From Thailand's Royal Courts to Midwest Restaurants: Bistro Saffron owner Su Hill's family saga
She was 18. A worn Samsonite suitcase purchased from an American GI in hand, Supapon Saysanan (now Su Hill) left Thailand to attend Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) and find her way. Her mother was raised in the household of Thailand's King Rama IV and her father was a self-made man.
Forty-five years later, restaurateur, culinary artist and owner/operator of Bistro Saffron, Su reflects on a journey of generations. Raised on a royal palette with humble beginnings, Su's story is one of family, a desire to share her Asian culture with good taste and authentic cooking.
And it's a tale shared by her siblings: six of them followed her across the Pacific, joining her extended family. They would go on to work at Holiday Inn's premiere location in Memphis and Chicago, work with a benevolent Jim Drury in Cape Girardeau and establish a dozen critically-acclaimed restaurants in Cape Girardeau, St. Louis, Sikeston and Memphis, Tennessee.
"I want to live life simply. With pride. To help people," Su says, reflecting on what drives her. "[I want] to grow a community -- a loving family, recognizing everyone has opportunities that become real with hard work by not giving up."
At each chapter of her life thus far, Su has done this by embracing the communities she loves and calls home.
A Childhood in Thailand
Though the banks of the Mississippi are far from the shores of Thailand, Su's story begins with her mother and grandmother within the walls of the Thai Kingdom, formally known as Siam under the House of Chakri. It was the setting that inspired the 1944 novel "Anna and the King of Siam" by an American missionary, Margaret Landon, later to become the muse for the musical and movie "The King and I," set in the late 1800s. Su's mother was one of the children of the palace, her grandmother a noblewoman trained in the palace as a member of the royal household and kitchen.
This is where Su's mother, Pratinrat, learned the complexities and spices of Thai cooking, assisting her mother -- Su's grandmother -- in the kitchen. When not cooking, Pratinrat studied.
At a local business school, she met a handsome 19-year-old typing instructor, Chatr. She was 17. Against the wishes of the royal household and foregoing a dowry, she eloped with the young teacher to Northern Thailand and a life of uncertainty. Yet, it was a life they chose, one in which they would develop a work ethic to inspire generations to come.
In the northern capital of Chiang Mai, the couple met a Catholic missionary doctor's family. He and his wife adopted Su's parents into their family of six girls; Su's mother became head cook, and her father's business acumen earned him a position as bookkeeper for the family's tobacco farm and regional co-op manager of farmers.
And their own family grew. First with the birth of Sudapa, Su's older sister, then with the addition of Su on June 3, 1956. Su was followed by brothers Dan and Kane, her sister Ann, then brother Tom, and finally, sisters Whitney and Nina.
Without the trappings of modern life, the children became one with the outdoors, growing up in a rustic Chiang Mai rich in culture. As a young girl, Su helped her mother in the kitchen from morning to night, picking basil, lemongrass and tomatoes while learning the tastes of Thai cooking and gardening fresh. A quick learner, she also helped her father with his paperwork for the farmers' co-op as exports grew, helping more and more in this role as her English abilities increased with schooling.
When the father of Su's parents' adoptive family died, Su's family inherited a plot of land. Business was good as the co-op partnered with a trading company in the export of Thai tobacco to the United States, Japan and elsewhere.
This required trucking the smoked tobacco leaves to the port for shipping. As a true entrepreneur, when the contracted delivery trucks broke down, Su's father borrowed money to buy two Japanese trucks to control costs and grow profits. When the trucks were empty of tobacco leaves, he hauled gravel for road work, all with a "can-do" spirit symbolic of Su's family today.
Still in grade school, Su was active in these ventures. She rode shotgun with her dad on the long trips. High up in the front seat, she says she listened and learned from her father's vision, while her mother handled the books and cooking at home.
Su also remembers the advice given to her by an older Chinese woman at the trading company. Sharply dressed, Su recalls the woman pointed a finger at her and said, "Work hard. Help your dad. You can run the books." These were sage words that inspired a lifetime of choices -- Su's and her siblings'.
Coming to America
Education empowers those who work hard: as her mother grew up in the Royal household and her father was a teacher, Su's parents valued education, raising each of their eight children independently. Su attended Chiang Mai's prestigious boarding school with classmates from the Royal house.
As an avid student of English, Su moved to Bangkok and helped her father in the summer with his overseas communications and English shipping documents. Her abilities and growing interest in opportunities to study abroad led her to research American colleges and universities.
A student of American history, she says she chose Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, for its place in history and to lessen the "financial burden" on her parents. Instead of attending the expected schools on the U.S. coasts, she knew hard work in the Midwest would better prepare her to help her family. The year was 1975, and the currency exchange was 25 baht to the U.S. dollar.
Then the parting words.
Giving her a hug before boarding the plane, Su recalls her father saying, "I don't know when I will see you again. But if anything happens, you decide what to do. Work hard. See how you can help your family, not what others can give to you. Take care of your brothers and sisters."
With that, she was off to Memphis. And work she did.
