A conversation with Chef Chalee: On making every step count during the pandemic and adding nostalgia as a secret ingredient

“If you’re not on your toes and not being active, you will lose the customer’s attention.” – Chef Chalee

Two weeks before the Thai government unexpectedly announced that dine-ins would be allowed starting from 1st September, we caught up with Chef Chalee Kader on what was happening and how to make every step count even during these challenging times. “I hoped that there would be more answers that we could get out from all of this and that there would be some sort of light by now. The opportunities that this industry has provided is relevant and of great importance, and it does not deserve to be left to bleed to death. I give props to those out there fighting for their staff members, and I give props to the people that are still sticking it out. We are just surviving on hope right now.” 

Most well known for 100 Mahaseth (2017) which elevates Issan (E-san) cuisine, Chef Chalee Kader is of Thai Indian descent and was educated in the US before returning to Bangkok in 2002. In his career of 20-years, the chef-proprietor has conceptualized numerous award-winning, forward-moving concepts such as 100 Mahaseth (Bib Gourmand, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2020 & 2021) WANA-YOOK (2021), Mickey’s Diner (2021), Holy Moly (2016), Knock (2015),  Surface  (2011)

Tell us more about the situation in Bangkok 

The last lockdown, which would be Bangkok’s fourth round of lockdowns, has affected us severely because most owners would have used up all of their savings or cash flow in the first few lockdowns. I think it was the last straw for some. This has taken a bit of a toll on the F&B industry, for certain, but also all the other affected industries as well.

The Thai government has failed us. I am quite disappointed and frustrated with the blame game, negligence, uncertainty and instability that the Thai government has handed to all of us in F&B as the sacrificial industry. The authorities were imposing lockdowns without having a solution to get more people vaccinated, which makes it almost a useless waste of money and time, and a waste of a lockdown as well. I don’t know if I’m being pessimistic, but I think it’s going to take a while for our industry to recover if at all. 

How has the pandemic period been for your restaurants? Can you tell us more about how many restaurants you are operating right now and how many brands did you launch during the pandemic?

During the early days of Covid-19, we opened the second branch of 100 Mahaseth. It was open for just four days before the pandemic forced restaurants to close for dine-in. 

Between the second and the third lockdown, we opened Wanayok, a fine dining restaurant. This concept was ready to operate even before the pandemic but there was too much at stake. What if we started hiring and we were forced to close down again, what would happen? In the end, we decided to go with it but within two months, we had to pause Wanayok and close it temporarily due to the dine-in restrictions. Fine dining is really hard to adapt for a pandemic and we also don’t want to tarnish, improvise or dilute the brand too much, as it is still relatively new.

If I knew it was going to last two years, I would’ve shut everything down, put everything on pause. But since we’re already operating our existing brands, we just continued to do whatever we can to stay afloat. However, I felt that if these strategies weren’t really pushing that much revenue, then we have to do something else. We need to take care of our staff’s well-being. 

How did you manage the pivot? 

With our existing kitchen, I just started launching small brands with limited amounts of items, it’s almost like a cloud kitchen with multiple brands. If I could launch multiple brands mimicking many other restaurants and get them onto the delivery platforms, there’s more probability of me getting more customers from the big pool of restaurants already on the delivery platforms. 

People are looking for a brand that’s associated with something they’re specialized for like a certain dish or dishes.

If you have a brand that has 60 dishes on delivery platforms, customers would just be scrolling through, they might order a dish or two, or maybe even just get bored of scrolling and go back to something that they’re comfortable with. So, I took the idea and reverse engineered it instead, basically just having one brand focus on one or two dishes and try to make the best out of it. 

Some of the brands we have launched:

American Fried Rice 

Like with American Fried Rice, it’s very nostalgic for a lot of us in our thirties and forties. It almost looks like a hot American Breakfast but with rice instead. So, we tried things like that, making dishes that people could relive feelings of nostalgia or memories of travelling, and trying to make eating at home more fun. 

if you’re not on your toes and not being active, you will lose the customer’s attention.

The main point was to keep people interested in our work. Even though that attention might be just for a week because there are so many choices out there, but the point is that our brands are always seen. It serves as a reminder to customers that we are still operating and launching new things, and people will order from you. 

