it. Born to wealthy parents, both of whom were physicians from Pattani Province, he spent most of his childhood free time going to the market and being sous chef to his father, as he cooked the beloved western food he fell in love with when at college in Boston. At nine, Sun was sent to Vajiravudh College, a boarding school in Bangkok, enjoying all the privileges of an admittedly rather spoilt son.
“As a teen we would sneak out, go drag racing down Sukhumvit, get drunk, grab some whisky to bring back to school and two of my best friends and I would always raid the dining hall for the best scraps of food that we would bring back to our dorm to make into great kub klaem (nibbles that go well with whiskey). Today all three of us own really famous restaurants,” he said with a massive grin.
Upon graduation Sun joined the Thai national rugby team, most of his teammates either coming from his school or from police, army, air force or navy cadets, a network of men who have and continue to be very important in his life, and who are regular patrons to his restaurants – it is a common sight to see a cabinet member, even an ex-prime minister (and on one remarkable night, two), digging into Tengoku’s popular miso sauce-grilled eggplant. Following a knee injury, he briefly joined the police academy, but said that he didn’t function well within such rigid parametres, finally deciding to enrol in Bangkok University for a couple of years, before dropping out…again.
“I was a bad boy then,” the bon vivant said unabashedly, “after being in all boys’ schools my whole life, I had no interest in anything but girls and food. My parents had moved to Bangkok by the time I was in high school and took me to the best restaurants in the city and on holidays we would travel to regional countries going to all of their best restaurants. Food was always in my blood.”
Sun’s parents had finally had enough and sent him off to London to study hotel management, which he also didn’t graduate from. He does talk very fondly, however, of a six month internship at The Grand Hotel on Lake Como; “For six months all I was allowed to do was boil pasta,” he laughs at the memory. “Boil pasta and add olive oil. That was it. There is nothing I don’t know about the perfect pasta.”
After a stint in Capri and Venice, Sun finally decided to go back to London and scraped his way to a diploma before being recalled home by his rather unimpressed parents.
“I had a diploma at a time when my friends were on their masters’,” he continued. “I came back to Bangkok and knew that I had to prove myself. It took a while for me to shape up, but when I was invited by a friend to join a tour company I leapt at the chance. This was a very high end company, taking CEOs and politicians to Europe. I soon distinguished myself by being able to recommend all of the best restaurants in England, Italy and France and these were great years when I would meet some of Thailand’s most powerful people and travel to the best destinations, eating the finest of foods. I had to negotiate deals with restaurants and hotels, I had to teach many wealthy and powerful Thais proper table manners and etiquette, I had to explain food and wine to them, I got to meet many producers. Those were very valuable years for me on many fronts.”
Leveraging his connections, Sun then opened an events campaign company as well as tour agency, both becoming immensely successful in a very short time. Sun had met his second wife by this time and the two enjoyed a very active social life.
“Suddenly, I had a resort in Khao Yai, a penthouse at the Polo Club, I drove sports cars, I had multiple million baht watches, I had it all,” he shakes his head ruefully at the memory. “I was spending money like it would never end. But it did. The Thai economy collapsed. I was done. Overnight everything was confiscated, including my inheritance from my father. All gone.”
What followed were some very dark years for Sun and his wife, when thoughts of suicide were constant. “It was utter humiliation. I had been living large without any thought nor planning. I was too young, too inexperienced to manage my wealth. If I didn’t have a wife, a son and a new daughter, I would have ended it all. I had no home, no car, no money, nothing. I was so ashamed of myself. It took me years to be able to show my face again. I just avoided everyone.”
“By that point I was renting a small house with my family. We had one driver left who refused to leave,” he recalls. “One day I had an idea. A friend had an egg farm and my driver had his van, so I went to my old school, Vajiravudh, and asked if I could supply them with eggs. So we would pick up the eggs, I’d invested in a high pressure hose and washed them all! After Vajiravudh accepted my eggs, I then went to all the other schools in Bangkok. Being the only egg merchant to actually clean the eggs, I got into all of them. Within three months I was supplying 30,000 eggs a day to Bangkok’s schools. Within one year I was back on my feet again.”
