Eleven years ago when Le Crystal opened its doors, offering an elegant purpose-built river side classical French restaurant with impeccable service and an exquisite setting, some of us worried that Chiang Mai surely wasn’t ready for such a glamorous venue. At the time there were only a handful of five star restaurants in a city which seemed to enjoy wearing flip-flops to dinner at chilled outdoor venues, over anything else.
Times have changed, however, and as our wallets become a wee bit thicker, our taste buds a little more refined and our interests a tad more sophisticated. It is we diners who have supported this great growth in the restaurant scene and on the flip side, intrepid restaurateurs and chefs who have created a foodie culture to make it all possible. In this environment Le Crystal has gone from strength to strength, garnering Thailand Tatler’s Best Restaurant rewards for a decade as well as claiming a loyal and steady clientele.
“My family and I love food, we always have,” Riddhi ‘Big’ Diskul, 37, managing partner of Le Crystal told Citylife. “Dad used to be a shareholder in Le Coq d’Or and eventually decided to open his own restaurant eleven years ago on this piece of land we have had for about 40-50 years. Even though we are all Bangkokians, as a family we have always had a home in Chiang Mai and always spent our winters here. My brother is also a foodie, he is studying now at Le Cordon Bleu and his background is food and beverage. He hopes to open his own restaurant one day.”
“It’s quite funny how I got here though,” Big laughs. “You know I was an archeologist by training, right?”
No, I didn’t. So, as we switched between Thai and English, using whatever words come to mind with greater precision or speed, Big told me about being sent away to boarding school in England when he was only 10 years old. “It wasn’t always easy being away from home at such a young age, but my family were all educated in England and this was how things were done. I lived abroad for 20 years in total which always surprises people. While I look and sound Thai, I have struggled, as my perspectives are often those of the west. After leaving school in England, Big crossed the pond and moved to Wisconsin’s University of Wisconsin La Crosse to study, of all things, archeology. “I was always interested in history,” he continued, “though I should’ve had an inkling of my future as a restaurateur when I elected to focus on agricultural archeology. I am fascinated with the patterns of corn cultivation through the ages, the origins of a rice grain and how it was used in various civilisations. It’s fun. I even worked in a museum in Wisconsin for two years.”
Big suffered from culture shock when he finally returned home after two decades. “Thailand had changed so much in those years that it was unrecognisable to me. I’m still coming to terms with how I perceive myself in relation to Thailand. It is my country, but sometimes I feel like an outsider. I remember, however, waking up the first morning in Bangkok, during what I thought was a short holiday to visit the family, and realising that I was home. I spent six months acclimatising in Bangkok before my dad sent me up to run Le Crystal.”
“The good thing is that the restaurant had been running by then for four years, so I inherited a core team of staff that really knew what they were doing. They are still at my side today.”
Big sees his role as not just overseeing and running this northern family outpost, but also bringing new ideas to Le Crystal. With his international perspective, his great experience having dined in some of the best and most interesting restaurants in Europe, Japan, Thailand and the United States, and being on the pulse of the younger generation, Big set about to tweak and add new elements to his family business.
“I’m not a micro manager,” he explained. “I want the staff to feel involved, as though they have a say and are a part in this venture. They all have more experience than me, and I don’t think it is my job to just tell them what to do. I can and do learn from them too.”
One initiative that Big launched a few years back is an in-restaurant cooking competition. Everyone is split into three teams, from the office and admin team to the service and kitchen staff.
“Tomorrow we are having another challenge. I will give them goats cheese as a star ingredient and they have to make an appetiser. We will then invite people, like you, to come and do a blind tasting. The winning dish may get included in our menu. We have had some fantastically creative creations come out of this competition like our Moroccan spiced braised lamb, and surprisingly not just by the chefs! The hardest was the amuse bouche challenge. It’s hard to make a perfect bite.”
“There is a lot more to do,” Big continued, looking around the floor-to-ceiling glass enclosed restaurant beyond to the gently sloping garden with a hedge of roses separating it from the now-churning waters of the Ping. “Unfortunately I am not arty. Restaurants are like theatre, it is the entire experience from the backdrop to how everything fits into the context of time and experience. Unlike many successful business owners here like Pi Rooj (Rachamankha Hotel), Pi Chat (Woo Caf?) or Hans (Ginger & The House), I lack artistic vision. Half the time I have to buy a vase or a glass three or four times, returning to the restaurant to place it on a table, rejecting it and on and on until I get it right! Chiang Mai is very good for people who are creative as well as business savvy. I work with a team of creative people, so we try to remain creative while focusing on the quality of cuisine and service.
“But I do know food; I cook, I travel and I get ideas and inspiration,” Big sits up straighter again, “I know what people want and while we are a classical French restaurant, I believe that classical is a moving term. What is classic in one time is not necessarily classic in another. The word evolves, which means that you don’t have to be faithful to a certain time or style. I refuse to be tied down by a certain aesthetic, flavour or time. That is stagnant. So we try to experiment with new ingredients, whether they are locally sourced or imported. We try to be creative with our special events, which are very well attended. We hope to do some redecorating and modernise the kitchen in the near future and we want to be a timeless restaurant.”
Big seems to always be eating; regularly spotted in a number of restaurants in Chiang Mai, including his favourites, Fin at Maya, Tengoku+Yaki and David’s Kitchen. But as a true Thai, he also has his favourite street stalls he goes to for day to day Thai food fixes. He has been in Chiang Mai for seven years now and has no immediate plans to leave, though says that after working five to six day weeks, he regularly escapes to Bangkok to just rest.
Most weekends, however, Big is sitting astride his Harley Davidson Street Glide riding the roads of the north…and no doubt stopping off at whatever great restaurant he comes across on the way.