What does it take to run a thriving restaurant business, especially now, as everyone adjusts their operations to the “new normal” brought on by the COVID-19 crisis? The MICHELIN Guide explores this with Choti “Gy” Leenutaphong, founder of Foodie Collection, a successful restaurant group in Bangkok.
Born into the third generation of an automotive empire in Thailand, Choti found himself following a different path, as a pioneering restaurateur. Today, the restaurants and bars in his Foodie Collection are widely regarded and have been recognised with many awards.
What inspired you to become a restauranteur?
“My interest in the restaurant business started with my love of dining out, something I’ve loved since childhood. My parents enjoyed taking me to different restaurants, in Thailand and abroad. Tasting all the delicious foods and watching the service in action attracted me to the business. I didn’t start right away because I didn’t have the right experience. Then I reached a point in my life where I wanted to try something that I really liked. I figured that even if I didn’t have the experience, I could hire the most talented people and learn from them as we proceeded together.”
From that point on, Choti followed his heart. He was studying and working in London, where he observed the burgeoning cocktail scene there. Believing that Thailand was primed for high-quality bars, he saw an opportunity and developed ideas for bringing cocktail culture to the Kingdom.
Can you tell us about opening your first place?
"Around 2012-2013, there weren’t that many high-end cocktail bars in Thailand. So, I trained as a bartender to learn the workings behind the bar. Then I decided to open my first restaurant/bar, Vesper, in 2014."
At 32 years old, Choti’s first restaurant and bar was a dream come true, partnering with Chef Luca Appino, who is highly regarded in Thailand’s culinary circles. This first successful venture was the beginning of the flourishing Foodie Collection, which continued to open acclaimed restaurants across Bangkok. Offerings range from fine dining at Il Fumo (MICHELIN Plate) and freshly made pasta from La Dotta (MICHELIN Plate) to partnerships with gourmet Thai restaurants such as 80/20 (One MICHELIN Star) with Chefs Napol “Joe” Jantraget and Saki Hoshino.
“There are so many friends and colleagues in the restaurant world working together and making an effort with all their hearts.”
As a connoisseur and a restauranteur, what does the MICHELIN Guide mean to you?
“As someone who loves food, from street vendors to MICHELIN-starred establishments, the MICHELIN Guide has a special place in my heart. I remember when I was studying overseas, I would travel during term breaks, always with my MICHELIN Guide in hand. I was never without major European cities guides. For me, the main joy of travelling is to taste excellent cuisine everywhere I go. The MICHELIN Guide was the perfect solution because it had fine dining as well as Bib Gourmand recommendations. Then I entered the restaurant business, and when I found out that the MICHELIN Guide was coming to Thailand, getting recognised and receiving a star became a dream of mine.
“In the first year MICHELIN was in Thailand, Il Fumo received a MICHELIN Plate. I gathered everyone and told them that receiving an award wasn’t a fluke. It meant that, for the past year, we excelled. If possible, I’d like every one of our restaurants to be listed in the MICHELIN Guide. This means that we are on the MICHELIN inspectors’ radar and that one day we could achieve a star.
“The MICHELIN Guide helps diners who don’t know a restaurant feel more assured about its quality and helps attract customers by giving them a better understanding of the value we offer. Also important is that we are getting more Thai customers as well.
“Another point is that the MICHELIN Guide is helping raise the standards of the Thai culinary world to international levels. It’s helping attract chefs, restaurateurs, and other people in the food industry to Thailand. This includes convincing really talented Thais working in restaurants abroad to come back. They can see that there are many opportunities in Thailand for them to shine and show off their skills. All these people bring their experience, abilities and knowledge of working at international standards to help lift levels here. This then raises Thailand’s profile in Gastronomy Tourism too.”
Do you have a work motto that you go by?
“At Foodie Collection, we have the slogan ‘Creating Space for Passionate People’, which is something I strongly believe in. We want to work with people who love food and drink. I believe that if someone works at something they truly love, whether it’s cooking food, making drinks, or whatever else, they will work harder than someone who doesn’t. This is because in restaurants, or any service business, excellent staff is a vital resource, so when they join us, we encourage them to pursue their passions.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, how did the restaurants adjust?
“80/20 changed to offering delivery services, which was challenging at first as we had to adjust our fine dining menu to be more along the lines of comfort food but without losing our 80/20 style. La Dotta’s pasta menu was easier to convert to delivery. We also distributed reward cards to businesses and customers for special deals at our restaurants when we reopen.”
“It is also important to consider the reasons why people go out to eat.”
What would you like to share with your restaurant colleagues during this time of transition?
“I believe that no matter how difficult things are, there’s a way out. I believe that there are so many friends and colleagues in the restaurant world working together and making an effort with all their hearts. I hope this collective spirit will help us fight the best we can. No matter what type of restaurant and no matter what changes we need to make, we must adapt. Of course, safety and hygiene are of the utmost importance. But don’t forget that it is also important to consider the reasons why people go out to eat. Some go as a treat for a job well done. For others, it’s to meet friends and family. The key question is, what you should do to provide customers with the best experience possible, even if it’s difficult to do right now.”