Interview with Desmond Chen

Restaurateur | Vancouver

You were a teenager when you started working in your family’s restaurant business, what jobs did you do from the beginning?

At 13, I worked part-time, after school and on weekends, and also during the summer months at our original location on Robson. I started off in the kitchen, doing anything and everything, from dishwashing to basic prep work for the chefs.

At 15, I became more interested in the cooking process and started assisting the staff by prepping meats and sauces for the chef.

Once I hit 16, I got my license and as luck would have it, our Richmond location was born. I became the delivery boy for the location, but also branched out into doing some front-of-the-house duties as well. I was also taught how to maintain inventory control and learnt a lot about managing a restaurant from the staff there.

When growing up in Vancouver did you ever envision yourself as a leader in the restaurant industry?

No, not at all. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, a businessman, and I definitely wanted to be my own boss. I was interested in real estate, fashion, and I even wanted to have my own clothing line for a while. I have very diverse interests and my career path would have to reflect that.

Describe your role as Director of Operations for the Thai House Restaurant Group and which restaurants you run?

I oversee all the daily operations of all the restaurants, and I maintain close relationships with all my staff. I meet with the General Managers and Executive Chefs of each location on a weekly basis. We discuss upcoming promos and any issues from the previous week. Also, I encourage new ideas, so if they or I have eaten at an amazing restaurant in the past week, we’ll share those thoughts as well.

My staff is very important to the success of our restaurants. We have a great team and we treat them like family. Of the over 200 staff members we currently employ, there are 6 people who have been part of our team since 1986! This reflects their loyalty to us as well as our loyalty to them ensuring that they develop new skills so that we can promote them when the time is right.

The restaurants that I run are Thai House, Urban Thai Bistro, Charm Modern Thai, Samba Brazilian Steak House and Chilli House Thai Bistro

Most of the restaurants your family owns are Thai, tell our readers how you ended up opening Samba your Brazillian Steakhouse?

I had opened Urban Thai in 2000, and by the time 2001 rolled around. I was looking for a new challenge. I wanted to open a resto-lounge, with the emphasis on the lounge. I found the perfect space and proceed to negotiate on the lease. Once we got it, and I applied to the city for a liquor primary license, I found out that they weren’t too keen on giving out liquor-primary licenses to addresses outside the Granville entertainment district, not unless you were attached to a hotel. Around this time, I went travelling with my family and discovered Churrascaria. This was a completely new concept, as there weren’t any restaurants like it in Vancouver, or in fact, Western Canada at the time. I was excited to use my space to bring something innovative to the city.

What are the most challenging elements of running restaurants?

When customers walk into a restaurant and see that it’s full, they don’t realize how much work goes into making sure everything is running smoothly. I am responsible overseeing everything from ensuring quality control, keeping an eye on food and liquor costs, staff shifts and scheduling, payroll, accounts payable and receivable, marketing, and more importantly ensuring excellent customer service. I ensure that the back of the house and the front of the house are a good team and focused on working together to provide excellent customer service.

Something such as a broken dishwasher or a bar cooler could turn into something major, especially if it happens on a busy night. We need to make sure that we can deal with all emergencies as they arise.

What do you like to do in your off time outside of business?

I love spending time with my family. Despite how busy my days are, I try to set aside time every week to spend some quality family time together. I also have a large network of different groups of friends that I socialize with often. I do love to eat, so I frequently will go and try out new restaurants with them. To stay in shape, I play ice hockey a few times a week. I also love travelling because it’s such a rich resource of new ideas, and I always try to bring back some of these ideas with me on each trip.

What are your favourite wines?

I started to appreciate wine about 15 years ago, when I was first invited to an industry wine tasting. I was first introduced to appreciate Australian wines especially Shiraz. Then I branched out into the Old World, appreciating French and Italian wines. Right now, I’m drinking more New World wines from Napa and BC. One of my favourites hands down would be the Opus one as I’m a big fan of blends. We have some great wines locally such as the Oculus, Pinnacle series from Sumac Ridge, the Dark horse Estate Meritage from Inniskillin Estates as well as the Kettle Valley Old Main Red.

What do you like to eat when eating outside of your own restaurants?

I really do enjoy casual food, such as Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen. I also enjoy sushi and I love Chinese dim sum. One of my favourite dishes is the Xiao Long Bao. It’s a Shanghainese dim sum, essentially a soup-filled pork dumpling, great comfort food. Another reason I enjoy dim sum is that it is very much a family-style way of eating

What are your Favourite restaurants outside of your own?

I have been neighbours with Pino of Cioppinos for over years, so I love his food. Hands down, it’s the best Veal Cheek Papparadelle in the city. Outside of yaletown, one of my favourites is Coast. Afterall, where else can I get a spicy tuna roll, a perfectly cooked porterhouse, freshly shucked oysters, and beer battered fish and chips? Also, I have to say that Hapa Izakaya is another one I frequent, great atmosphere, funky décor, excellent fusion Japanese cuisine and amazing service.

What is your favourite cuisine?

Oh, well, that’s a hard one…shall we say it’s a tie between Thai and Thai?

What is on the horizon for you and your restaurants in the near future?

We started packaging our Curry Sauces for retail distribution about five years ago. We started off small, but now, we are available nationwide. We are still creating new recipes for these sauces, and have started on making a few sauce for Stir-Frys, as well as a new Thai Peanut Sauce. And for those spice-lovers out there, we are making our own Thai Chilli Sauce as well!

And I’m thrilled to be opening up another new location on 1100-block Alberni in Spring 2011. It’s a completely new concept on Thai dining, and the area is just ripe for development. We are excited to be joining other amazing restaurants such as Market and Kirin on that 1100-block strip.

By: Richard Wolak