Now much more than a name synonymous with luxury, the Jim Thompson brand is not only building the Kingdom’s global reputation but connecting with local communities.
Sixty-five years ago, just two days after the end of the World War II, Jim Thompson, an architect from New York, arrived in Thailand as a part of his volunteer service to the US Army’s Office of Strategic Service with nothing to suggest that his name would later become one of the world’s most famous icons for Thai artistry.
Just like many westerners _ then and now _ who have been charmed by the beauty and friendliness of the Thai country, the Delaware-born Thompson decided to settle down and call Bangkok his home.
With his imaginative eyes and considerate mind, Thompson immediately became very interested in handwoven Thai silk.
He assembled a small collection of the fabric, and, with confidence that the quality of the Thai silk would have appeal outside Thailand, subsequently took it to show friends and potential buyers in New York. And that’s when the Thai-silk road to the world fame began.
Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company was registered in 1951 with the original purpose of reviving Thailand’s craft weaving industry, which at that time was quickly fading due to competition from cheaper, machine-made fabrics. Nine years later, the Thai government awarded Thompson the Order of the White Elephant in recognition of his contribution to the country.
Today the company, with its 100 percent vertical operation _meaning all the products are manufactured here in Thailand under the care of the Thai Silk Co _ is the world’s largest manufacturer of hand-woven fabrics, with more than 3,500 employees. That does not include some 1,000 silk artisans in northeastern villages whom the firm also works with.
The company’s properties include Thompson’s world-famous traditional Thai house in Bangkok’s Pathumwan district, which has been registered as a national museum, two silk farms that cover more than 3,000 rai of land in Nakhon Ratchasima province, 38 retail shops in Asia, America and Europe, and 10 restaurants in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
”The restaurant business is a natural extension of Jim Thompson’s passion in bringing the best of Thai culture to the world,” said Eric Booth, the company’s marketing director.
”Mr Thompson was famous not only for silk but also for his gracious hospitality. In the 50s and 60s, his Bangkok mansion often hosted dinner parties with musicians, writers, statesmen and Hollywood celebrities. Somerset Maugham, Anne Baxter and Robert Kennedy were also among his guests.”
The first Jim Thompson dining outlet, however, opened in 1996 on the second floor of its main retail shop on Surawong Road simply to offer a space where customers _ typically tourists _ could sit down, relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea together with a small variety of snacks and bakery items, which was made from the company’s kitchen, before or after shopping or while waiting for the Bangkok traffic to ease.
The coffee and bakery corner had enjoyed a good feedback, so, later on, a number of Thai and western dishes were added to the menu.
“The menu was a good mix between authentic Thai food and classic western cuisine. We offered the two cuisines separately and never try to follow the fusion fashion,” Booth noted.
The in-house cafe proved very popular, not only among tourist shoppers but also among people in the area who found the food and the design of the space enjoyable. With this success, the company decided to go for a standalone restaurant with the purpose of catering to local residents.
The Saladaeng Cafe restaurant, occupying an old house in Soi Sala Daeng, opened in 2000. This was followed by Thompson Bar & Restaurant in 2004 and Jim Thompson Cafe at Isetan department store in 2008.
After years of honing their skills at home, Jim Thompson’s culinary and hospitality team was ready for the international challenge. In 2005, the company’s first foreign restaurant, Mythai, opened in Kuala Lumpur.
“At that time, we had quite a lot of opportunities in several countries, but we decided to settle on a place near home,” Booth explained.
“Running the restaurant business, you need to be close to what’s happening. We felt more comfortable for our first overseas restaurant to be close by, so that we could travel easily and help them with the design, marketing, cooking and service.”
Three more dining outlets were opened in in Tokyo, and another in Singapore (see review on page 6).
“The Singapore branch, called Jim Thompson: A Thai Restaurant, is our flagship restaurant. We’ve spent so much time working with design and service. We’ve barely done any marketing or promotion but received great feedback from the locals. The business was built totally from word of mouth,” the marketing director noted.
“Our company always looks for new, dynamic ways to promote Thai culture to the world. We’ve realised the worldwide sensation for Thai food. In the past, Thai food may have been regarded in the West as a budget meal on which people wouldn’t spend more than 10 euros or $10 on.
