University wasn’t for her, so Sarah Smith started work in a café – and instantly fell for the “back-breaking, smelly and thoroughly sociable hospitality life” of catering. Today she runs a top Bangkok restaurant.
BORN in 1984 and educated in Plymouth, UK, Sarah won a place at Cardiff University to read mechanical engineering. “My Mum’s family are all from that area of South Wales and I felt perfectly at home in Cardiff. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with my course, and switched to a pure physics degree, which wasn’t a much better option.
“Over the summer I got a job working at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth in its café, where for some reason I fell for the back-breaking, smelly and thoroughly sociable hospitality life!
“After spending my summer scrubbing pots, serving hordes of families and working a few silver service events I returned to university to a part time bar job and a full-time university course. It ended up the other way around! I worked full time and left my studies to a part time basis.
“Needless to say, my exam results reflected this and I took the decision to work fulltime in the industry I’d dropped into and to leave the studying to those more suited to it. Since then I’ve worked in a number of well-knownUK branded restaurants, as well as a fairly long stint with Premier Inn and a few hellish months in a call centre!”
Tell us about your current job – why you chose Jamie’s, how long you’ve been with the company.
“I’m currently the General Manager for Jamie’s Italian in Siam Discovery. I first started working for the company in 2009, when prompted by the then-husband that a new restaurant opening in Cardiff
just before Christmas would be good money. I’d applied for a supervisor job, but they were only hiring waitresses, so I took it. I got my supervisor position within six months and a management position within nine months. I loved it, learnt more than I ever knew was possible about food and operating a restaurant.
"Thailand has had much fewer gender barriers than I expected of Asia when I first moved to this side of the world. It’s interesting when I go to regional GM meetings though, as I am the only girl! "
“I was there for about six months before moving to the Bath restaurant as an assistant manager. During
my time there I trained the General Manager and the Bar manager for the restaurant that was to open in Singapore. A friend of mine then offered me a job working for a well known French chain back in Cardiff. It was a great learning experience but I missed the passion and craziness of working at Jamie’s Italian.
“Then one morning I woke up to several messages from the Singapore General Manager, my now Head Chef and our group Executive Chef asking. what I was doing with my life and ever thought of Asia? The rest, as they say, is history.
“I was Bar Manager in Singapore for a year, then moved to Bali for the pre-opening and first year of operations, then Bangkok in June 2016 to take charge of the operations here.”
Have you ever met Jamie Oliver? Is he planning to visit Bangkok?
“Met is a strong word, I’ve been at event with him and said a quick hi. Although he does video messages
for the restaurants and I’ve had a shout out, and been given two Jamie’s Italian International awards collected by our Executive Vice President on my behalf! He’s exactly how he is on the TV. We’re working with the international team to see if we can schedule a visit out here, but he’s diary is booked up well in advance!”
Were you responsible for preopening as well as the launch? How was it?
“Oh Yes! We had a fantastic project team who took care of all the building and fitout, but Alex, my head chef, and I did everything else! It was hilarious, trying, stressful, and incredible!”
How many staff do you have at the restaurant?
“We’ve now got a team of 70, including two expats!”
Has it been challenging as an expatriate lady to manage a restaurant in Thailand?
“It’s definitely a challenge, whatever gender you are! There’s the tendency of my team to treat me like ‘mummy’ which can be wearing
"My team tends to treat me like ‘mummy’ which can be wearing and endearing in equal measures. Our local partner is Siam Piwat, whose The CEO of our local partner is a woman, so my being a woman in a positionof power in Thailand hasn’t been much of a challenge. "
“Thailand has had much fewer gender barriers than I expected of Asia when I first moved to this side of the world. It’s interesting when I go to regional GM meetings though, as I am the only girl!”
How do you get on with your Thai staff?
“I think they’re still trying to work me out! We have our challenges, especially with language, but generally we get along well, I never trust the Thai they teach me though – it’s all the naughty words!”
What are the major challenges?
“Language is a massive challenge for me, I’m struggling with the pronunciation a lot. The culture is really interesting and based around family and respect, but after Singapore and Bali, I had a fair idea of what to expect. Running a business in Thailand has been a massive culture shock though.”
How’s the restaurant doing?
After a rocky start we’re finding our place in the market now. Hospitality is such a competitive business here; you can barely walk 100 yards without finding someone selling food, be it a restaurant or a street vendor!
“We hit the market at a difficult time in November 2016, and didn’t give the team enough time to settle down before we started promoting that we were open, but with lots of hard work, the team we have now are doing really well at producing amazing food and great service. Consistency is the key and something we are really striving for.”
Any special promotions we
“Our Weekend Roast! Giant Yorkshire puddings, roasted parsnips and bottomless gravy! And the meat of course, which is free-range or higher welfare.”
What are the restaurants most popular dishes?
“Pizza, of course, as it’s an easy option for everyone, and our homemade pasta is a big hit. Our cheesecake has its own following too!”
“Meatball Pappardelle – the meatballs are from Sloane’s and our pappardelle pasta is something completely different! My go-to lunch is the Roasted carrot & avocado salad, but our Fish stew is also one of my favourites.”
When not working, where do you hang out?
“Not that I have much! I’m on the Board of directors for the British Chamber of Commerce and also on the committee for the BCCT Young Professionals. We’ve had some brilliant events so far this year, the last one at my restaurant. Other than that, I’m working my way through the many restaurants in Bangkok. I’ve been exploring more around Ploenchit, where I’ve just moved to, and love all the little cafés and places to chill with a book and endless coffee.”
Have you had a chance to explore Thailand?
“I’ve been North to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and then the usual suspects of Pattaya and Hua Hin. I loved the White Temple in Chiang Rai, and next up want to visit Ayutthaya, Khao Yai and maybe see some of the Islands.”
What do you like most / dislike most about living and working in Bangkok?
“I love that it’s so accessible, there’s so much to do, and there’s always something new going on. It’s such a juxtaposition of old and new, I like that Bangkok has kept so much of the old, as well as the skyscrapers and malls.”
Do you like Thai food?
“I’m trying more and more different Thai food, but I think my favourite at the moment is Duck Laab with black sticky rice and salted egg som tam.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m happy in Bangkok right now, and still have plenty to do here. I’ve still got 20 months more on my contract and then we’ll see what Jamie is up to then! Who knows!”