February marks 30 years since The Boathouse Phuket opened its doors, quickly establishing itself as one of the island’s top dining choices. Indeed, living in Bangkok in the mid 90s, it was the only ‘happening’ Phuket place. Now in its “3rd generation” of ownership, we talked to the trio who now pull The Boathouse strings.
Max Chin, GM: Starting out as a chef, Max has 27 years experience in hospitality across Asia, including six years as chef-owner of his own restaurant in KL. He joined The Boathouse under the ‘Gen2’ owners and stayed on after the acquisition by current owners, HPL (a Singapore plc). Max has managed the renovation, rebranding and re-launch.
“It’s going to be massive,” he says about the 30-year benchmark, adding that many of the staff have been in place for most of those 30 years!
“It will be a strong call for the brand.” he says, “With one of the largest wine lists in south Phuket, a location to die for and a very good chef, it’s up to us to make the most of the opportunity.”
Plans are still afoot as to how exactly they will capitalise on the celebrations, but expect special celebratory dinners, original Boathouse recipes on the menu and special anniversary room rates for returning guests.
On where he sees The Boathouse fitting into Phuket dining scene in 2019, Max is bullish. “I feel we rank high. The brand is well known. We’ve got one of the best beachfront locations ever, so that sets us apart. Then there’s our great F&B team.”
He accepts that they can’t stand still. There must be change – they must move with the times. “The space for fine dining is smaller than before. People prefer casual; they don’t dress up for dinner like they used to. We must follow trends, be careful not get stuck in the old ways.”
About change, “We need to be accessible to a broader range of people; maybe we have to look at our pricing. People think we’re a fine dining place, but we’re not any more. For example, we stopped ‘dressing’ our tables in white cloths back in ‘Gen2’. Now we’re more relaxed. We’ve gone back to a nautical theme – uniforms, décor, furnishings. We don’t put much emphasis on French cuisine now; it’s more European with French infuence, as well as traditional Thai recipes.”
Going forward, The Boathouse wants to be seen as a boutique hotel with a great restaurant, not the ‘restaurant with a few rooms’ as it used to see itself. “We’re now a professionally run and branded boutique hotel with 37 sumptuous rooms and a great beachside restaurant. The image we want to project is that of a ‘warm house by the sea’’.”
Pinyo Thippimas, f&b: 30 years ago, Pinyo worked in a palm oil factory. After a year, realising this was not for him, he headed to Phuket and got a job as busboy at the newly-opened Boathouse. F&B Manager for 13 years, he’s the only member of ‘the trio’ who has worked under all three owners.
About the anniversary, he laughs and says most of the long-serving people can’t believe they’ve been there so long! One thing Pinyo hopes to see during the anniversary year is the return of some of those original recipes – and he looks forward to pairing some of the New World wines in today’s Boathouse cellar with the meals of yesterday, which 30 years ago would most likely have been enjoyed with a French or Italian label.
Asked about changes he’s seen and those he anticipates, Pinyo mused, “Our traditional market has got smaller – in numbers and in spending power – and, alongside those smaller budgets, tastes now dictate a wine cellar with more New World labels than in the legendary Boathouse cellar of years gone by.”
Looking to the future, Pinyo sees his team having to learn more about Asian tastes in food and drink, as well as service, but is not too concerned about one sector ‘forcing out’ another. “There’s no real conflict because in the high season we have mostly European guests, in the low season Asian. It’s almost like we’ll have to develop two different products.”
He acknowledges the importance of the local resident population, but also recognises how hard it can be to reach them. “I was suprised to learn that Thais ranked 4th in our top five nationalities in the local market. We must work on developing our communications with them too,” he concluded.
Jonathan Bruell, CHEF: The only member of the trio to join after the recent renovation, Jonathan has been at the kitchen ‘helm’ for just one year. 18 years in Australia were followed by stints on Naka Island and at Angsana Laguna.
Jonathan, the ‘newcomer’ has taken to his role like a yacht to water and has become one of the essential ‘Boathouse characters’ in a very short time.
Asked how he feels working for a famous hotel that’s been around for 30 years, he noted that he’s no stranger to iconic establishments, having worked at Sydney’s Observatory and The Sebel Townhouse, the latter famed as the unofficial home of the Australian music industry in the 1970s and 80s.
And how to celebrate 30 years? “The Boathouse is the Mandarin Oriental of Phuket. We should find a way to highlight who has stayed here over the 30 years – the Boathouse’s crowning moments.”
On where The Boathouse sits in the market, “It’s very much price-based, so we slot into the place occupied by 5-star hotels, but we’re trying to create a more personalised service from the kitchen. Interact more with guests. Listen to what people want and do it, not just do what we want to do. If something’s not on menu, be flexible. Give the customers what they want – be that ‘special’ place.”
And a final note on possible future trends, “It would be nice to go back to what the hotel used to do… flambé services, carvery trolley etc. Nobody does that any more.”