The Restaurateur Who Wears His Heart On His Sleeves

In the same vein of the American dream, this is the new paragon of Malaysian dream. Thirty years ago, Thanee stepped foot in Kuala Lumpur, not knowing how to speak English nor Malay. Today, he’s the reputable restaurateur that sees millions in annual sales.

Life is but a dream

Whilst he’s hitting the big 6-0, he hardly looks the part. Perhaps it’s the round hipster-esque glasses; or that extravagant smile that he wears. “The trick is to drink more tom-yam,” he joked. The trick, turned out, as clichéd as it sounds, is ‘you are what you think’. “Your body can be old, but you can be young at heart,” he went on. Whilst many of us are driven by society’s fear of aging, this architect turned restaurateur is rather optimistic.

On creating the menu…“It’s the food that I’ve been eating since young!” | On designing the space… I have the visuals in my mind. The rest of the knicks and knacks are mostly being sourced from Bangkok. | On hiring… He believes in hiring people with a good heart instead of the smartest people (which explained the slogan—hospitality with a heart).

Thanee’s passion for art and design have deep roots. Thus his default setting almost seem flawlessly careful. He attended architecture school in the best university in Thailand, Chulalongkorn University, where diplomas were traditionally handed out at graduation by the King of Thailand. He was trained to be a very good architect. “The school always teach you how to be the best employee, but not how to think, manage and lead.” Being a great architect was his biggest ambition, then.

Like every other success story, it started with a dream, external skepticism and of course, savings. He called himself a dreamer. I addressed him as the dreamer with guts. With guts, came glory.

Whatever you do, if you do it right, you’ll be rewarded.

The new classic

A world away from the theatricality of conventional restaurants and fancy traiteurs, the authentic thai food of the Absolute Thai chain feels surprisingly contemporary and desirable. It is a smart mix of the old and new. He took a sip of Tom Yum and continued, “I think we represent a new kind of Thai restaurant in the country.” It was an unchartered territory.

Unlike 20-something CEOs who are ruining it for the mid-life crisis adults, Thanee has managed to keep the dream alive. He got a late start, at age 45, the same age when Thomas Edison founded General Electric (GE). Nonetheless, he didn’t have to wait long for another Thai-talizing newborn. It hasn’t been calculated, it’s done by instincts. That said, you bid adieu to bed of roses, expect plenty of unforeseeable detours; speed bumps and potholes, and having a runaway chef in the second month of business is unequivocally the worst.

The fact that Thanee is easygoing and have a wonderful sense of humour does not mean he can’t have a strong code of ethic and behaviour. Even so, Thanee doesn’t give himself the credit he should for getting things absolutely right — from designing the space to hiring and knowing what to serve. He directs his young staffs with quiet authority and the kind of charm that makes people instantly like him.

From zero to hero.

Presumptuous as it may be, he’s big on enjoying life. When he’s not at work, he’d be playing golf in Scotland, painting (his form of meditation) and living his day as a tourist in familiar neighbourhoods. “You should live a little, don’t do the same thing everyday as a chore. If you die the next day, it doesn’t change anything.” He doesn’t seem to associate the things he does with money. He poetically referred them as ‘beautiful things’. “It’s not the money that drive me, it’s the design that I love to do.” That’s where he finds a sense of achievement.

“Every night when I close my eyes, I’m smiling.” ◆