Swedes in Thai hospitality: Building pillars of excellence

Two Swedes are currently deeply involved in conceptualising the ingredients that are to form pillars of hospitality excellence for a Thai-owned luxury boutique brand in Thailand. The man steering and heavily influencing this creation process is no other than the well-known and highly regarded Swedish hotelier Christopher Stafford. And the Chief Operating Officer (COO) has now brought on board also a seasoned chef, the well-travelled Peter Marx, to be at the helm of the kitchens and also overseeing the group’s restaurant concepts.

And in raising the bar further for Thailand’s luxury hospitality in the process, the brand’s second hotel 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok is opening its doors in April as their most urgent task at hand.

Timeless quality yet modern and temporary in design; exquisite cuisine and dining outlets for connoisseurs; truly luxurious interiors and service; and something really special for the mind, body and soul (as spa concept) – are all examples of the ingredients that form part of the formula in creating true excellence within hospitality, courtesy of 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts.

There are in addition other features such as ‘Louie the London Cab’, a classic car equipped with a champagne bar in the back, transporting guests to an from Bangkok Sukhumvit road soi 39’s many surrounding lifestyle attractions.

And within only a few years from now you will be able to savour their passionately curated results at no less than three of Thailand’s most recognised and popular destinations; namely in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and on Phuket, where a third property (The 137 Pillars Estate Phuket) is under development on the untouched north peninsula of Phuket’s well-known Kata Beach.

Before letting Christopher and Peter elaborate on their work in progress, a quick retrospect on their respective achievements feels appropriate.

Christopher is synonymous with the Thai hotel brand Anantara, that today has gone international. He headed the Anantara Resort Group from 2000-2007, opening 6 properties for the group.

“My biggest achievement to date was the adaptation of Anantara first to Thailand and perhaps more critically establishing our first international venture in the Maldives – that was a game changer for Minor Group at the time,“ he tells ScandAsia.

More recently he was the Vice President of Hotel Operations for South East Asia for SilverNeedle Hospitality.

Peter Marx, meanwhile, most recently comes from the Straits-colonial inspired new Bintan island resort The Sanchaya (outside Singapore) where he was the pre-opening Executive Chef and Culinary Artiste. In his international chefs career Peter, described as a gourmet nomad, has managed to visit 57 countries across three continents, with extensive experience in Europe, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific Islands. Peter has many adventures to far-flung places to tell about, if you get a chance to speak to him.

He started at very young age working with German Michelin Star chefs in L’Escargot and Coq Blanc in Stockholm (famous restaurants in Sweden).

He came “early” to Australia in the 1980’s and worked for the two Ritz Carlton properties and a number of Hatted Restaurants (Australia’s equivalent to Michelin Star). Back then Australia didn’t have so much of the high quality products and produce that today is sought-after globally. And European fine dining was not exactly established.

“There I arrive from Swedish Michelin star restaurants and started cooking such food, but no one understood what was going on,” Peter says, referring to his inroads on the scene. He then went more instead for Mediterranean cuisine and Australasian cuisine, the latter described by Peter as fusion food; mixing Asian with Western.

He was fortunate to work there with many Italian chefs among the Italian immigrants, in a period that clearly has shaped Peter Marx’s concept into what it has become today. He opened the famous Italian Forum in Leichard as Group Executive Chef in Sydney, overseeing the concepts of Italian cuisine in four restaurants, which became multiple award winners for Best Italian Cuisine, and remain a benchmark for gastronomic Italian cuisine lovers.
So there, among Italians in Sydney a Swede was excelling in the kitchens, and there his background in French cuisine came to good use: “I improved the Italian cooking by bringing in some finesse.”

After a long period in Australia his travels brought him out into the Pacific Ocean and adventures on Fiji and the Solomon Islands, to explore exotic cultures, ingredients and cuisine.

He has also successfully opened and operated restaurants in Vietnam. And now in his new role as Group Director of Culinary with 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts he represents a style described as a light, modern expression of French Mediterranean with a Southeast Asian influence. His dishes are innovative with a classic foundation and artistic style; colourful to the eye, light on the palette and a feast for the senses.

