The first thing I personally heard about this little village ‘off-the-beaten-track’ called Khanom was: “You need to go and eat at Dusty Gecko…and say hi to Mikko from me.” That was more than ten years ago.
When first visiting Dusty Gecko you are greeted personally, either by Chef Mikko or one of his staff; and sitting down to a meal in Dusty Gecko, you may feel as if you are royalty as delicious meals are served along with a description of the dish you are about to savour.
In fact, Dusty Gecko and Chef Mikko have been around for much longer than that, and not only has his brand evolved with the times, but he withstood the shutdown of civilization during the COVID-19 pandemic!
This tenacious chef did not throw his hands up in despair at the loss of customers; instead, he turned his establishment into a deli delivery business as he trucked and winged his delectable products to all corners of Thailand for expats and Thai citizens stuck at home and who yearned for something of the old world in this ‘new normal’.
ScandAsia caught up with Chef Mikko in his kitchen as he deftly prepared some of his smoked and cured products for yet another deliver-on-demand by a client more than 700km away in Bangkok.
A Young Chef’s Journey
Chef Mikko, you’ve made a name for yourself, not only in the south of Thailand, but have extended your brand’s reach and influence way beyond the south. When and where did your journey as a chef begin for you?
Mikko: I’ve enjoyed cooking since I was a kid. After my military service at the age of 17, I went to cooking school in Finland and later when I graduated as a chef, I did some extra personal courses to build my skills as a head chef.
As a young chef I worked at many good hotels and restaurants in Helsinki. I was very eager to learn and worked really hard to learn all I could about the industry. After this, I worked as a hired and additional chef in various restaurants and high-end catering companies.
This was honestly a crazy time for me in my career as a chef because I grafted many, many hours and tried to take in as much information and learn as many skills and recipes that I could. Often, in a single week, I worked more than normal office workers worked in 2 weeks! I pushed myself to learn kitchen skills from all angles – cold kitchen, hot kitchen, BBQ, bakery, etc.
After attaining positions such as chef de cuisine and head chef positions, where I was in charge of all kitchen operations, I also got to be part of the opening process of many different restaurants in Helsinki, such as Restaurant Sipuli, Finnish cuisine restaurant KUU, Hotel Intercontinental, Hotel Hilton and Restaurant Bulevardia. Now, I have been cooking & rocking 36 years already!
What made you choose Thailand as a destination? Was Khanom your first stop or did you try to put down roots somewhere else before, like so many other people?
Mikko: Christmas is a very busy time in the restaurant business. Big companies and groups start their pre-Christmas parties and buffets for their employees and customers as early as October. During that time, I always worked like a ‘war horse’ without days off!
However, after all the holidaymakers have spent their money and gotten fat over the Christmas period, everything dies down in January and February. That was the time that I would take my leave and escape from snowy and cold Finland for a couple of months of rest and recreation.
In the beginning I toured the South of Europe, the Caribbean and other places. I then went to Asia and visited Bangkok initially; after which I decided on the island life of Koh Samui. I fell in love with Koh Samui 110%. Samui was my battery charging holiday target for many years, a couple months there and of course Koh Tao and Phangan; relaxing and scuba diving.
While on my holidays, I met a Norwegian hotel owner in Samui and he offer me a job as head chef in his resort, so I said goodbye to Finland and moved to Thailand. A year later I created SIBELIUS, my own fine-dining restaurant at Chaweng beach, Koh Samui, that also enjoyed a certain amount of fame with tourists and locals. I ran my establishment for 5 years before I sold that and moved back to Finland.
However, after 2 years I was already missing Thailand terribly. So, I moved back for good.
I discovered that Samui was way too busy with traffic, criminal activity and exceptionally high rentals for personal and business accommodation. I wanted to find something calm and new, hence I found myself in Khanom.
Discovering a Gem in Paradise
What was your first impression of Khanom and who were your first contacts in the town?
Mikko: During my Samui years, many of my expat friends had visited Khanom and had told me nice things about the place. I came over to the mainland to see it for myself and really liked the village atmosphere a lot.
The four-star Finnish Aava Resort had just opened its doors and I was hired there as a consulting executive chef. However, I still felt a need for my own place and after buying my business from a German expat, I created Dusty Gecko Restaurant & Deli Shop. That was in 2009.
Was it easy to establish your business or did you have to ‘make friends’ with the locals to ensure you could remain open?
Mikko: Settling into Khanom was easy for me because one of my best Thai friends from Samui was actually from Khanom, and he helped ease my way into the local social scene, where I learned to know loads of nice local people. At that time there were very few farangs [westerners] living in Khanom who had made it their home.
Where is your restaurant located and how many staff do you employ? Do you serve customers as well or are you solely in charge of kitchen operations?
Mikko: Our restaurant is near Khanom Tesco Lotus express in town. We have only a few staff and my teacher wife, Ying, helps out a lot too after her university work is finished for the day. Besides cooking, I love chatting with customers and serving them, as well as working behind the bar when it is possible.
How long has your business been in operation?
Mikko: The Restaurant has been going about 13 years now and my online Deli shop, about 3 years.
The Near Future
Where do you see yourself and your business in the next 5 to 10 years?