From the rainforest of Thailand, Su excelled at Memphis State. As a full-time student, she earned her education by working for Holiday Inn at its home office and flagship hotel. Always offering a quick "yes" when and where needed, she worked most weekends, learning all aspects of the hotel business, from hosting at the front desk to washing dishes, from making beds to working inventory. Su lived her parents' life lessons by example -- do what needs to be done. And things will be good.
Su says the four years at Memphis State went quick. After her graduation, Su and her father planned to travel throughout Europe together before both returning to Thailand to work in the export and trucking business. All this, however, changed when her father died unexpectedly from heart failure. Reminded of his parting request at the airport to take care of family, Su stayed in the States, where she was joined by her brothers Kane and Tom and her sister, Ann.
Upon graduation in 1980, Su was asked to attend Holiday Inn University in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a coveted six-month trainee opportunity for the best hotel employees from around the world. This opportunity to learn about the hotel industry and its culinary program came at a time when Holiday Inn was considered the vanguard of all hotels for its technology and booking, hospitality and reservation systems and more.
Reminded of her father's passing advice, it was up to Hill to figure out what to do next.
Su settles in Cape Girardeau
So she traveled, audited books and worked for Holiday Inn before landing in Chicago at Holiday Inn's premiere location that housed six bars and restaurants and more than 500 rooms.
She worked for three years on Lakeshore Drive at the Navy Pier in Chicago, days and many nights while her siblings attended university and worked for the Inn in Memphis -- a first step to "figuring things out."
Then life changed.
In 1985, Su met Jim Drury, CEO of Midamerica Hotels Corporation, based in Cape Girardeau. Jim was seeking staff to grow a hotel chain, including a Holiday Inn in Cape Girardeau. Su was looking for a quieter lifestyle and stability with an opportunity to grow. The meeting was mutually beneficial.
Hill joined the Drury team, heading its food and beverage operation. Also in 1985 she met and married Sid Hill, 13 years her senior with four delightful children from a previous marriage, Angela, Mark, Ricki, and Sidney Jr. Within a few years, Hill was joined in St. Louis by her sister, Ann, and brother, Tom. It was a change for Su from rooming with two girls in Chicago to heading a house with an extended family of eight.
Restaurants: a business endeavor that runs in the family
With the stability of working for the Drurys and with contacts at Holiday Inn, Su continued her role of love and support for her family.
Her brother, Dan, his wife and their two children soon joined Su's household in Cape Girardeau. Dan opened a Thai restaurant called Manee Thai on Broadway in Cape. After deciding the Thai restaurant was not ready in Cape, he moved with his wife to St. Louis.
Su says she knew running a restaurant would conflict with her job at Drury; however, she loved cooking and coveted a desire to share her mother's authentic Thai recipes with the greater Cape Girardeau community. With the blessing of the Drurys, she bought her brother's restaurant, freeing her brother from debt. She says she then "got to work" passing on her mother's legacy by running an authentic Thai restaurant in a community mostly raised on American Chinese food.
What follows is family lore. It's the story of one family opening eight successful, well-acclaimed restaurants.
Manee Thai became the beloved Bistro Saffron, first on Independence Street in Cape and then on Kingshighway. Her sister, Ann Bognar, who first moved to St. Louis with Su to work at a Holiday Inn, opened three Japanese restaurants, Nippon Tei, Tei 2 and Ramen Tei, in St. Louis in 2001, 2008 and 2015, respectively. Nippon Tei is now run with critical acclaim by Ann's son, Nicholas (Nick) Bognar, who was recently recognized as a semifinalist among up-and-coming chefs in the Midwest by American cook and television personality James Beard, a coveted award. Nick is soon to open another restaurant called iNDO in the Tower Grove area of St. Louis, with great anticipation.
Another of Su's sisters, Nina Prapaisilpa, opened Thai Rice Bistro with her husband, Bryan, in Ballwin in 2014. Working with Ann at Nippon Tei, Su's younger sister, Whitney Saysananan, opened Sushi Koi, a sushi restaurant in the Central West End of St. Louis, in 2016.
Meanwhile, Su's niece, Paula Ridings, is well-known to diners at Saffron as its executive chef and manager. And Su's cousin, Ann Rivera, has assumed ownership of Pho8 under Su's tutelage. Sid's daughter, Angela, is working at Nippon Tei.
Recipes from their mother, Pratinrat, have also inspired new dishes that make up the menu. A helper in the kitchens of her children's and grandchildren's restaurants while she was visiting Cape Girardeau, Pratinrat planned to return to St. Louis to help her grandson with the opening of iNDO. However, Pratinrat passed away Oct. 31, 2018, just two months after visiting with a larger gathering of her children and extended family.
Certainly during that visit, stories were shared: about a life growing up in the Thai Palace. Picking fresh lemongrass in the fields of Chiang Mai. Su and her siblings studying at Memphis State, working at Holiday Inn, moving to Cape Girardeau to work with the Drurys and passing on their family's values to the next generation.
More than 100 people -- family, friends and co-workers -- have found a nurturing bed under the roof of Su's homes and apartments throughout the years. Her openness is built on the words of her parents and the lives they lived: take care of family and ask not what others can do for you.
"It doesn't have to be a restaurant. It can be gardening. Whatever," Su says. "I live life to make a difference -- one day at a time. I have no regrets."
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