One of Bangkok's foremost restaurateurs started his career as a busboy and washing dishes in a restaurant in San Francisco. He never attended culinary school (but would have liked to) and since returning to Bangkok, his birth place, has grown a restaurant empire against all odds. Find out more about the man behind Surface, 100 Mahaseth, Wana Yook and other instantly recognizable names in Bangkok's dining scene and how he grew a successful restaurant business.

Chef Chalee Kader was born in Bangkok to a Thai mother and an Indian father and, as is typical of Thai culture, food played a large part in everyday life for the family. During the week, his mum took on the role of chef and the family was treated to Thai Chinese cuisine which meant plenty of curries, salads, soups, and stir-fries. At weekends, his father took to the kitchen instead and the family was treated to Southern Indian Cuisine instead.

1997 brought with it the Asia Financial Crisis, known locally in Thailand as the Tom Yam Kung Crisis. Chef Kader was still young at the time and, due to changes in his family's financial status, was sent to go and live with a family friend in San Francisco. The chef got an education in America which helped him to learn the English language fluently.

The family friend who took Chef Kader in had his own restaurant in San Francisco and it was here that the Chef had his first experience of working in a restaurant. However, it was some time before Chef Kader prepared any food. Instead, his tasks were limited to washing dishes, cleaning tables, and the other more menial tasks required to help keep a busy restaurant operating smoothly.

Working in a restaurant piqued Chef Kader’s interest in food and he looked for courses so he could learn to cook himself. Unfortunately, courses were just too expensive and he was unable to get a loan meaning he had to find another way to learn instead. The opportunity to learn came about when he got to spend some time working in the kitchen where he gradually gained hands-on experience in preparing food. It was this experience that ignited his passion.

Chef Chalee Kader Returns to Bangkok

In 2002, Chef Kader returned to his home city of Bangkok and looked for work in a restaurant but struggled to find a job in the industry. Instead, he ended up working for a food import company for a few years, but this experience did not cause his passion for cooking to fade.

Chef Kader eventually got his chance to return to his passion in Bangkok and he spent time working at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok working under Chef Carlos Gaudencio. He also spent time as Chef to the French Ambassador in Bangkok, an experience that helped to shape some of his ventures later in life.

Restaurant Business Start Up

In November 2011, Chef Kader decided to go it alone and open his first restaurant: Surface.

Following the chef’s experience working in the French Embassy’s kitchen, it made sense that Surface would itself serve French cuisine, which he did taking a casual approach without the ‘stuffiness’ that is often associated with high-end cuisine. Instead, Chef Kader aimed to serve French cuisine with a twist that appealed to local tastes and set about creating delicious comfort food that would be served in a relaxing setting.

Surface was a hit and is still up and running today as a well-established and popular eating place for Bangkokians. Despite the success of Surface, however, it is not the restaurant he is best known for. That venture came in 2017 and is called 100 Mahaseth.

100 Mahaseth Restaurant Bangkok

Nose-to-Tail Dining with all the Flavors of Indochina

100 Mahaseth is so-called after the street name and house number where the restaurant is located. The restaurant saw a move away from Chef Kader’s experience with French cuisine as he instead focused on something much closer to home – Thai cuisine. More specifically, Isaan cuisine, that originates from Thailand’s rural North-Eastern region.

Thai food is popular all over the world, and for some very good reasons. The aromas and the flavors are unlike those found in cuisines elsewhere and even when walking through the streets of Bangkok you will occasionally be struck with the aroma of garlic, Thai basil, chili, or other ingredients being fried up in a wok. Thai cuisine is also varied so there’s something for everybody, although some of the spicier dishes are not for the faint-hearted.

The thought of your mouth being on fire after eating a meal will make some people look for milder options instead, but spices aren’t the only reason why some people might look for something else. Another reason is not related to the spices, but that some dishes are made from animal parts that we would usually throw away.

