It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a restaurateur in possession of talent, must find the right location in which to open his restaurant.
“I break the rule,” 31 year Marco Ariga, of Chez Marco told me with a cheeky grin and an accompanying French shrug. Arguably one of the city’s most popular and successful non-Thai restaurants, Chez Marco sits snugly alongside a number of prettily lit pink-neon bars along the city’s infamous Loy Kroh Road.
Yet in spite of its rather questionable neighbourhood, in spite of its frustrating dearth of parking, in spite of its near-nonexistent advertising, in spite of chef Marco’s absence of classical training, Chez Marco is one of the few restaurants in the city where reservations are necessary on most nights.
Having stuck my snooty nose up in the air for the first year of Chez Marco’s opening, due to its dodgy location, I have since become a fast and humble fan. The food is exquisite, inventive and inexpensive; the vibe is friendly, casual and fun; the staff is smiley and professional and Marco himself ties the whole thing up with a crazy, bubbly bow. After one particularly fine dinner of fresh tuna carpaccio, sizzling Thai – yes, Thai, but as tender as a love song – steak and a dessert that sent me straight to the treadmill, I asked him for an interview which we could hold at any location of his choice. “My treat,” I told him magnanimously.
“OK, we meet at my favourite restaurant,” shrugged Marco, “the somtam and grilled chicken shop next to Chiang Mai Ram.” OK. Interesting.
Over a spicy lunch, Marco told me that even though his Japanese father was a cordon bleu chef (Marco’s mother is French), he was not classically trained. “I trained myself, and learnt from everyone around me,” he said in his thick French accent, hands a-gesturing, shoulders and mouth a-shrugging. “I worked for some friends in a restaurant in France for a few years before deciding to travel. I tossed a coin between Thailand, where my brother had a friend, and South America, where I had always wanted to go.” Thailand won, and Marco set off in 2001. He spent his first night at this friend’s house where he met his brother’s friend’s sister, Krittiga Kunnalekha, who is now his wife. “I knew I loved cooking, but I had no money, I had no experience, I had no credit. One thing I had was an amazing wife,” explained Marco, who makes a point throughout the interview of crediting his wife for his success. “She does everything. I just cook. She set up the business, got all the paperwork and permits, found the restaurant, she takes care of the staff, everything.”
When asked about his success he (of course) shrugs, and explains, “I don’t look at anyone else, I want to be different, I always want something new. Because I don’t have much experience, I also listen, and take advice from people. I am lucky that many of my customers are foodies and experts, they are also not shy about offering advice!” Indeed, Marco has a fascinating clientele: backpackers and tourists walking off the streets, high-so Bangkokians in the know, local Thais from deputy governors to students, and a huge number of expats who, as mentioned, are not coy about expressing their likes and dislikes, dispensing their opinions vocally and frequently, much to the amusement – and at times, shock – of everyone else in the restaurant. These are the people who have become his friends.
“Cooking is not going to the moon,” Marco laughs depreciatingly. “I love it, I work hard, I don’t take myself too seriously. I am still a kid. My restaurant is a funny place. It is casual, everyone gets treated the same – maybe my friends get special!”
And a funny place it is indeed. When regular customer Esther Ting from Singapore walked into his kitchen one day and saw that it was untidy, she spent the afternoon reorganising it, cooking dessert for the evening serving as well as suggesting that foie gras be added to a pasta; Facon Chez Ester is now a popular menu item. Marco’s friends feel as though they are a part of his restaurant, they influence it, they shape it, they support it, in fact some of them practically live there, with some regulars dining at Chez Marco up to five times a week. “See him?” Marco said to me in a very loud voice while I was dining there one night a few months back, “the man looks like a fisherman, he eats here nearly every night.” I turned to see an older French gentleman who smiled at me and shrugged, “oui,” he nonchalantly agreed, and returned to his dish, much to my mortification.
Marco, who walks around his restaurant with a glass of red wine and a t-shirt proclaiming himself as a ‘handsome chef’ (the staff are adorned with ‘beautiful staff’ shirts) and Krittiga now have a son, Kenji, who is 18 months. He says he wants to slow down, take some time off, but admitted that it was difficult, even though he had excellently trained sous chefs and staff to run things. “I like being there, my clients like me being there, it is hard.”
Unfortunately, a mere 12 hours after our interview, Marco was involved in a nasty accident and rushed to the Chiang Mai Ram, a stone’s throw from where we had enjoyed lunch earlier on. Though exactly what happened is not known, he was seriously injured.
On the first day, over 50 friends and family rushed to visit him in ICU, so much so that doctors had to ask them to stop, “It’s a real testament to his friendships,” said patron and friend Howard Feldman, with an amused shake of his head. It was touch and go for a while, and this story was, naturally, temporarily put on ice in anticipation of a recovery. Thankfully, the doctors say that while recovery is going to be excruciatingly slow, there will be no permanent damage.
A few friends and I decided a couple of nights after the accident to dine at Chez Marco, to show our support. Greeting us was Feldman, who greeted us with a beret and a suave welcome, “I am your associate manager and sommelier for the evening,” he pronounced in his Boston accent, adding that he had visited Marco earlier in the hospital and told him that he was no longer needed at his restaurant, “I told him his friends had taken over”. Two other good friends, winemaker Piergiorgio Lattuille and Rudy van den Berg of Horeca Supply have stepped in and are helping to run the restaurant whenever they are available, “we aren’t needed in the kitchen or anything, Marco has trained everyone well, but we are here to help out with customers and their needs,” explained van den Berg, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. The outpouring of support has been nothing short of astonishing.
Head waiter, O, who was recently head hunted to join a hotel in Laos, has delayed his move, saying, “Marco loves the staff, he listens to us and doesn’t see himself as a boss, but as family. I can’t leave him now that he needs me, so I will stay until the end of the month.”
When asked why clients and friends think Marco has succeeded in garnering such loyalty and friendship, Feldman says with a faux French shrug, “the way to a man’s heart is his food”.
“Forget what everyone else says,” pipes up Jacques Cavin, from another table, “Being Swiss, where food and wine really matter, I know when food is good. Southern French food is also perfectly suited to Thailand, it is fresh, not too heavy, tasty and flavoursome without being too subtle or heavy, people like it implicitly.”
Marco may be – impatiently – laid up on a hospital bed for the foreseeable future, but Chez Marco is in good and caring hands. The friends banter, the clients book, the staff smile, the food remains delicious and the show goes on…while we all wait and wish for his speedy and full recovery.