Anyone following the restaurant scene in Bangkok will know of 4Garçons. Since opening two years ago, the restaurant has garnered a devoted following. We talk to one of the four men behind it.
At first John Chan seems like a particularly guarded man. He chooses his words carefully and, when he answers a question, it is clear he does so thoughtfully. This might be due to the situation of an interview which, by any reckoning, is an artificial one. A journalist asks you questions and your answers are splashed across the internet, never to be reclaimed. In this circumstance, caution can only be wise.
Indeed, when the iPhone stops recording and conversation becomes more natural, John’s remarks also become a bit more relaxed and the man himself becomes more talkative. But does he become less thoughtful in his speech? Is he a man who has one face for an interview and then another for friendly discussions? The answer would be no.
With John, it seems that what you see is what you get. And what you see is a man who is intelligent, diligent and kind. He doesn’t go on spiteful rampages that can mar many an interview. Neither is he single-mindedly focused on his own agenda. He answers questions readily but with circumspection.
On further conversation, it also becomes clear that John is an adventurous man. Born in ‘suburban Florida’ in the USA, he went to study at Berkeley, California. After Berkeley, rather than returning home to Florida John worked for a while as a banker in California before going on to get an MBA in Shanghai. Then, John worked in aerospace at Honeywell for two years, during which time he developed many friendships throughout Southeast Asia. It was at the urging of one such close friend that he decided to come to Bangkok, where he would become one of four partners in the tremendously popular 4Garçons.
The leap from aerospace to running a restaurant seems like a big one, but John saw it as a ‘business with high potential’. He explains: ‘I never expected to be in food and beverage and I knew it was very challenging. But I showed up here in Thailand and it just turned out some friends were kind enough to invite me to join their group.’
Those friends would be Dr Joe Sukabote; who conceptualised and oversaw the development of the primarily French bistro menu; Van Arayangkoon, the ‘operations guru’ (in John’s words), who spends his time working both front and back of the house; and Poppy Wacharamontri, who handles not only the legal paperwork, but the décor and the sourcing for the restaurant. ‘They’re extremely capable,’ John says, ‘and I thought this would be a great learning opportunity.’
‘I’m happy,’ he continues, ‘because everyone is very hard working, especially those three.’ Most of John’s work day is spent at 4Garçons with Van, keeping the place running. ‘I don’t do much,’ he declares. ‘Most of the hard work is really done by the other guys. I’m there to support and do the back office work: bookkeeping, finance, money, human resources support, payroll and scheduling.’
By his own admission, John is happy to be working behind the scenes, but what really interests him is having a part of the business. ‘I really like having control over whatever I’m participating in. In the past, work [for East West Bank or Honeywell] was assigned for me to handle. The results of your efforts aren’t as clear. In this case it’s left to us to run the business.’
John also helps with front-of-the-house operations, welcoming clients when others are busy or when those he has come to know personally come to the restaurant. Managing a business that deals with satisfying a wide range of people is challenging but enjoyable. ‘Clients come to their table with expectations,’ John explains. ‘You have what you have and you hope people are satisfied. It becomes a relationship thing. When we do our jobs they walk out feeling like they were cared for and cared about. We have a lot of returning customers who come for the personal attention that we give to them. Regular customers come for a place which is their place. When I see a regular customer I enjoy coming out and catching up. In that case it’s a lot of fun for us to see people on a regular basis.’
Does this mean that he’s been caught by the restaurant bug? Like many demanding jobs, running a restaurant can be addictive. Where does he plan to go from here now that 4Garçons is a success? ‘Opening more restaurants is definitely part of the plan,’ John says. But then what seems a trademark modesty sets in once again. ‘It’s still a small start-up business,’ he insists. But that fact is belied by the fact that the team have just opened another restaurant: Joe’s Table in the Ram Intra suburb of Bangkok. ‘It’s a different concept,’ says John. ‘Because of the location, it’s a bit more casual.’
As for his future, John tells us, ‘For the next few years this is going to be the focus. If anything else comes along that piques my own interest, I’d be willing to take a look at it.’
He may be ready to downplay the success of the business but the facts seem to contradict John. Not only is his group opening a new restaurant, John is actually able to take Sundays off after two years of working every day. ‘I’m now trying to rebalance,’ he admits. Whereas he used to be on site until closing, he now goes home about 6pm. Always ready to give credit to his partners, he says, ‘Van and Joe are still working seven days a week.’
On his days off, John has been spending more time at home. But what about the adventurous spirit that brought him to Bangkok? ‘I’ll almost go anywhere. No matter how undesirable or uncomfortable. For me it would be interesting. Myanmar. India or Bangladesh are places I’d like to explore.’ That would include camping and backpacking. ‘You’re bound to see something that is interesting and unique when you step out of your comfort zone,’ he says. ‘Then, having gone through it, it’s quite eye-opening.’
For all his care in answering questions, one would think John might seek to exert control over other areas of his life as well. But a willingness to work hard and a love of challenge make it possible to let things take their course. Says John: ‘This is where life brought me.’
02/07/2012 - 10:42