The Swedish chef is now first and foremost shaping the cuisine of 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok’s stirring outlets that combined with his creative approach make the promise of some really interesting dining experiences.

Those are mainly: Nimitr – presenting exquisite Avantgarde Thai Cuisine with a molecular twist and hint of the west, and Bangkok Trading Post – a Deli and Bistro incorporating the finest traditions of this renowned European concept with high quality Western and Asian ‘Eclectic comfort cuisine’ (think artisanal breads, jams, coffee, eggs, rice, grains and patisserie with cakes, pastries and pizzas as well as a selection of delicacies from Thailand and the regions).

“Peter is a very creative man, with very novel ideas that we need in this industry. So he brings something of a completely new approach, compared to what we have seen before.  In our industry things should be a bit fresh all the time; going for it a bit more and not sitting still,” Christopher comments about Peter.

Peter, meanwhile, counters with his assessment of Christopher: “His achievements etc. looked really interesting. And when I met him I found him to be a humble man and a calm, peaceful person with very good operational skills. He is very accommodating, and he has his views and I have mine. And I try to push my view a little bit forward. We need to take some risks sometimes, and Chris is open for it as long as he can see the outcome – which is great; it gives me more freedom to test things.”

Meanwhile Christopher Stafford describes himself as somewhat of an outlier, “an entrepreneur in a way”, who says he has convinced the owners to take the path he put forward; one that will for sure not leave them behind the curve.

“I sold the idea to the owners to build a brand out of 137 Pillars, and we are building in Phuket as well. Bangkok is the strongest of the thee now when it comes to luxury and it will probably expand in Chiang Mai as well, as we have had over 85 per cent occupancy there during five years of operation,” he predicts.

“They are thinking long-term and would rather keep their assets and build a constant revenue through having rentals long term,” says, Christopher. “They are pretty conservative in a way, but at the same time daring by entering luxury with a different approach; they will put in the best things they possibly can.”

As a boutique brand this enables 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts to be a frontrunner.

“We are a luxury boutique operator that as such seek to provide bespoke products with a sense of history, creativity and uniqueness as well as provide services to enable us to achieve the highest revenue per available room as a group in Asia in the luxury segment.”

“As an independent hotel company we want our product and service to become true points of difference as opposed to reward points or other loyalty mechanism. It’s hospitality versus commodity,” he comments with a clear hint to the established five-star scene.

“A room is a room is a room,” he comments in another instance, “so it’s a matter of what you develop around it. We will, for instance, have something we call personal shopper. We know in the hotels we will have 70 per cent occupancy, and we will have some 30-40 wives sitting home while the men are out working. What should they do? We will have someone looking after your interest.”

And this will be someone who is ‘in the know’ and can take guests, based on their interests, to places no one else does.

“Our key focus is practising the art of hospitality and passionately curating experiences to guests’ needs.”

137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok, comprises 34 luxurious suites and 179 Residences, where the living experience of these will combine world-class facilities with spacious, well-designed and elegantly furnished homes.

The suites are exquisitely appointed, all with private dining tables, butler service, maxi bars with private wine cellars, large walk-in wardrobes, beautiful en-suite bathrooms and chic circular 137 Pillars baths complete with built in TV. And spacious balconies are furnished with traditional 137 Pillars House signature rocking chairs etc.

Inherent for this brand is also to truly giving guests a sense of place and privacy not easily available in big city hotels. Christopher elaborates: “Each suite brings to our guests many aspects of home – no room service trolleys a proper dining facility and maxi bar service with adjoining pantry. Guest suites designed to enable you to invite guests for dinner or meetings.”

The COO also speaks with much passion about the upcoming 137 Pillars Estate Phuket, which will have 51 pool suites and 15 luxury villas – to be reached via private boat transfer!

“Built on original rainforest land we will keep all the trees and design a rain forest spa for which we have hired Mr Roger Moore – not 007, mind you, but a highly experienced wellness consultant who has come to us with an entirely new wellness concept building on the three pillars body, mind and soul and seven different styles of lifestyle. And Peter is working with him with regards to developing the spa concept concerning cuisine, nutrition and diet.”

From 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, Christopher Stafford and Peter Marx exciting things are clearly in the works.

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