As Bangkok’s restaurant boom sees no sign of folding, one successful space isn’t enough for some of this city’s culinary multi-taskers
Thai food only really began to make an impact on the global mindset in the 1980s and much of it was, to be honest, a pretty lame imitation of the real thing—hampered by lack of appropriate ingredients and a worry that fragile Westerners wouldn’t be able to cope with the heat and complexity. Those foreigners that did make it to Siam seemed content with variations on Pad Thai and banana pancakes. Sampling anything more exotic was more an exercise in culinary anthropology than a matter of pleasure.
The idea that Bangkok would one day be a must-visit destination for experienced foodies, both for Thai and international cuisines, would have seemed pretty preposterous then. When I first set foot in the capital, in 2001, the restaurant scene was fairly straightforward. There was one truly world-class restaurant (Le Normandie), about half a dozen very good ones (Blue Elephant, Zanotti, Philippe, and their ilk) and then a massive gap before you got down and dirty with the shophouses and street food—pretty much the only reason curious foodies would come to town.
Now it’s like a different planet. The initial burst of creativity that began in 2009-2010 with the arrival from London of Nahm and Bo.lan (the days when “can farangs cook Thai?” was a viable headline) has developed into a thrilling, chaotic period of development and experimentation that’s attracted the attention of the world. There have been regional and global awards for the likes of David Thompson and Gaggan Anand, the arrival of foreign brands such as Robuchon, Jamie’s Italian, and Din Tai Fung, and a renewed sense of pride in high-quality local ingredients and products.
For some restaurateurs, the ideal of running a successful, popular restaurant is more than enough, and many of these thrive, with fans returning for their favourite dishes, building up a rapport with the proprietor. This was pretty much Choti Leenutaphong’s idea when he opened the bar/restaurant Vesper on Convent Road, in partnership with his wife Debby and Luca Appino, proprietor of La Bottega di Luca on Sukhunvit Soi 49.
“It may sound a cliché, but I have always been passionate about food and drink ever since I was young,” explains Choti. “I’d settled with just writing food blogs and posting on Instagram about the restaurants I visited. But I realized that if I were really passionate about this industry, I should give it a go. How could I criticize other restaurants if I’ve never opened one myself and understood how hard it is? Additionally, if I wanted to see a change in the food and drinks scene the way I want it to happen, then the only way is to get myself into the restaurant business.”
But, as so often happens, the louche, twilight vibe of Vesper wasn’t enough for Choti and friends. Last year, the same team opened Il Fumo on Rama IV, with more of an emphasis on meat-centred meals (although drinks are still under the control of the award-winning Pailin ‘Milk’ Sajjanit). Luca, meanwhile, had dipped a toe into more casual cuisine with Pizza Massilia, originally a posh food truck usually parked in Sala Daeng but now a more permanent entity on Soi Ruamruedee. The pizza enterprise is a partnership with Fred Meyer, a fun-loving Frenchman who currently has an interest in six restaurants, including Issaya Siamese Club and Namsaah Bottling Trust, plus the Japanese Kom-Ba-Wa on Soi Suan Phlu. He appears to be able to handle the pressures of juggling these varied concerns, although there are a few issues.
“In a country with the lowest rate of unemployment in the world it’s getting really tough to find people dedicated to this demanding business,” he says. “The long hours, working on holidays and weekends and so on. Another challenge comes from all the people judging your work, professional or non-professional, some of them are doing it right and really help you, but to be honest the vast majority are hurting your business.” No idea who he means…
Choti faced and overcome similar hurdles when he began Vesper, but he was prepared for the challenge of riding more than one horse.
“The biggest challenge is surely transitioning from being a restaurateur of one restaurant into a business owner who owns multiple restaurants,” he says. “When you own one restaurant, you can always be there all the time to talk to your customers or motivate and teach your staff. When you have two, you have to be able to divide your time between one place and the other wisely. On top of that, you have a lot of other business issues to deal with like how to create greater efficiency or how to expand more. Lastly, since you cannot be at the restaurants all the time, you have to develop key people who have potential to grow, empower them, and entrust them with tasks that you would normally do in the past. They might not do a better job than you now, but in the long run, they will and your life will be much easier.”
This desire for diversification appears to be contagious. In addition to Issaya Siamese Club and Namsaah, Ian Kittichai has interests in Hyde & Seek and Smith, while Jarrett Wrisley oversees Appia and Peppina with Paolo Vitaletti, as well as running Soul Food Mahanakorn on Thonglor and its younger sibling Soul Food 555 at The Commons.
Tim Butler from Eat Me is one of the backers of Bunker on Sathorn 12, and recently opened up the seaside Esenzi restaurant near Phuket. Gaggan Anand, whose restaurant topped the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant polls in 2015 and 2016, is reaching out to the carnivore constituency with Meatlicious. One of the most exciting young Thai chefs around, Ton Tassanakajohn, maintains Le Du as his base while also keeping an eye on two very different places—the home-style Baan on Wittayu, and the newly opened Backyard By Baan in Srinakarin (Sukhumvit Soi 105). Meanwhile, Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava, the couple behind the pioneering Bo.Lan, have opened Err, a more earthy operation near the river.
