Somsack Sengta is the founder and owner of Blue Lagoon Restaurant – an upscale European dining in the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos. We caught up with Somsack and asked him how it all started.
Firstly, tell us about the state of the restaurant business in Luang Prabang, and in Laos in general.
Somsack: I can remember in 2003 when we did market analysis, there were very few items available that could be used to prepare European dishes. There was no white chicken, and there was only local fish available from Mekong which is perhaps good enough for local people there, but for Europeans the smell was too strong. It was also difficult to find things such as cheese, butter, and herbs.
Today, everything is easier to buy because the roads are better, and there are more flights coming in from many different countries, and as a result, there are more restaurants opening in more or less the same category.
In a big city like Vientiane, most of the restaurants are designed to serve local people. This means that European dishes are only available on request, unlike Luang Prabang where 95% of our customers are tourists from all over the world.
Many people don’t know about Lao food before coming to Laos. Lao food is not like other Asian food – it is less spicy and we use less herbs. Luang Prabang is quiet remote and for travelers who visit, most will have made their way through other Asian countries, and after eating so many Asian food they are looking for a great European food just like back home. This makes European restaurants in demand in Luang Prabang.
So you saw an opportunity when you opened Blue Lagoon?
Somsack: Yes, I returned to Laos 2003 and it was the beginning of an economic boom in Luang Prabang. Some of the roads were still not paved and there were only a handful of good restaurants in town, so I saw an opportunity to start a good, proper restaurant.
Tell us more about the concept of Blue Lagoon, and what your vision is.
Somsack: The city does not offer any schools in gastronomy, or if they have it, it’s not one that you could go to learn the necessary skills to work in a restaurant. So Blue Lagoon started a new concept where we train our staff, both in the kitchen and service areas because more than 80% of our staff are students. They will get to learn about the hospitality business at Blue Lagoon as a part-time schooling so to speak, in addition to getting first-hand practical experience. This will help them to further their studies when they decide to move on to other provinces to study. It will also help them get other jobs in town as as they will get credits and references from Blue Lagoon.
How do you plan to grow your clientele from here, and what plans are there to expand Blue Lagoon?
I believe in developing quality instead of quantity. Luang Prabang and Laos in general has a great opportunity to attract visitors from overseas because of our unique tradition, culture, and natural beauty. There are many activities to do and it is definitely a new destination for travelers.
Besides Lao and European dishes that we serve at Blue Lagoon, my next creation will be dishes made of insects which more and more adventurous people are willing to try today. In fact, insects are a part of the Lao traditional food which we still eat as a meal.
What other big business opportunities do you see out here in Luang Prabang and in Laos in general?
Somsack: I expect more and more flights coming in to Laos in the years ahead. The train from China will come through Laos and into Thailand as well other countries. This means that Luang Prabang will not only be a land destination, it will also have transport connection via the sea.
Laos is a country with plenty of land, natural environments, and the Lao government is very pro business as they are allowing foreigners to start and run a business in the country. So the future does look exciting in Luang Prabang and Laos in the years ahead.
Somsack, tell us more about yourself, your family, and memories growing up.
Somsack: I was born in Luang Prabang. My grandparents had a couple of rice fields where we had water buffaloes to work on our farms. I also lived near a compound where tons of bombs and landmines were stocked during the civil war in Laos. For me growing up, it was a normal surrounding for us playing with those unexploded bombs until one did explode in the village nearby which killed nine children. We stopped playing after that.
My grandparents were great cooks. They prepared delicious meals for the whole family, and they also used to have a small restaurant back in their younger days serving Lao food like larb and noodle soup.
Back in the 1980’s, there was not a lot of food in the market. Most food that you cook in the pot had to be grown on your own – chicken, fish, pigs, as well bamboos and other vegetables. It is not like today where everything is convenient.
I became a tour guide after my high school in 1990-91, when the town of Luang Prabang had only three hotels and two guesthouses including a few local restaurants. It was the time when my house got electricity only every three days. There was no running water so everyone would have to go down to the river to get our own water, and this was our life back then.
I received a scholarship to go to Switzerland and after spending a decade in Switzerland, I returned home in 2003.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
Somsack: Laos is a country that provides a lot of opportunities for anyone who wants to take it. I can’t imagine having this opportunity elsewhere. Due to my limited funds, I looked for business opportunities and at that time Luang Prabang still only had a few restaurants and bars. I took that opportunity to open a small café called Blue Lagoon Café which was later renamed Blue Lagoon Restaurant.
What’s your biggest challenge and how do you overcome it?
Somsack: I could write a thick book about my 14 years of experience being a chef at Blue Lagoon Restaurant. The big challenge has always been training the staff. In Europe, when you look for a staff they all come with skills and basic knowledge. Here in Laos, the owner should have the skills to train their own staff and teach them about their concept. It’s easier for me because I am Lao and I speak the language.
Secondly, the country leaves your imagination with a lot of colors – herbs and local ingredients – which paints a colorful picture in your mind when creating a menu. Luang Prabang today has many restaurants serving different kinds of food, but to me the menu that I create always has a touch of East meet West.
If you could do everything all over again, what would you do differently in your life?
Somsack: This is a great question. If I could do everything all over again, I would have liked to start earlier in collecting and preserving documents of Lao culture and tradition – not only of food but also architecture and lifestyle. I see today the changing of local society and it is changing faster than ever before. We are facing a great challenge as a society in Laos.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Somsack: Open your eyes, open your heart, and learn from other people. Make a lot of mistakes and learn from them as it is the best school in your life.