At street food stalls and restaurants all over Thailand you will offal on the menu. Instead of throwing it out, Thai cuisine instead often uses offal as the ingredient. From entrails to chicken heads, bile, hearts, skin, tripe, testicles, bone, bone marrow, brain, and even tails, you can find pretty much any body part in a soup and a range of other dishes.

100 Mahaseth itself has a focus on using all parts of the animal. As Chef Kader himself puts it: “It’s Thai food, using brain to balls”. Not only is this ‘nose to tail’ philosophy economical, but it also results in some truly delicious dishes that have made the most of the full range of flavors available from an animal instead of being limited to just a few ‘prime’ cuts.

A Focus on Sustainable Food

Chef Kader’s approach of using all parts of the animal is not entirely born out of being adventurous for adventure’s sake.

Instead, it’s inspired largely by a genuine desire and need to not let any part of the animal go to waste. The policy is very fitting considering it’s the mindset shared by so many of the people who live in the region that is the inspiration behind 100 Mahasath’s cuisine.

Chef Kader points out that sustainable food is not just a trend. Rather, it’s something that’s a part of life when it comes to food in Isaan and they have many methods to help them make sure the entire animal is used. That so many parts of an animal are ordinarily discarded is wasteful; an issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent considering the increased focus on sustainability. Food sustainability is about respecting life and providing healthy food to people that creates sustainable environmental, economic and social systems that surround food. The economic benefits of nose-to-tail eating for people who live in a relatively poor part of the world is particularly pressing - a nose-to-tail policy helps to extend the value of the animal in terms of providing valuable proteins over an extended time period.

According to Chef Kader, using offal might seem strange for a restaurant in a modern city like Bangkok but, in Isaan, it’s the norm. Indeed, the people of Isaan might think it’s strange that so many people throw away so much perfectly edible food, so perhaps the people of Isaan are the ones in the right after all. Regardless, the emphasis on using all parts of an animal has led to a wide variety of creative ways to help preserve and cook offal and other body parts, and Chef Kader wants to take all that knowledge and experience and use it in his own cooking.

Genuine Food Sustainability: Nose to Tail Cuisine

Chef Chalee has pointed out that other restaurants have claimed to use the ‘nose to tail’ philosophy in the past but, in reality, the results are actually quite disappointing. Instead of genuinely offering a menu that includes all parts of the animal, they instead serve only a couple of ‘offal’ dishes, and even then they are not particularly adventurous. Dishes like braised tongue and pate, for example, may be made from offal but are not particularly challenging. In the meantime, the more adventurous parts are still being discarded.

Chef Kader feels that being daring and using the more adventurous cuts helps to make a statement and helps to add a certain persona to 100 Mahaseth. Not only that, but people who come to 100 Mahaseth arrive with the mindset that they are ready to be adventurous, making the experience as exciting as it is delectable.

Restaurant Business Marketing to the Adventurous

Chef Kader acknowledges that marketing can be challenging when promoting dishes that use ingredients other restaurants would usually throw away. With this in mind, he has infused all of his creativity to make his dishes something that people can relate to because, in doing so, people would be happier to spend their money. Diners at Kader’s restaurant will be familiar with many of the dishes, with many being popular items in other restaurants or even easy to find at Bangkok’s many street food stalls. It’s just that Chef Kader has added his own twist, which is that the ingredients are something that you would not usually expect to find.

The results are a blinding success. Not only do the dishes get to take advantage of the wonderful flavors of Isaan cuisine, but they also get to make the most of a wider array of flavors that are not usually available when only prime cuts are used. In a sense, Chef Chalee has given himself a culinary advantage or, perhaps more accurately, retains an advantage that so many other chefs, quite literally, throw away.

His Other Bangkok Restaurants

Surface and 100 Mahaseth are not the only venues owned by Chef Kader. Not only has he opened other eateries but they are also very different from each other – a testament to the chef’s creativity and desire to do something unique.