And that’s just the operators that have stayed within the confines of Krung Thep. Chef Nooror Steppe-Somany is the matriarch of the family behind Blue Elephant, one of the key players in communicating Thai cuisine to the world. The brand has outlets not just in Bangkok and Phuket, but also in several locations in Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, David Thompson of Nahm has taken the Long Chim brand to Singapore, Sydney, and Perth. And Sorapoj Techakraisi of Pace Development went from running Dean & DeLuca in Thailand, to owning the whole worldwide group (he’s also behind L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and M Krub in the company’s MahaNakhon development).
Another successful export is Somtum Der in New York City, a Michelin star winner in the 2016 guide. It’s the sister of the restaurant on Soi Sala Daeng and part of the thriving Supanniga Group, which also encompasses the Supanniga Eating Rooms on Thonglor and Sathorn 10, and EAT at CentralWorld and EmQuartier (there’s also a Somtum Der in Ho Chi Minh City, with new outlets due for Beijing and Tokyo later this year). Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, the managing director of the group, cut his teeth with the Minibar Royale bistro, before seizing on the market for high-quality Thai food.
“Of course the restaurant business has a lot of details and need a lot of micro-management,” he says. “But I found that it is not too stressful. Maybe it is because my personality fits well with the business. When it comes to the financial aspect, the restaurant business is actually financially rewarding if you can manage, control your cost and make it profitable. If you are successful the net margin is actually quite high. If you can make 30 percent that is already above the average standard of general business.”
But probably the most diverse and successful portfolio in town is held by the Water Library group. The brand first made a mark with its much-missed Thonglor outlet, which forced the notoriously picky Bangkok foodie elite to confront the notion of no-choice chef’s table dining. That venue has since closed, but the company now encompasses a restaurant at Chamchuri, and brasseries at Central Embassy and Crystal Park, as well as the 1881 bar, Seed, Ciao Pizza, Kuku, and Hong Bao (not to mention the Michelin-starred Alma in Singapore). How have they maintained their success in so many cuisines when there’s so much competition?
“The challenge is how to make customers remember us and choose to come back to our restaurants since Bangkok has so many choices,” says the group’s CEO, Noppadon ‘Tata’ Narittakurn. “New restaurants open every day so we do what we do best by making sure our staff are trained to maintain the quality and standard of service as well as regulating the quality of food in all our restaurants all the time.”
Ultimately, Noppadon sees the frantic coming and going as an opportunity. “We’ve seen more and more big-name chefs and restaurant chains coming in to Bangkok especially in the past two years,” he continues. “The world has become smaller and people have more of an opportunity to be exposed to different styles of food, with famous guests chefs frequently coming to Bangkok. Also, people are starting to see Bangkok as really a dining destination, ranging from our famous street food to world-renowned fine dining restaurants. On the local side, we also see many new talented Thai chefs emerging continuously, focusing more on local and organic ingredients. I think it is inspirational to see the energy and passion that uplifts the food industry here.”
The entrepreneurs spoken to all seem to be thriving on the adrenalin of the restaurant boom, but such projects can just as easily fall to pieces in a spectacular fashion. Tattooed Australian curse machine Ashley Sutton changed the face of Bangkok’s bar and casual dining culture with spaces including Iron Fairies, Fat Gut’z, Bangkok Betty, and Mother Jones, until murky business reverses saw him lose control of all the properties. Sutton managed to bounce back, achieving a new level of success with his Iron Balls Gin Distillery, and as an interior designer for hire in Bangkok and Hong Kong, but not everyone is so lucky. Restaurants seem to crash and burn every few weeks—maybe the sense of danger is part of the attraction.
The other question is whether the boom is sustainable, not just in terms of individual restaurants or groups, but as a whole. Fred Meyer is optimistic, having seen how much things have improved.
“Bangkok has always been a foodie destination, as we all know Thai people love to eat and drink,” he says. “But in the 16 years I have been living here, the biggest change has been the access to world food, in terms of ingredients and chefs. Thai tastes have changed and are much more open to new discoveries. Also another big change is the birth of the wine culture for the masses—when I arrived in Thailand wine was for an elite of connoisseurs, but now it has really become democratized.”
Choti Leenutaphong, meanwhile, sees a hopeful thread of culinary purity in amongst the anarchy. “I am not sure if this is a next big thing but I think authenticity and a unique sense of place might make a comeback,” he suggests. “At the moment, there are waves of restaurants that do somewhat fusion food—they might package it as new American or new Australian, but it’s still a fusion cuisine. And while this is okay and offering new things to customers, I think more and more people are seeking authenticity in a cuisine. My type of luxury is not to go to fine dining restaurants. Rather, it’s about the ability to eat regional cuisine of one’s place with the purity of their products and recipes, without the interference of other products from other areas.”
Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, possibly spurred by the success of his Somtum Der outlet, is looking to the fat tyre dude for validation.
“I consider Michelin’s presence the next big thing in Bangkok,” he says. “It will result in the development of F&B industry in Thailand, entrepreneurs will be more motivated to improve and maintain standard of their restaurants in order to compete with others, and this, of course, benefits customers.”
Noppadon Narittakurn also looks forward to the rumoured arrival of Michelin but is confident that things are going just fine without the attention.
“More big-name chefs will open fine dining restaurants here, since there’s still room to grow,” he predicts. “And I think we’ll also see more Thai restaurants opening from the younger generation of Thai chefs.”
By Tim Footman