With some of his confidence returned, Sun went, hat in hand, to visit some of the men he had met during his tour guide days in Europe and soon found himself secretary to a former deputy prime minister, spending the next few years in politics, an experience he tends to skip over, preferring to always return to his favourite subject, food.
“It was then that my distant cousin from Pattani called and invited me to help him build the Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai,” said Sun. He moved his family up north and began what would be a decade of work, first as project manager overseeing construction of the ambitious resort, then as managing director – even having his own decked-out and blinged-up golf cart which he used to hurtle around the resort, often with a beer in hand.
“I had bought up some land opposite the resort and turned it into a small hotel. I thought it would be fun to open a tiny French restaurant there. ” The restaurant earned a Thailand Tater Best Restaurants in Thailand award in its first year, as well as receiving Queen Sirikit for dinner one night, (“HM had a penchant for Italian, so I went into the kitchen myself and made her spaghetti bolognaise. It was the first time in my life I wore a chef’s outfit and HM called me out to tell me how much she loved it – thank you Lake Como!”). He soon sold the hotel for a very nice profit.
“It was those years when I really fell in love with Japanese cuisine,” Sun recollects. “During the construction of the resort, there were few places to eat in the area, so I ended up going to Sansui Japanese restaurant nearby every day. On Sundays I would invite the chef to come to teach me how to cook at my house and when he had nothing left to teach me, I began to take trips to Japan, visiting only the oldest and most authentic restaurants, those which have been there for 50, 80, even 100 years. In total, during those five years or so, I made 40 trips to Japan. That was when I decided to open Tengoku de Cuisine,” which sits right opposite the entrance to the Dhara Dhevi. Sun having left the resort by that point to concentrate on his own ventures.
“I needed to get people to come all the way out there though,” said Sun of the location. “So for the first three months, I would invite three full tables in for free every single night. I remember telling you to bring your friends a few times,” he grinned at me.
His formula worked. Even though he bled cash the first few months, the word spread and freeloading customers such as myself returned. Today, Tengoku has three branches around Chiang Mai, all successful.
Always an early riser, Sun was never one to sit on his laurels. Having decided to grow up from the pretention of his wealthier days in Bangkok following his move to Chiang Mai, he had swapped his sports car for an SUV, his Patek Philippe watches for his iPhone, his designer labels for his new uniform of t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. He spends his mornings scouring markets and his lunches visiting street stalls and restaurants. He has built up a formidable social media presence; having offered YouTube classes on how to use silverware now used in many colleges across the nation, written hundreds of blog posts of restaurant reviews and set up a Facebook page to invite people to check out his latest gastro finds.
Soon Iron Chef came knocking, and San found himself flying to Bangkok regularly to be a judge for the famous cooking show, a position he held for four years.
With such a wealth of gastronomic experiences under his belt, he shouldn’t have been surprised when the son of his idol, MR Thanadsri, who was about to take over as Shell Shuan Shim’s new ambassador, invited him on board.
“I was so excited and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for months,” he laughs raucously. “It was so hard, I like to talk!”
The official announcement was made in late September, as we go to press. “I will be doing a lot of travelling from now on,” said Sun wearing his new Shell Shuan Shim-logoed t-shirt.
“It has taken me a while to get to this place,” he gets serious for a moment. “I have come to learn to appreciate what really matters in life and that is my family.” His wife and daughter both work for Tengoku, often seen serving dishes and drinks. “I was a bad boy, I was arrogant and I had pride. I am very grateful that I went bankrupt because it has let me see who I really am. I am successful and now I want to help other people become successful. I am a talker, I like to chat and I like to give advice. I think I can help many little businesses grow.”
“What really made me realise the importance of my new role was when I went to MR Thanadsri’s funeral a few weeks ago. The temple was overflowing with people. Restaurants which he helped make famous were making food for free for funeral guests and people came from all over the country to give thanks. He made a difference in many people’s lives. I am hoping that I can also do that.”
“I am fit, I feel good, I look good,” he grinned as we start setting up for the photo shoot. “Life is good and I can’t wait to explore even more of the greatest food Thailand has to offer.”
*Full disclosure, I am a minor shareholder in this restaurant and Sun is my majority partner.