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On a high

Deepak ohri is probably the most talked about man in the Thai food business. And he’s just touched 40, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2008 20:12 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It’s the one Bangkok restaurant that even foreigners have heard of. When Indians – especially, well-heeled affluent ones who like to think of themselves as globe-trotters – come to Bangkok they all ask to see if tables can be found for them at Sirocco. It’s the same with Westerners. On any given night, there will be a queue of Europeans and Americans trying hard to get in.

On my last visit to Bangkok, I tried to get a table because my son said that nearly everyone he had met in Bombay who had been to Bangkok had told him that this was the place to go to. When I phoned for a reservation, I realised why it was a such hot table to score – the restaurant was fully booked for the next week. Bangkok has a flourishing eating-out culture and some excellent restaurants serving French, Italian, Chinese, Indian,

Japanese and of course, Thai cuisine. And some of them may deny you a table on say Friday or Saturday night. But rarely do you have to wait more than a day to get in. And these days, with the Thai economy in the doldrums and tourist arrivals dropping, you don’t even have to do that.

So what makes Sirocco so special? There are many complicated answers to that question. But the one fact about the restaurant that fascinates me is that it is the brainchild of an Indian. Deepak Ohri launched Sirocco when he was in his mid-thirties and now that the group he heads has expanded to include more restaurants (Breeze, Mezza Luna etc.) and a hotel (Lebua), he is probably the most talked about man in the Thai food and beverage business. And he’s just touched 40. Thailand has a successful Indian community. These are people who’ve lived there for generations, who speak fluent Thai and usually have Thai passports.

But Deepak is not one of them. He is an Indian from Delhi who studied hotel management in Madras. He went to work for ITDC in the late 1980s, lasted four years or so, and then travelled abroad, working for Rajan Jetley’s Indian restaurants in Singapore, for TGIF in America and partnering entrepreneurs in a projected chain of Indonesian restaurants in the Far East. He came back to India to join the Taj group in its corporate office around the time that a new management was trying to remake the Taj’s F&B outlets. He was part of the team the launched Kafe Fontana in Delhi, the new Shamiana in Bombay, the new coffee shop at the Taj Coromandel in Madras and several other restaurants during this period before chucking up the job (though he says that he is still in touch with Taj supremo RK Krishna Kumar for whom he has enormous respect) to work for a chain of hotels and service apartments in Bangkok.

It was while he was working in Thailand that Sirocco happened. A mother and daughter team of millionaire Thais who had made their money in ship-building and defence contracts built a large structure at the edge of Bangkok’s Silom Road, five minutes or so from the Chao Praya River and the hotels that surround it (including the grand old Oriental). They wanted part of the building to be an all-suite hotel and wavered between giving management control to the Regent and Meritus groups. Deepak was asked to join when Regent was planning to take over but when Meritus got the contract instead, he joined the building’s owners to develop F&B and entertainment options independent of the hotel.

The top priority was a huge space on top of the building. Focus groups suggested it could be used for a spa but Deepak thought it would make a great location for a restaurant. Unfortunately, he had no time to plan it properly because the building was set for a grand opening in a few months.

He decided that he would capitalise on the view. The building (now called State Tower) is very tall and its top floor offers unmatched views of Bangkok and the river. At night, the effect of the twinkling lights can be truly spectacular and so, ignoring the focus groups who said that the view might be a problem for any restaurant on that location (this seems bizarre in retrospect given that the view is now Sirocco’s most praised feature!) he built the restaurant around the view. Most of the tables were in the open, under the stars. Then, he planned a Sky Bar, set near the edge of the balcony so drinkers got the full benefit of the view. Unusually for Bangkok, he did not put any seats in there, expecting people to stand, drink and look at Bangkok from up on high.

He needed a cuisine that had a broad enough range to satisfy the hundreds of people he expected to serve so he chose Mediterranean. He hired a chef from Amanpuri in Phuket and they planned a menu that was heavy on oysters (including even the New Orleans ‘Po Boy’ oyster sandwich) and luxury ingredients.

Deepak’s philosophy was to go for broke. He wanted this to be one of Bangkok’s most expensive and exclusive restaurants and bet on his hunch that there were enough people who were willing to splash out as much for dinner in Bangkok as they would spend in London or New York. This was a risky strategy but Deepak extended it to the bar, Distil, which stocked the rarest and most expensive vodkas and where a rare premium Scotch was the pouring brand.

Against the odds, it worked. As Sirocco’s popularity grew, Deepak put in place a strict dress code (always risky in Bangkok where many Westerners expect to be allowed to wear vests, shorts and sandals) and shocked his managers by turning away guests, confident in the certainty that he could sell his tables anyway.

Within a few months, Sirocco had become Bangkok’s first destination restaurant. People waited days for tables (difficult enough because the average tourist only stays in the city for three days – during which he has virtually no chance of scoring a table at Sirocco unless he’s had the sense to book before getting to Thailand), and Sirocco’s fame spread. Not only had Deepak created one of the region’s most spectacular and successful restaurants, he had also done it as an Indian in a city where successful upmarket F&B operations tended to be run by well-paid Western expats. The conventional wisdom was that only Europeans understood what rich Westerners wanted. But here was Deepak, with his Madras catering college background and his ITDC and Taj group experience, drawing more Europeans and Americans every night than any other restaurant in Thailand.

But Deepak was not done. Sirocco was followed by Mezza Luna, an Italian fine dining restaurant and then Breeze, an Asian seafood place. Then his owners forced Meritus out and Deepak took over the hotel part of the building which he re-christened Lebua and took upmarket, aiming for average room rates that were among the top five in Bangkok. By now he understood the importance of hype – especially on a global scale – so he started organising annual dinners cooked by platoons of Michelin-starred chefs from all over the world at outrageously high prices. This ensured that his hotel was written about in the international press.

In the process he has ruffled many feathers. He can be brash and aggressive (though when I interviewed him he was all low-key charm and politeness) and refuses to respect many of the hierarchies that are integral to Thai society. Because he has achieved so much so quickly, he has had to steal top quality staff from some of Bangkok’s best hotels, often offering to double their salaries. This has made him so unpopular with other hoteliers (usually European expats) that he has been banned from some top hotels for fear that he’ll poach anybody who serves him a good lunch. There are law suits in progress and within Bangkok’s tightly knit hoteliering community, he is seen as an outsider and an upstart. Even the local Thai Indians think that he can be too brash and uncouth even, and complain that he has no sense of the rules and restrictions that govern Thai society.

I don’t think Deepak cares too much about any of these criticisms though. He can be a little defensive about the scorn of expat hoteliers but you’d expect that from a man who battled years of rigid Indians-can’t-do-it orthodoxy to make such a success of his operations.

At present, he says, sales have been unaffected by the economic downturn (though because it rained in Bangkok for nearly all of the last month, his open-air restaurants have been hurt) and occupancies at Lebua are holding up. He serves 400 dinners every night and if you take into account those who just stop by for a drink, that figure goes to over a thousand. He has two ambitions, he says. One is to take over a bungalow in Delhi and convert it into an exclusive restaurant complex. And the other is to retire young.

And this rate, he shows every sign of achieving both.