Chef Solomon, Thai Naam
Chef Solomon, Thai Naam

Riddhi Doshi

Teetotaler Chef Ananda Solomon gets high only on coffee; several cups of traditional filter coffee a day that the Mangalorean chef has grown up sipping. One wonders how strong this coffee is, for even at 61, after the usual retirement age, Solomon decided to take upon him the herculean task of setting up and running a restaurant, Thai Naam by Ananda in Andheri, Mumbai, which opened in February this year.
Solomon, known by many oldtime food writers and journalists as
a hands-on, no-nonsense leader, has always wanted to start something of his own. A dream he cherished even while working for the Taj Group of Hotels from 1993 to 2016. Hence, even when the opportunity came after he turned 60, he grabbed it. “I always wanted to open something of my own,” says Solomon, admitting that it’s not always easy and sometimes even stressful. “It sure has its risks and challenges but if you are passionate about cooking and have a good team and great well-wishers, its fun,” says Solomon. He clocks in long hours every day, fixing all the loose ends in the restaurants and also cooking. “I push myself a little harder every day and set myself bigger targets,” he says.
An old-school entrepreneur
Solomon’s excitement and enthusiasm are almost childlike. While his guests enjoy their meal, he refuses to sit down while talking to them. “Old-school training,” he says and smiles. Unlike most head chefs, he takes his guests on a tour of the 96-seater restaurant, its open kitchen area and backoffice himself.
Thai Naam, Mumbai
Thai Naam, Mumbai
From the wooden floor to the warm yellow lights, diffused by cane lamps, hanging from the ceiling, the carved wooden partitions, comfortable chairs and tables, the minimal, artistic bar, Thai Benjarong jars at the entrance and the textures on the wall, everything at Thai Naam, inspired from Thai temples and palaces, come together beautifully like in an art show of a well-curated museum. “The design should complement the food and that’s how I have designed this restaurant,” says Solomon.

“I always wanted to open something of my own. It sure has its risks and challenges but if you are passionate about cooking and have a great team and well-wishers, it’s fun”

Designed to perfection
One doesn’t expect anything less from Solomon who served top  dignitaries from around the world in his tenure with the Taj Group of Hotels, from 1993 to 2016. And to the disappointment of many, retired prematurely at 58 as the corporate chef of Taj’s business hotels division. “I had severe back issues then. Also, the idea was to quit on a high note when I was at the peak of my career,” says Solomon. While working for the Taj group, Solomon worked closely on the launch and relaunch of several restaurants – Azure and Graze (Bengaluru), Dera (Chandigarh), Verandah, Hip Asia and Raintree (Chennai) — but is best known for three Mumbai restaurants, Trattoria, Konkan Café and Thai Pavilion.
Thai Pavilion was among the first Thai restaurants in the country. Before launching it in Mumbai, Solomon spent close to two-and-half years in Thailand working in a five-star hotel and cooking on the streets there to understand Thai food, its herbs, its essence and its culture. “Herbs are very important in Thai cuisine and I learnt how to choose right, grind them and store them from the women chefs there. I owe a lot to them,” says Solomon.

 

Chef solomon with Sachin Tendulkar
Chef Solomon with Sachin Tendulkar
Once back in India, Solomon created and tried 2,000 to 3,000 dishes before finalising a menu that would appeal to the Indian palette. “Back then, diners in India knew nothing about Thai cuisine. The only herb they knew was Lemongrass, which Parsis
used to make their chai. So, we had to ensure that our people warmed up to the cuisine first,” says Solomon. From there, Solomon went on to serve many dignitaries from across the globe and became a force to reckon with in the global culinary world.
Management lessons
In his second stint in Thailand, as a consultant with a resort chain, after his retirement from Taj, he learnt a lot more about the South East Asian country and streamlined the acquired knowledge to launch Thai Naam. “In my last four years in Thailand, I could go beyond food. I tried to understand Thai people’s lifestyle — how much they earn and spend and how have they improved their economy,” says Solomon.
He also learnt Thai architecture, government functioning and the country’s successful tourism model. “It’s a small country but they attract 55 per cent more tourists than India. I wanted to understand their work policies and the role the hospitality industry plays in the tourism business.” Solomon realised that their impeccable and thorough planning made all the difference. “They work very differently than us,” says Solomon. “They believe in backward integration.” Everything, even the tiniest thing is planned, frozen and executed exactly the same way. “There is nothing like I don’t like it, change it. All the templates are made in advance. There is no ambiguity.” The Thais usually create a mock-room complete with tables, chairs and food before they start building. “They are very thorough. Along with the dimensions of a table, they will also specify the type of glass and its width that will sit on it, in their work sheets.
Thai Naam, Som Tam - Young Papaya Salad
Som Tam – Young Papaya Salad
And food planning is extremely detailed. Not just the menu and the portion size, they will also think about how will it be served to the guests, in what containers, for how long will the food remain warm in the hotel room…
They will estimate the number of non-resident guests expected to dine at the restaurants and also think of ways to create different setups in the same area, so that the frequent diners aren’t bored. The sustenance of great quality is given priority over everything else. “I learnt all of these and so much more from Thailand and have used all the knowledge to set up Thai Naam,” says Solomon.
Something for everyone
At his restaurant, very close to the Mumbai airport, Solomon has, both, chairs and high stools for his family and corporate guests. WiFi is on the house and corporate meal boxes are delivered to offices around. “It was important for me to ensure that everybody who dines here gets the luxury of personal space and feels extremely comfortable. The furniture crockery, the open kitchen and the overall experience is designed accordingly.”
The service is friendly and the servers know their food well. “I believe in investing lots of time and effort in training my staff, as they are the ones interacting with the guests,” says Solomon. “However, the trick is in recruiting right.” When he started Thai Pavilion, he recruited many people from villages who weren’t influenced by any former cooking experience. “It’s sometimes easier to train novices,” adds Solomon. At Thai Naam, the staff is given ample opportunity to learn. “I usually give my people a specific timeline to learn the required skills. If they fail to meet the deadline, they are better suited for another job,” says Solomon, who believes that the best leadership style is the one that doesn’t allow any room for errors.
Thai Naam drinks menu
A drink from the Thai Naam menu
The trump card of Thai Naam and expectantly so is its well-balanced, lip-smacking food. Fresh Pomelo salad; Gaeng Kiew Warn Koong; Gaeng Kiew Warn Je, Thai Green Curry with vegetables; Phad Thai Je, stir-fried rice noodles with vegetables; Sakuna Chowsuan Sos Makam, Tempura prawns with tamarind sauce; Som tam, young papaya salad with sweet and spicy sauce; Tom Kha Koong, Thai herbed flavour coconut soup; Tom Yum Koong, spicy soup flavoured with lemongrass, lime and bird chilli are some of the signature dishes. “With Thai Naam, I want to take luxury to common men. I serve great quality food in a great ambience at pocket-friendly rates. Today’s generation needs that kind of pampering,” says Solomon, ready to head to the kitchen for another round of preps.
Dealing with lockdown
While Solomon has closed his restaurant temporarily, he is busy designing a new experience for his guests post the lockdown. “I think people will be a little scared to go to public spaces. Hence, I am thinking of setting up a pampering, clean-up experience for my guests before they enter the restaurant and also thinking of ways to maintain the recommended physical distance between two tables inside the restaurant,” says Solomon.
The focus is also on creating immunityboosting food and his employee’s safety and well-being. Currently, Thai Naam is one of the few restaurants that has paid full salaries to its staff and on time. “My people are more important to me than money,” says Solomon.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here