“It’s a heavy-duty job! You’re working 12 hours a day, and staying late every night, you’ll never see your wife or friends, and you can forget about a social life, never mind going to parties! Right. You’ve got five minutes to tell me if you want it or not.”
These were the words that were spoken to Don Lawson way back when he was offered his first appointment as a chef, in his native Canberra. And that was more years ago than he cares to remember! Today, just about everyone who’s been working in the Thai hospitality sector will have heard his name, if not know him personally. Don landed on Samui in 2003, having been transferred from the 5-star Dusit Thani Dubai to what was the then-named Santiburi Dusit on the north coast in Maenam. There’s sure been a lot of water under the bridge since then. But now, once again, that familiar offer is ringing in his ears.
Don spent the best part of a decade on Samui, but never really let go of it, and now he’s back again. He’s a cheerful and light-hearted individual who handles things with a feather-but-firm touch. But he’s probably best-known for his long and committed stint working at Anantara Bo Phut, where he ran the kitchen from 2004 to 2012. During this period, he also lent his time and effort selflessly to local organisations and charities. The Samui Culinary Circle is a loosely networked group of people who are all associated with the food and beverage scene on Samui. They have regular meetings, sponsor new chefs, host different sorts of F&B promotions, exchange and update news – as well as also engaging themselves with various deserving and charitable causes. And Don was the much-liked and well respected chairman from 2007 to 2012.
What caused him to withdraw was the opportunity to involve himself with the opening of another of Anantara’s new developments, the then upcoming Anantara Rasananda over on Koh Pha-ngan. He was invited on board as executive chef, and established, sorted, settled and took care of the kitchen there until 2016. At which point he returned to Samui to spend more time with his wife, Khun Pim, and his new-born son, Jayden. “I still felt an empathy with the aims of the Anantara Group,” Don told me, “and didn’t consider it a break from them. Rather, I needed time with my family at this period, and they were completely supportive in this.”
During this time the Anantara Rasananda property was under the larger umbrella of the Rasa Hospitality Management Group. Don had sustained good relationships within the Anantara ethos, and had gained a capable reputation for his management relations with support staff. Not to mention that he had established his competence by already having been on-board at three pre-openings, being solely responsible for fitting-out the empty spaces where the new kitchens would be, bringing in new staff, establishing menus, and so on. So although it came as a surprise to Don, nobody else was fazed when he heard the offer to begin working with Rasa Hospitality that began with the familiar phrase . . . “It’s a heavy-duty job!”
Don had been offered the post of Cluster Culinary Manager, initially being in charge of, and managing, five properties within the Rasa Group; three of them locally, but the other two in Chiang Mai and Pai, way up in the northern region of the Kingdom. “My first reaction was sheer fright!” Don grinned. “It was a huge responsibility. It meant that I’d no longer be in the kitchen full time. I’d be way up the management ladder, liaising with regional and general managers, and responsible for overseeing all the food and beverage operations, including the restaurants, in five separate locations. But it quickly became an absorbing challenge.”
For three months Don involved himself with visiting the sites and acquainting himself with all the aspects of their operation, from the number of rooms in relation to the F&B budget and staffing, to the accounting and balance sheets, through to the other extreme of being on board and able to actually plan the layout of the soon-to-be constructed kitchen at Buri Rasa Chiang Mai. “Usually an executive chef will walk into a kitchen space that’s been designed by an architect,” Don mused. “But here I’m going to be able to plan things that every chef really needs – such as refrigerated drawers at the cooking stations, food storage areas and cleaning facilities, and a fully equipped show kitchen that will be dual-used for cooking classes.”
And then, early in 2017, Don came on board full-time. “I’m initially based on Samui,” he continued, “working between Buri Rasa Samui and the Privilege Hotel in Bangrak, where I’m involved with each for two days every week. And then I spend four days a month over at Buri Rasa in Koh Pha-ngan. But I additionally need to head up north to Pai Village and Farm, as well as having a design input (at the moment) in the planning and construction of Buri Rasa in Chiang Mai.”
Busy busy busy! But with Don’s ability to establish empathetic working relations with his staff, it’s all coming together nicely. He’ spent some time setting up networking staff groups on social media, and established staff training routines across the board in such aspects as hygiene, menu planning and elements of personal interaction (and that’s more than just remembering everyone’s names!). Plus he’s also introduced a series of guest chefs who specialise in different aspects of international cuisine, to appear and stay across his resorts, passing on their skills – all this and much, much more.
It’s early days yet. Things are really just beginning to come together in a coherent overview which will eventually take shape as some sort of group policy. Right now he’s evaluating his initial workings and revising and extending them all – everything’s being approached from the outside-in, in a fresh and formative way. But, then, that’s only what you’d expect from one such as Don Lawson. One way and another, his career, and its new direction, is developing very nicely!
Rob De Wet