“But now people would pay the same price as they do at a good French or Japanese restaurant to enjoy Thai food, perhaps with wine and champagne, on a special occasion. Thai restaurants are no longer seen as a place for cheap and good fast food but as gourmet dining destinations that offer a memorable experience.”
The well-respected Jim Thompson style of Thai cuisine is in the devoted hands of – love it or hate it – an American chef-cum-Thai culinary enthusiast, Patrick Booth. Also the company’s director of food and beverage department, Patrick Booth once trained under chef David Thompson of the Michelin-starred Nahm restaurant in London.
According to him, the cuisine offered at every Jim Thompson outlet is “absolute Thai, Thompson-style”. This means that for each classic dish on offer, the experienced chefs have tested various recipes to refine what they believe to be the most delicious version.
Meanwhile, the menu and deco reflect an appealing mix of tradition and innovation inspired by Thompson’s marvellous taste in art and design.
“Other than the cuisine itself, what we have tried to concentrate on in our restaurant business is the Thai lifestyle and design,” Booth added. “When you enter a Jim Thompson restaurant, you’ll see the place decorated with beautiful fabrics, in a dynamic fashion statement.
“Yes, it’s a way to promote our products, but we are not trying to sell fabrics in our restaurants. The restaurant business completely stands on its own to celebrate mainly the integrity of Thai culinary art.
“Unlike our retail shops, which cater mainly to tourists, the restaurants make it easier for us to interact with locals, which we see as very interesting. Through that, we’ve seen there’s still a lot of good opportunities for good Thai restaurants with honest Thai cuisine. We are now looking around the region to expand our restaurant, and we’ve set our eyes on Bali, Indonesia,” Booth said.
Even though 90 percent of the Jim Thompson enterprise’s approximately two-billion-baht yearly revenue comes from tourists, the company doesn’t only help popularise Thai culture among foreigners. Undeniably, it also encourages Thais to understand more about our traditional ways of life that may be disappearing over night.
Thus, the Jim Thompson Farm in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Pak Thong Chai district, which was originally a silk cultivation farm and weaving village, opened in 2000 to visitor interested in learning about the Thai silk production process as well as the regional culture of the northeast.
Other than the silk weaving quarter, the farm also features the 10-rai Isan Village and Korat Village comprised of eight clusters of age-old northeastern-style and tribal-style houses made from wood, bamboo and rattan. Some of the houses were built as long as 200 years ago. Within the villages, visitors will get to see the traditional Isan lifestyle and displays of handicrafts.
Hoping to give farm visitors a better understanding of art, environment, nature and ecological system, the farm has lately initiated the “Art Centre on Farm” project.
This pilot art project is where contemporary local artists are invited to work within the context of ecological agriculture and Isan architecture. With an aim to bridge art, life and nature, the participating artists work in close relation with nature and make use of local and recycled materials. Art pieces created under this project will be exhibited at various points in the farm.
“The Jim Thompson Farm is not just a tourist destination, but a great educational hub,” said Booth.
“You can learn about the silkworm cycle, local craftsmanship and Isan life. It’s interesting that even Thais have less opportunity to see this cultures.”
“In the past we had only foreign tourists. Today we are happy to say most of the farm’s visitors are Thais. They are Thai students and families who come to to learn about Thai culture,” said Booth.
For those who are interested in agricultural and gastronomic tourism, the farm is also a great place to visit. A spacious plot of land has been dedicated to organic fruit, vegetable and flower plantations.
Among the highlighted products are various types of pumpkins, cantaloupes and hydroponic salad greens, all of which are available at the farm’s market.
Ready-to-eat and preserved fruit products are also popular here. Expect to find a variety of jams, honey and tea. And if you’re in for adventurous gastronomy, try Jim Thompson’s best-selling crispy roasted silkworms.
“In the past, Thais looked at Jim Thompson as a brand of luxury goods and almost nothing else. With our farm and restaurants, we now have more connections and interactions with the local people, which we’re glad of. Because, at the end of the day, Jim Thompson is a Thai company and our only home is Thailand.”
source – www.bangkokpost.com