Chandini‘s journey from waitress to prominent Bangkok restaurateur.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
30-year-old Chandini Gulrajani, chic, conﬁdent, and charming, is in many ways the epitome of the successful millennial woman. Like many of her peers born and raised in Bangkok, she went to international schools growing up before earning a bachelor’s degree abroad, from the University of Manchester. However, her journey to becoming one of the few prominent female restaurateurs in Bangkok was not a straightforward one – after her undergraduate in fashion, she earned a Master’s degree in hospitality from École hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland before working the breadth of jobs in the hospitality industry.
“My journey wasn’t very conventional,” she tells me. “I worked as a waitress, and in various hotels for guest relations, corporate sales, and even dabbling in marketing and branding before discovering that my passion lies in food and beverage.” Following that passion, she opened her ﬁrst restaurant and bar, Indulge, which was her brainchild from start to ﬁnish. Soon after, she founded The Hungry Nomad, which was responsible for bringing the renowned Ministry of Crab from Sri Lanka to Bangkok, one of only six cities in the world with the concept. Chandini shares her story with Masala.
What led you to the hospitality and F&B industry?
It was an accident. Being raised in Thailand and having Indian heritage, it’s no surprise that the love for food and hospitality is basically in my genes. I love food, I love fashion, and I love London. After graduating from university in Manchester, I applied for a post-study work visa. I wanted to work and stay in London and the ﬁrst job I got to sustain my living was as a waitress in the Landmark London. I started oﬀ as a novice, not being able to hold three plates at once, but I didn’t give up. Somehow, I became good enough to get promoted. That was when I fell in love with the restaurant world.
Tell us about the philosophy behind Ministry of Crab and what makes it unique. Why did you choose this restaurant to bring to Thailand?
If you’re a fan of crab, you’d know that the best crabs are from Sri Lanka. Ministry of Crab was founded in Colombo in 2011 by celebrated chef Dharshan Munidasa and cricket legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. The venue quickly earned a reputation as Sri Lanka’s most sought-after restaurant for its delectable mud crabs and king prawns. Among its many accolades, Ministry of Crab has proven a mainstay in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list from 2015 to 2020.
Shortly after discovering Ministry of Crab Sri Lanka, I was so inspired by the food, the concept, and the vision that I knew I had to bring it to Bangkok, as there’s nothing like this here. I was especially inspired by Chef Dharshan, who, being half Sri-Lankan and half-Japanese, incorporated the Japanese culinary practice of treating all ingredients with the utmost respect. For example, their success and reputation has always been credited to their philosophy, which we at Ministry of Crab fondly call ‘The Constitution,’ comprising of eight articles on ‘the quality, freshness, sizes, and meaty claws of the crabs used.’ This includes a big focus on sustainability, so they don’t harvest baby crabs – all their crabs are over 500g.
What are the challenges associated with opening this brand here in Thailand?
Sourcing the crabs. Most of the seafood restaurants here use smaller-sized crabs which are cheaper and easily available in Thailand. However, due to our restaurant’s concept, we have to import these giant crabs directly from Sri Lanka, South Africa and India. As we use wild and not farmed crabs, the availability of the crab sizes depends on the weather gods and other factors, making it hard to predict the sizes we will have in advance. That is why we require our patrons to make reservations because the crabs are directly ﬂ own in daily, just for them!
The F&B industry is often a price sensitive market, especially now. What would you say are the value-added elements within Ministry of Crab that support your more exclusive pricing?
Experiences and ingredients are the soul of a great restaurant. At Ministry of Crab we believe in serving only the world’s best crabs, accompanied by the experience of a lifetime with your loved ones – priceless! That being said, our prices for crabs start at only THB 1,100. Fresh, live crabs cooked in a live kitchen; unique Sri-Lankan ﬂavours; Japanese techniques; and communal-style tables – I truly believe that dining at Ministry of Crab is not a mere dinner, it is an experience. That’s what I want to give anyone who walks through these doors. And for crab lovers, it doesn’t get any better than this!
The industry has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. What has your personal experience been, and how has it aﬀected you?
Frankly, if anyone mentioned a year ago that a pandemic would bring the world to its knees, I probably would never have believed them. These are unprecedented times and it’s true that restaurants have probably been hit the hardest, especially with our already low margins and sky-high costs. The pandemic has forced me to make my business leaner, shift strategies, and go local. In terms of leading a team, I think all restaurateurs who are still surviving have just had a practical life exam for crisis management!
Nevertheless, I am lucky to be aﬂoat, as 80 percent of my clientele are Thais and expats living in Thailand. The biggest lesson is to plan for the inevitable, imagine the impossible, and hopefully come out stronger.
Like many others, F&B is more male-dominated. Do you feel like your experience has been diﬀerent to your male counterparts, and are there unique challenges associated with that?
Honestly, I used to think it was tough being a woman in the F&B industry, with the strains of maintaining a good work-life balance and the possibility of future family planning. I am extremely lucky to ﬁnd a husband – most people know him as Chef DK from Haoma – who is in the same industry, the same soi, and with whom I can discuss work, and he just gets it. Being professional, passionate, and committed to work is not about gender.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I love the spontaneity, responsibility, and meeting new people and ensuring they have a memorable experience in my establishment.
What or who have been your biggest inspirations?
As traditional as this may sound, my family is my biggest inspiration. My mum was nothing short of superwoman, working 16 hours a day, whilst cooking delicious yet healthy meals for me. Fiery and ambitious, her eyes always lit up when talking about business opportunities at the dinner table. Dad, on the other hand, treats his employees like family. He taught me how to lead with patience and kindness. My younger brother has insight beyond his years. He inspires me to be conﬁdent and shrewd in business, all while keeping ﬁt.
Lastly, but deﬁnitely not least, my husband is possibly the most hard-working, passionate, and ambitious person I have ever met, with ﬁre in his belly. I wouldn’t have been ready to open Ministry of Crab if it weren’t for our morning walks in the park where he would give me motivation and advice (for free – I am Sindhi after all!)
Aside from family, my biggest inspirations are Chef Dharshan, for creating a restaurant empire at the mere age of 24, and Arjun Waney, a successful businessman, entrepreneur and restaurateur whose restaurants have achieved worldwide success.
It’s inspiring to see you achieve so much at such a young age. Many of us millennials, however, are aspiring yet struggling entrepreneurs. How did you put together the capital for this business?
To be honest, I am very blessed to be given this opportunity. By creating and conceptualising a successful F&B business model (Indulge) with my family, I gained their conﬁdence. When things started to come together with Ministry Of Crab, I approached them to be my ﬁnancial investors and they happily agreed with the repayment plan I proposed.
Any advice for others looking to start their own ventures?
Commit fully, and never give up – don’t do it if you want an easy life! But if you are ready to give up your weekends, have sleepless nights, and carry the responsibility for your team, it certainly is rewarding.
What does the future hold for you?
For the restaurant, we are building a bar and private dining room on the second ﬂoor, converting the building into a lifestyle space.
Personally, as uncertain as things are during this time, I still have a plan. I see myself as the woman entrepreneur and restaurateur in Thailand. However, it’s not just about work with me. I want to get my advanced scuba diving certiﬁcation, travel the world (mostly to try diﬀerent cuisines) with my husband, and when we aren’t busy doing that, the plan is to build Thailand’s ﬁrst ever future farm…shh!