Creating What Could Be The First 3-Star Michelin Restaurant In Thailand – Forbes
For hotel owners, rooftops were once upon a time wasted space. Lebua at State Tower in Bangkok led that change more than a decade ago. First was its mix of fun and fancy dining set against the Instagram favorite Sky Bar at Sirocco (later featured in The Hangover movie series), then Breeze, a second al fresco restaurant, and finally with its two-star Michelin restaurant Mezzaluna headed by chef Ryuki Kawasaki. Its 64th-floor Flute A Perrier Jouet Bar, the largest point of sale for Perrier Jouet Blanc de Blancs in Asia, is in a spot adjacent to an outdoor walkway that long sat empty. Chivas Bar Alfresco 64, the highest outdoor whiskey bar in the world, is a similar story.
If you are wondering why management offices at hotels are often located in interior spaces that look like they could have been storage closets, it’s because chances are it’s an area that the owner couldn’t use for anything else. In other words, one key to making money in the hotel business is to maximize every inch of commercially usable space to produce revenue.
In places like Bangkok, the need to do more than just sell rooms is even more critical. According to STR, a data analytics specialist, the Revenue Per Available Room (RevPAR) for Bangkok’s luxury hotels last year was just $120. Compare that to places like New York, London and Paris where the best hotels can capture over $1,000 per night for entry level rooms. So how does a hotel make money in the Thai capital?
For Lebua’s restaurants, which average three people per table, Mezzaluna hauls in over $1,200 per check before taxes and gratuities, while Breeze gets around $600 and Sirocco $540. It’s why the group is now investing $6 million to convert its empty 61st and 62nd floors into what CEO Deepak Ohri calls “the first vertical food and beverage destination anywhere in the world.”
His goal is to drive food and beverage revenue from the current 52% of sales to 65% by the end of 2021 when there will be seven restaurants and 14 bars. Unlike many Asian hotels, Lebua doesn’t have a large focus on weddings and banquets. Ohri says large group social gatherings mean you only conduct business with one or two people in that group and they often disrupt the service flow for other guests. By putting a focus on individual customers and small groups who come to his restaurants and bars he is adding thousands of people to his database daily.
What’s more, Ohri notes with big groups, they negotiate lower hotel rates. By making his bars and restaurants “must visit destinations” he can push rooms rates higher, capturing those visitors who want to be only an elevator ride from the action. Still, 80% of its F&B revenue comes from non-guests, mostly tourists who book low rates at other hotels then run up a tab at Lebua’s outlets.
All of the above is why Ohri is now doubling down on food and drink with his next bet coming in the form of Chef’s Table at Lebua helmed by Vincent Thierry who led Caprice at the Four Seasons in Hong Kong to three Michelin stars. Ohri says he is finalizing contracts with three more veterans of Michelin kitchens that currently hold seven stars to launch more eateries.
Lebua’s focus on award-winning fine and fun dining are playing an important role in helping Thailand expand its proposition for affluent visitors. While the Kingdom has always been a popular destination with a wide span of international travelers, its image of friendly locals, cheap hotels, night markets and Pad Thai noodles has put the country’s luxury offerings in the back seat.
When Michelin arrived last year it was hoped the guide would spotlight that Bangkok has outstanding international restaurants such as Mezzaluna and Normandie Grill across the street at the Mandarin Oriental, both of which have earned two stars in each of the first two years. So far, no restaurant has earned three stars, and a few eyebrows were raised this year when Sirocco and Breeze didn’t earn at least one star while through the mysteries of Michelin, a hawker stand received the honor.
At any rate, Ohri believes having an internationally acclaimed chef and earning three stars will bring more dollars to Lebua and Thailand. It means no expenses are being spared in construction for Chef’s Table. Over 100 tons of new steel beams were installed so that designers could cut out a column that would have obstructed the views from several tables. To get the beams to the skyscraper’s upper reaches, they had to be cut in pieces and then welded back together. Moreover, to make sure he has a winner, Ohri brought on Thierry nearly a year ahead of the restaurant’s opening so the chef could be part of the planning. “It’s very unusual, but it’s a thrill to be able to get involved so early,” Thierry said.
