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Why Thailand?

3rd January 2018

Having launched the Oxford Cultural Collective Award in Bangkok in November 2017, Don Sloan is often asked why Thailand should be the location for one of the Collective’s first major projects.    

Back in January 2014, at Ken Hom’s annual Chinese New Year celebration, I had the good fortune to be placed beside Ron Batori. The venue was A. Wong in London’s Victoria, at that time less than a year old but already talk of the town. Over a memorable meal featuring Andrew Wong’s glorious Peking Duck, I heard from Ron about his distinguished, if unplanned, career in the food and drinks world, his long friendship with Ken and his route to settling in Thailand.

Despite taking a PhD at the London School of Economics, a brief foray in academia convinced Ron to stick with his first love – food and drink.  In the late 70s he returned to the US to become Dean of the fledgling California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. These were heady days for chefs and food writers in the Bay Area. They were at the forefront of a food revolution promoting local, seasonal and organic produce, as well as natural, unadulterated flavours; an approach now commonplace, but which at the time established northern California as a ground-breaking culinary destination.

Ron employed Jeremiah Tower, who had built his reputation at the iconic Chez Panisse in partnership with Alice Waters, but had not yet founded Stars in San Fransisco.  It was Jeremiah who recommended that the young, relatively unknown Ken Hom should also join the team. And so began a working partnership and close friendship between Ron and Ken that is still going strong. Ken’s recently published memoir, My Stir-Fried Life, reveals the depth of their alliance over nearly forty years (Ron jokes that he learned a great deal about himself by reading Ken’s text).

It was a period with International Distillers and Vintners in Napa Valley which first took Ron to Asia. He moved to Thailand in 1992, where a career in the drinks sector culminated in his role as President of Bangkok Beer and Beverages. Most recently, he has formed an innovative training institute, the ASEAN Professional Beverage Academy, which aims to become Asia’s leading educational and training centre for those working in beverage-related roles. In partnership with respected accreditation bodies it offers professional development programmes for front-line staff, entrepreneurs and aspiring managers.

So it was that a convivial evening in a Chinese restaurant in London, hosted by Ken Hom, bonding with Ron over great food and wine, led to my first invitation to Bangkok.

I found the overwhelming intensity of the city – heat, congestion and noise – was tempered by the warmth and authenticity of its hospitality. Given Bangkok’s multiple attractions, and its role as a gateway to the rest of Thailand and South East Asia, it is unsurprising that it’s now established as a leading visitor destination, with more international tourist arrivals in 2016 than to any other city in the world apart from Hong Kong.  This has transformed its hospitality sector. Whilst the city has long been known for its vibrant street food scene, albeit one that is under threat following recent legislation, the scale and diversity of its restaurant sector may be less familiar to the uninitiated. Bangkok is now home to over 2500 Japanese restaurants and more than 1000 Italian restaurants, with numerous other national cuisines also well-represented. The city’s hotel sector, as in other key tourist destinations across Thailand, is growing at an exponential rate. In Bangkok alone new hotel developments will add 12,000 bedrooms to the city’s stock by 2020.

Ron and I were keen to collaborate on a project that addressed current issues facing Thailand’s hospitality, food and drinks sectors. I was also aware that as an ‘outsider’, any project in which I was involved had to be led by those with local knowledge. Early in 2017, on my third trip to Bangkok, we hosted a dinner for senior figures from the hospitality industry, to learn about their most pressing challenges. There was clear consensus: a skills crisis is placing immense pressure on their ability to operate effectively and on their capacity to maintain appropriate services standards. The rapid growth in the scale of the hospitality industry, combined with an historic lack of investment in employees’ professional development, means there are insufficient numbers of skilled staff to fill vacant positions.

After further consultation our response was to establish the Oxford Cultural Collective Award. We will use it to assert our belief that investing in staff, through high quality training and education, helps hospitality companies become ‘employers of choice’ in a highly competitive labour market.  Our aim is that the award will be a catalyst for building a community of senior hospitality professionals who are committed to tackling the skills deficit.

This initiative supports the Oxford Cultural Collective’s educational agenda – to provide opportunities for those with a declared interest in food, drink and hospitality. As a partnership with the ASEAN Professional Beverage Academy and the Oxford School of Hospitality Management, it brings together three organisations with complementary expertise that are determined to have positive and sustained impact on the Thai hospitality industry.

To learn more about the Oxford Cultural Collective Award, and to place nominations, follow this link.

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