  • Holy Moly
    At Holy Moly, you can expect to find a range of pies, pastries, and sandwiches. Their all-time best-seller, the camembert and salted caramel pastry is a nod to Chef Kader’s ability to experiment to come up with unique and delicious offerings. Then there’s the beef tongue sandwich that reflects on the chef’s nose to tail philosophy. Expect some unusual combinations that make for pastries and sandwiches like you’ve never experienced before.
  • Wana Yook
    The popular Wana Yook restaurant is a nod to Thailand’s famous street food stalls. Here, you can find a selection of dishes that you would expect to find on the menus of street food stalls, albeit recreated with more flair. Wana Yook also pays homage to ‘khao kaeng’, which means riced served with a side dish that is the staple for many Thai’s that earn low incomes.
  • Mrs Wu
    Mrs Wu is a Chinese Hotpot/ Japanese Shabu fusion restaurant that is perhaps influenced at least a little by Chef Kader’s Thai/Chinese mother. It should come as no surprise that the dishes come with a twist that helps to make them unique but still very relatable to more common dishes. There is a focus on quality raw ingredients and a range of soups & dipping sauces that help make a visit to Mrs Wu’s a memorable one.
  • Beer Bridge
    As the name suggests, Beer Bridge is as much about beer as it is about good food. The dishes here are of the wholesome variety, including steak, burgers, assorted cuts, as well as a selection of Thai dishes.
  • Bad Motel
    Bad Motel has been founded in a run-down, 3 story building that has a focus on Thai street food style dishes – with a twist, of course. Bad Motel is also known for hosting big parties and has regular live music, including from popular DJs.

5 Tips to Running a Successful Restaurant Business

Despite not having any formal training as a chef, Chef Kader has done marvelously well to be the proud owner of acclaimed restaurants.

Having started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher, Chef Kader also understands the nitty-gritty of running a restaurant and how to run a business. Indeed, Chef Kader says himself that running a restaurant is about more than being able to make a few dishes. It also takes research and business and marketing acumen.

Chef Kader is happy to share 5 tips on running a successful restaurant and, considering his own success, its advice that any budding restaurateur should be happy to listen to.

Tip 1: A Strong & Solid Business Idea: You need to have a strong, solid idea that resonates with you. It should be something you’re proud of and confident in. This idea will be the spark of your passion. It will help make you want to follow your passion and make you happy doing it because it’s coming from you.

Tip 2 - A Strong Business Plan: You’re going to need a strong business model and a strong marketing plan. This will help you follow your idea or passion nicely. Without a strong business plan and without a good target in your marketing plans, you will struggle to find a proper identity for yourself and for your brand.

Tip 3 - Unique Brand Identity: Make sure your brand has a proper identity. Your brand needs to reflect what you are special for so people can reflect your specialty with your brand. Having a proper identity will help give you a mark in whichever industry you are working in.

Tip 4: Focus on Your Brand: Your brand needs to have a focus to make it easier to understand and relate to. People on the outside looking in should be able to tell exactly what you are selling, what you’re trying to do with the brand, and what your brand is representing. It’s very important for people to understand what your brand is about.

Tip 5 - Accept & Learn From Criticism: You need to be able to take criticism; to harness your ego in a way so that you’re not overly confident. You don’t necessarily have to listen to everything that people tell you, or listen to all criticisms. It’s good to have a filer that helps you to take useful parts from criticism to help make your business better. If you have too much of an ego - if you’re too confident - you might try and blind all criticisms out. This could ruin your future and your career.

Wrapping Up

Chef Kader’s talents have not gone unnoticed by aficionados, and he has won numerous awards. Perhaps the most prestigious of all is being listed in the Michelin Bib Gourmand Guide that honors restaurants that serve great food at affordable prices. Such an award is very fitting considering the traditional, rural nature of many of Chef Kader’s dishes.

Success hasn’t dampened the Chef’s desire to be in the kitchen, either, and he can still sometimes be found cooking in the kitchen in one of his restaurants. He still has the same passion he has always had for cooking and helps ensure his restaurants continue to serve food that’s prepared with as much love as they always have done.

More About Chef Chalee Kader