It’s not just the food. It’s the experience. While Chef’s Table won’t be the first restaurant with an open kitchen, the design is unique with two, one for hot food preparation, the other for cold dishes and pastries. Guests walk by both stations as they enter and Thierry will be moving between them. “I will be able to talk to every guest, every night,” he says. The restaurant can seat up to 41 people,
Recently, Forbes.com got an exclusive tour of the construction zone that will soon be accommodating foodies from around the world. Chefs like Thierry attract Michelin fanatics who want to say they dined there before the guide gets a chance to issue its ratings. Executives say the hotel has been getting dozens of calls every day.
Currently, there are over 200 workers cutting through cement floors to install two new top of the line Otis elevators that will whisk guests from the 64th floor to the 61st floor where the doors will open to the sparkling lights of the Bangkok skyline and the Chao Praya river below. They’ll be greeted by a new champagne bar with a two-story glass wine cellar. A secret entrance enables guests to view rare vintages they might want to have with their dinner.
Everything is being customized for the restaurant. The smoke top by Halton is being made in Finland. The stove is being built in Italy by Molteni and then will have to be cut into four pieces to fit into the elevators and put back together once it reaches its new home.
For Thierry, he is now working on hiring his kitchen team. He doesn’t know what they will be cooking yet. “The first thing is the product,” he says, adding that he hasn’t given a budget, only instructions to spend whatever he sees fit. In addition to sourcing global favorites, he wants to highlight Thailand’s best produce and cater to the growing number of fine dining fans who he says are vegetarian.
Once he gets an idea of the products he will be using, Thierry will start testing out new dishes, and while there the concept will be a tasting menu, he says it won’t be a distinct rotation but ongoing changes. “If you are going to use porcini mushrooms, and you will only take the best, you might have them for two months, or maybe it’s too rainy or too dry, so (the supply) will end after 10 days. You always have to have something in your pocket,” he says.
The new restaurant and bar will only take about 10% of the 140,000 square feet of space on the two floors. Next will be the first steakhouse to feature an open kitchen using a charcoal grill. For Halton and Molteni it means figuring out a way to prevent the ash and smells to wander into the dining room. Also coming, Basque Spanish and Indian restaurants, wine, martini and Cachaca bars. To connect them, Ohri has his team developing a Willy Wonka inspired glass elevator that will move vertically and horizontally, enabling guests to travel between the bars and restaurants that will span the 61st and 62nd floors.
Taking notice of how the pool scene at hotels in Las Vegas and Miami Beach turnout big profits, down on the 14th floor, a second pool is being built, the gym and spa are being relocated and expanded, and the current pool is being turned into Bangkok’s first day club. A lifeguard stand will become a DJ booth, a cement wall that blocks the view is being knocked down and being replaced with glass giving partiers a panorama of the capital’s bustling streets. There will be cabanas and daybeds, for rent of course, and a cover charge for non-hotel guests. Ohri is hoping the move will enable him to nudge his room rates a bit higher despite a plethora of new luxury hotels opening.
“Many people come to Bangkok for a couple days, and then go off to the beaches or to the north. I think we can create a reason for them to stay an extra day or two,” Ohri says.
The CEO declined to discuss if he was disappointed that Sirocco and Breeze didn’t earn at least one star and the fact that in the second year, Michelin’s list looked more like a local restaurant guide populated by Thai restaurants. Vincent says that’s not what he looks at either. “When I was in New York with Deepak and Ryuki, we were there for five nights and each night we went to a different (3-star Michelin) restaurant. They are doing two seatings a night and they have big spaces. I know if we can fill the restaurant and people like what we do, then they will talk, and if people talk, then everything else will work out.”
In the meantime, Ohri’s all-star team of chefs is attracting top talent, like a new boss for Sirocco who comes from The Ritz in Paris. On a daily basis, he will be able to learn and trade experiences with Kawasaki and Thierry. In fact, on a recent night, Romain Dupeyre invited his fellow Frenchman into the kitchen to lead his team for an evening. “This is a very exciting place to be,” he told me on an unseasonably cool Bangkok night void of humidity, city lights twinkling as my dove sole was being fileted tableside.
Will Dupeyre earn a star or two next year? Will Mezzaluna get the third star? What accolades will Thierry receive? While we will have to wait and see until the next release of the red book in November, if things go as planned, by the beginning of the next decade Lebua at State Tower will be challenging Macau’s Melco Resorts & Entertainment with six restaurants that have a combined 11 Michelin stars.