When did you start cooking? "My mum used to sell rice and curry in the market [in Thailand's Chachoengsao province, where Nooror was born and raised]. She specialised in massaman curry and, as a child, I had to pound the curry paste every day after school. She said it would be therapeutic because I was a naughty girl, so it was a way to keep me quiet. I learned how to make curry paste from her and now I export it to 30 countries. I started to learn how to cook when I was nine years old. I knew I'd cook [for a living] because when I played with friends, I'd pretend to have a restaurant and I'd use lotus leaves as the plate and pretend to stir-fry noodles."
Why did you go to Brussels? "I followed my brother into hotel management. When we went to the cooking class, it was the first time I made chocolate mousse and my first time tasting chocolate. It tasted a bit bitter, but it made my eyes open wide. These days, when I have meetings in London and Brussels, to keep awake, I have a kilo of chocolate in front of me. I used to be skinny but not any more."
How did you meet your husband? "Karl [Steppe] had an antique shop in Brussels and my brother worked there for extra money. He introduced me to Karl and then we got married in Bangkok and went back to Brussels. My husband had many customers and I would cook for them; they liked it so much they suggested I open a restaurant. So, in 1980, we opened a small place, only 40 seats. After six months we had to expand to 100 seats because we had a long queue outside."
What would you like to teach people about Thai food? "I like history and food was popular with Thai kings - they wrote many poems about it. King Rama V [reigned 1868-1910] even liked to cook, and he wrote about the history of food. My menu has a bit of history. I have classic dishes, like green curry, and then my own creations because I think food is like fashion - it should be creative. I use products from the Royal Project [an agricultural initiative led by King Bhumibol Adulyadej] in northern Thailand. Thai food is also healthy, as each ingredient has a health benefit. The staples are herbs, chillies, palm sugar and coconut. I also like to tell people that Thai food can be elegant like French cuisine - it's not only street food. Elegance can be in the presentation and the quality of the products. Food should be like a painting on a plate."
What classes do you offer at your cooking school? "We have courses for people who want to learn how to cook Thai food at home as well as chef classes. In the past two years most of the people who have taken the chef classes come from China. They want to learn how to cook and then open restaurants there. I've even taught actress Michelle Yeoh how to make tom yum goong. She's so very sweet and has beautiful eyes."
How many restaurants do you have? "I have 10 Thai restaurants in cities including Bangkok, Paris, Dubai, Beirut, Kuwait and Moscow. I love Indian food and have two Indian restaurants in London and Brussels. In 1984, I was a guest chef in Mumbai and learned how to cook some dishes. When I returned to Brussels, I told my husband I wanted to open an Indian restaurant. He was so surprised. But I used to watch Bollywood movies - they are so colourful, and I like thali [a variety of dishes served on a platter], and find it's a romantic culture, like a dream."
Being a female chef, do you find you're treated differently? "I'm small but I have a strong character. People have underestimated me. When I walk in, they look at me like, 'What are you doing in my kitchen?' But when they see I can work fast, they are surprised. I don't think it's frustrating - I just laugh."
What do you like to do when you're not cooking? "I love shopping and going to a spa. I think all women do. If I wasn't a chef I'd be a fashion designer. I like to make flower arrangements and change my haircut all the time. One time a hairdresser in New York spent so long cutting my hair I fell asleep. When I woke up it was so short, I was shocked."
How do you manage all your restaurants? "My husband heads the company and my daughter and son help out. I don't sleep much - I wake up at 5am every day because, in Bangkok, I cater for a lot of outdoor events and they like to eat at 11am. I wish the next generation could learn to be like me."