It was a hot day. I was going to my favorite restaurant when a signage in front of the shop next door caught my attention: “French pastry by experienced chef from 5 stars hotel and Michelin star restaurant in London”. So I went in to check it out.
The shop has a French name – La Genoise; It was decorated like a little French café too. I was attracted to the cakes behind the show glass right away.
I didn’t expect to taste cakes made by a Michelin* star chef! And the price was really good, only 65baht per piece. I asked for “Trio chocolate” and “ Praline mousse” for take away. The lady at the counter asked me if I would go home after this or I would go somewhere else. She explained that “Praline mousse” would melt if it stays long in the heat. I told her I was going to the restaurant next door, she recommended that we come back later to get the cakes. “What a nice sales person!” I was thinking. She actually cared for the products she was selling!
Later on I found out that she was the chef. She handled the cakes with such an immaculacy as if they were her babies. I was so awed by her spirit that I had to be more careful with the cake box in my hand.
Needless to say the cakes tasted wonderful…
I finally got a chance to interview the Michelin chef/owner of this pastry café – Amonrat Kwansakul. This young lady came from Sukhothai, a city in northern Thailand. She finished her university in Bangkok major in Japanese Language. After graduation she worked in a tourist company in Bangkok as a translator. 3 years of work life did not satisfy her search for something she loved to do. She decided to study English in London, UK. While living in London, she fell in love with a French pastry shop. She would try to make those pastries in her apartment. After one year, she finally knew what she’d like to do in life. She wanted to be a pastry chef. And that decision made her a student in Le Cordonbleu and Westminster Kingsway College, both in London, UK.
After several years of gaining experiences in 5 star hotels (Langham Hotel, Berkeley Hotel) and Michelin rated restaurants (Sketch restaurant, William Curry Pastry shop) in London, she returned to Thailand to start her own business.
La Genoise was opened in December, 2008 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She said she prefer this city because it is small and less congested, compared to the metropolitan living condition in Bangkok and London.
In the beginning, business was not good as the local people were not familiar with French pastry and cakes. Most of the customers were European foreigners and tourists. She tried to get more customers by advertising in the tourist “free copy” magazine.
Even though her cakes were perfect and cheap in the eyes of the foreigners, the locals did not seem to appreciate them. They asked her to make spongy cakes too, which are more popular among Thai people. Her enthusiasm in making French cakes made her impossible to compromise.
“I like making French cakes. I want people to think about us when they want some French cakes. I just want to offer a choice to them.” Her persistence did not win her more Thai customers who are used to the taste of big, spongy and sweet cakes. They commented that her chocolate cakes are quite bitter, not knowing that she was using the best quality chocolate whose cacao content is more than 70%.
Besides the taste culture difference, she can’t put a higher price on her cakes. The local people are very particular with the price of food. They are willing to pay for cakes with a lower price. The price now barely keeps her business going. She has less than 50 customers a day. 70% of them are foreigners. One person spends about 100-120 baht. Her most selling cakes are “Trio Chocolate”, “ Praline Mousse” and “Costa Rica”. She also makes cakes on order.
Being situated in the hip part of Chiang Mai, La Genoise has to compete with 25-30 other cafés along Nimmanhaemin Road. Because the tourist season only falls in December and January, the rest of the year her business can be maintained by having regular customers and foreign expats.
It has been a year and half since she opened the café. She has seen some hard times in her business. She said that she is planning to relocate to another city in Thailand when the rental contract ends, maybe to Phuket Island where there are more foreigners. Or she will continue her business in Chiang Mai and open a pastry making class.
When I asked her to give some tips for people who want to start a similar business, she thought for a while and said that knowing the local culture is very important. What is the favorite taste of the locals? – Cheese, chocolate or fruity. The location of the shop and number of people in the city, how many potential customers you can get from this number, how much the customers are willing to spend for 1 piece of cake. I felt her words contradicted with her actions since she does not want to adopt the local taste of sponge cakes. Her dedication to the French culinary arts is admirable, but perhaps not suited for the local market. Maybe a little change can go a long way, I think.
( Amonrat Kwansakul holds Diplome de Patisserie from Le Cordonbleu in London, UK; Diplome of Professional Patisserie from Westminster Kingsway College, London UK.)
*The Michelin Red Guide, is the oldest and best known European hotel and restaurant guide, which awards the Michelin stars. Only restaurants with outstanding quality will receive one to three stars.