100 Torung 

Since we already have good beef and a reputation at 100 Mahaseth, we wanted to do something that wasn’t too complicated. We sense that people are missing travelling to Japan so, 100 Gyukatsu came about, and we gave it a try to see if people would catch on to it. Launching these brands are a great way to test the market. If it works even during these tough times, we can take it as a cue to perhaps open a shop next time. 

100 Gyukatsu 

Every restaurant is suffering, some are just trying to stay afloat, perhaps even thinking of closing their shutters for good. What should restaurant owners do now moving forward? 

There are many ways to adapt and sustain. If you are thinking of closing down for quite some time now, then save your money and effort and close it down. When things start picking up again, perhaps you can reconsider opening. You’re going to need a lot of cash flow to stay open. 

Otherwise, bite the bullet and adapt fast! If you are expecting to just keep going with whatever you have and fighting hard to keep it that way, it’s not going to work. You need to see from the consumer’s point of view.

There are still customers out there that are willing to pay for experiences since the money saved up for travelling is idle. Customers still want to take pictures of their experiences, and maintain a lifestyle at home. That’s up to us to find ways to bring that experience to their homes. Take the creativity you had when business was good and make that delivery box interesting. Communicate through your packaging. 

So, I feel like there are still ways to make it work but if you don’t want to, then you might as well just close and save the money to open again later. 

Speaking of closing a restaurant, it is never easy. Can you share more about your own experiences with this? 

The hardest part to deal with is the sentimental value it holds over you. It’s your baby. You can’t just kill it. We had a restaurant that we’ve opened for 10 years. The first five years were good. After that, perhaps we didn’t make an effort to refurbish it or try to find a new base of customers for it. By the time I came to the realisation, we wasted maybe three or four years just leaving it open because we couldn’t find the heart to close it.

We were just hoping it would come back to what it was at the start. It’ll come back. It’ll come back. It’s not going to come back. And if you’re not going to find new clients that are willing to spend, then it’s not going to have the longevity to go on. 

But coming back to the point of knowing when to close, you just have to read your books closely. I feel like if people really can put aside the sentimental part that they have with their brands, that would be the easiest way to decide whether to close your restaurant. Once it hurts financially, it means it’s time to shut. 

What are your key takeaways from restaurant closures that you take with you with your new brands? 

Have enough cash flow for the first six months and make the most of it. If you have an idea and it doesn’t work in the first six months, don’t overspend on new ideas and try to gamble with the rest of the money you have, wishfully thinking that this concept will work. 

Make sure that your restaurant works out in the first five years and make the most of it. Most establishments don’t go more than 6-7 years if you’re lucky. 

In the long run, once it goes past its fifth or sixth year, and if sales have dipped with no spikes anymore, you need to identify what you’re doing wrong or whether the brand is just getting old and people are getting bored. If there are consistent dips, it is time to leave the game and try to move on. It’s different when you play the game as a restaurateur or as a passionate owner. Find out which one you are.

Chef Chalee Kader
“We can have all the passion we want, but it’s useless without partners or a team with complementary skills.” – Chef Chalee
Let us explore more on the last statement, “It’s different when you play the game as a restaurateur or as a passionate owner.”  Many young people are passionate about opening their own business. What is your advice to the younger generation? 

Obviously, you need passion to run a business, but once you cannot engage your passion and your ego, or if ego overrules and blinds you from the numbers, that is where the trouble starts.

However, I think the younger generation is smarter than us.  The next generation will have more exposure in terms of training, proper apprenticeship, and culinary education. During my time twenty years ago, telling my folks – my mother’s Chinese and my father’s Indian – that I wanted to go to culinary school to be a chef, they would say, “Why do I want to be someone’s server?”

We can have all the passion we want, but it’s useless without partners or a team with complementary skills. There’s the guy that handles the business end of it that’s controlling all the numbers and making sure your dreams and your passions can stay alive, and is worth the numbers; then there’s the one that’s passionate about the whole cooking aspect of it, and then there’s the one that knows how to tell the story and put everything together into a good Marketing plan. 

Restaurants are more than just, “Oh, I’m just going to make this food as it’s what I love to do. I’m passionate about it and now I expect customers to understand it at the first bite.” 

It’s gone way past that.


Images credit: Chalee Kader. 

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