Mikko: In a Hammock on the beach sipping Pina Coladas ;0) OR MAYBE NOT, LOL !!! I love cooking from my heart. I think I will still be cooking and creating new things as long as I have the energy to do so. Honestly, I want to develop our online business further and really hope it will do very well in the future.
Awards and Recognition
What awards and recognition have your received over the years for yourself as a chef and for Dusty Gecko as a restaurant?
Mikko: Dusty Gecko has been named the number 1 restaurant in Khanom on TRIPADVISOR and we are also highly ranked with other listings, such as Restaurant Guru. Back in Finland, I was fortunate enough to have worked with professional chefs in Helsinki such as chef guru, Eero Mäkelä.
The Sociable Sport of Mölkky
What sports do you like? We know you have organized some games of Mölkky for expats and locals on the beach so that people can socialize in a different setting. We heard that people really enjoyed that. Are you still offering this fun pastime from your cultural roots?
Mikko: I am not a very sporty person. Swimming and running around the restaurant is enough for me. Maintaining our rental villas @ Khanom Mountain View Residence keeps me quite busy too!
Mölkky is a traditional Finnish summer game that’s nice to play on the beach. (it’s a bit similar to the French Petanque but is played with wooden sticks). I do plan to start arranging games again every week as it gets our expats together, and of course locals are always welcome too.
The Most Valuable Gem of All
You found your soulmate in Khanom. Tell us about your family.
Mikko: My dear wife is an awesome person. Always willing to help in the restaurant and loves to make cocktails and chat with customers, even after her own hard workday is done at the university. She is my constant source of power.
A Culinary Sensation
What menu do you most like to offer your in-house guests? Give us an example of what would be on a typical menu for western people to come and enjoy?
Mikko: Maybe for starters our home-made DELI cold cuts, main course, our famous Pepper Steak with Pepper–Brandy Sauce, desserts like our Homemade Toblerone Chocolate with Ice Cream or Crème Brûlée–Cheesecake.
Tell us what kinds of products you are normally asked to send to other cities and towns in Thailand. Which of these are the most popular?
Mikko: Best sellers are our Whisky-brushed Cold Smoked Salmon, Gin-brushed Gravlax (cured) Salmon, Cold-smoked Tuna Fillet or King Mackerell, Dark Sourdough Rye Bread, Air-dried Beef and Pork Fillet, Cold-smoked Cheese, Beef Fillet, Pastrami, etc.
Orders have mostly been from regular people who enjoy these kinds of products, but luckily now we have a few restaurants and hotels ordering our high-quality DELI products too. We hope to get more restaurants and hotels as customers but will not forget to continue our good service to the everyday customers who have supported us thus far.
The Dark Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tell us your thoughts when COVID hit? Clearly you went into ‘survival’ mode as opposed to many other people in the industry, who were unable to stay in business. How did you cope with the huge losses the pandemic caused?
Mikko: At first, I was very depressed and felt lost myself because Khanom was totally empty. There were no customers at all. I realized that if we don’t do something new right away, we will die.
Then, Ying and I started to think about selling ONLINE, and that’s where the DELI started.
Last December, we sent DELI and Christmas foods of more than 1000kg around Thailand with SCG EXPRESS cold delivery trucks, straight to customers’ doorsteps. For example, if we sent an order to BKK, the customer had their products at their home the very next day! The whole process was very exciting but also a great relief. Dusty Gecko would not go to dust after all!
Luckily, we have our rental villas too and these bring in some extra income. During the pandemic many people were looking to rent accommodation in more natural and less crowded places and our villas were ideal for this situation.
Rubbing Shoulders With Famous Chefs
Are there any world-famous chefs you admire? Did you work under a famous chef when you started out in this career?
Mikko: The late Anthony Bourdain was a chef I really admired. He was a great culinarian and person, in my opinion. As I mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to work with the old chef guru, Eero Mäkelä, in Finland. There are many other great chefs I had the privilege to work with over the years.
Fate and Good Fortune
If you had a chance to do things over, would you have changed anything on your journey as a chef and business owner in Thailand?
Mikko: I’d definitely have started the online business earlier, and would have loved to have met my lovely wife earlier too ;0)
Advice to Aspiring Chefs and Anybody Embarking on an Permanent Adventure in Thailand
Last but not least, what advice would you like to offer a western person wanting to come to Thailand and make a life for themselves or open a business?
Mikko: It is very hard work everywhere in the world to start your own business. I’d say here in Thailand the environment is nicer and there is not so much snow and ice. Luckily, I have lots of Finnish SISU and with that I can survive the bad times. Some wise guy once said that if you want be a millionaire in Thailand, you need to come here as a billionaire first ;0)
* The dictionary describes SISU as a quality within that has a mystical or magical meaning and is a unique Finnish concept that could mean the strength of will or determination.
Chef Mikko says in his own words: “SISU is also like very strong mind power. Let’s say that it’s as if you are running a marathon and one kilometre before the finish line, when you are so exhausted and almost collapsing, that absolute power kicks in and you are able to finish the race.”
Source: Interview by Jaqueline Deeon for ScandAsia Magazine
Dusty Gecko website : dustygecko.com