Behind Bars: An Intimate Chat with Thomas Gillgren at SHRI HCMC
Despite being rainy season in Saigon, the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue when I arrive at Shri Restaurant and Lounge in District 3 to meet with General Manager, Thomas Gillgren. The temperature is wavering around 32 degrees Celsius and the humidity is not far from 90%. It seems even the weather is determined to draw attention to how far we are from the cooler climes of Northern Europe.
Sitting down with Thomas, I am keen to hear how he has made his way from Stockholm, Sweden to Saigon, but he is quick to correct me explaining that his journey to Vietnam started before he was even born.
“It really started in Paris,'' he says with a smile. “It was the late 60’s, early 70’s, and many Vietnamese students had made their way to Europe. My mother was studying in Sorbonne, and she met a young student from Vietnam.” From this meeting, a romance blossomed, and the couple stayed together for a number of years, but ultimately the pull of their two home countries was too strong.
“My mother wanted to go back to Sweden, and my father always had an urge to go back to Vietnam, to support (his) country.” Thomas explains. “Ultimately, when the love (in the) relationship had changed to friendship, when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, he did.’
However, growing up in Sweden, Thomas was never a stranger to his Vietnamese heritage. “My mother never shied from talking about Vietnam, or telling me about my father and his beliefs,” Thomas says. “One of the reasons he came back to Vietnam was to look after his father and I know that he has always loved his country very, very much.”
After he moved back to Vietnam, it was ten years before Thomas was able to meet up with his father again, but he remembers vividly the day he received a letter telling him that his father and his new family had moved to Europe and he wanted Thomas to meet his new baby sister. “When we received that letter, we were both very excited!” Thomas says of himself and his mother. “I was 12 or 13 and it was a really emotional reunion, because I had heard about him but never met him. We took the train to Brussels and we were on the platform, and then … it was like a movie!’
With commitments and careers in different countries Thomas and his father have had little opportunity to meet in person over the last 25 years, but happily, since Thomas’s arrival in Vietnam they have once again been reunited. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Thomas’s work has provided him an opportunity to learn about his heritage and connect with family members located all around the world; a half sister in Brussels, an aunt and cousins in Hong Kong and more cousins here in Vietnam. With so much to learn about himself and his relatives, Thomas says that he knew he would always venture to Vietnam at some point, but it has been a much longer road than he ever imagined.
Starting the journey
Thomas’ early life in Stockholm was spent surrounded by a large family with “loads” of cousins and aunties playing a part in his childhood. Creativity flowed through the family with many finding success as actors or artists but it was Thomas’ musician grandfather who put him on the road into the food and beverage industry.
“My grandfather inspired me,” says Thomas. “From when I was a teenager, he was always bringing home things like good quality wines and spirits, and was always cooking. He was very good friends with the best chefs in Sweden. He’s my mentor when it comes to the finer things in life”.
Thomas’ glittering F&B career started working for ‘some extra money’ after he completed a period of mandatory military service in his home country. His first job was working in a restaurant and casino, starting as a croupier. However, despite his young age, Thomas quickly took on more responsibility, and started collecting the skills that have led him to where he is now.
“I was actually running eight venues, as a casino manager,’ he explains “and that helped me a lot in terms of managing venues, managing a lot of staff and organisation. Also, because you have to be very quick in counting when you’re on the table, I learnt to be friends with numbers at that time, and I love numbers until today!”
Few would have been surprised if the promise of a management position and a loving family had halted Thomas’ journey before it started, but the lure of the brighter lights in bigger cities eventually drew him away from Stockholm. Though he thought about moving to Vietnam at the time, he opted for somewhere closer to home and it was a decision that landed him in exactly the right place at the right time.
“I moved to London in my mid-twenties because I wanted to learn more about the bar industry, and I was there just when the whole cocktail scene exploded,” Thomas says with a smile. “I got to work with some of the best bartenders in the world and I was part of the first generation of the ‘new cocktail’ era.”
Still smiling, he explains that this was a time when there was genuine competition between the classic cocktail scene of New York and more experimental London, for the right to call their city the ‘cocktail capital’.
“People say New York, but the ‘new cocktail’ era very much started in London” he says proudly. “The word ‘mixologist’ didn’t exist! We were just ‘enthusiastic bartenders’. We were the first generation of cocktail bartenders and we started experimenting with flavours. We infused different types of flavours into spirits, which hadn’t really been done before. We started using fresh ingredients, taking inspiration from the kitchen, which hadn’t been done before. We were using different tools that we didn’t use at that time, and that exploded as well, and what happened then was a change in the whole F&B industry when it came to the approach towards beverages.”
Reflecting on this period of change, Thomas suggests that he is experiencing similar things at present in Ho Chi Minh City.
“It’s fantastic! There are so many places opening here in Saigon, and there are things that are different here in Vietnam, flavours and tastes, that are completely different from what we grow up with in Europe…”
“... And, nowadays, people have access to what’s happening in San Francisco, what’s happening in New York, what’s happening in London, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, in a second. People get inspired by that, so it’s going so much quicker now.” Talking about social media and the instant access to information that we currently enjoy, he laughs, “When I started, it was newspapers and magazines! We had an industry magazine that everyone shared and passed around, called ‘Class’, that’s how we would find out what was going on!”
Whilst London’s communication channels may be slow be today’s standard, it was undoubtedly an exciting place to be in terms of developing an F&B career. While many bartenders tend to stick to spirits and cocktails, Thomas was determined to branch out and gain as much knowledge as he could. Carrying the seed of his grandfather’s influence, he took the opportunity to develop his understanding of food and wine, leading to some incredible opportunities.
“I learned a lot in London and I started being inspired by wine. Working in restaurants, it’s limitless what you can learn, so I started being more and more interested. I was working with some of the best sommeliers in the world. Then I ended up working with some really great chefs. Looking at them, and what they created, was so inspirational to me. When you can see the passion of the people in the industry, that’s the key, because that’s where you find the success.”
Thomas certainly experienced success in 2002 when he was able to work with Michelin starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, whilst opening world renowned restaurant Sketch in Mayfair, one of London’s most exclusive districts. Once given the label of ‘the most expensive restaurants in the world, Sketch was just one of the high-profile venues Thomas was associated with during his time in London.
However, it was not all plain sailing. Thomas experienced his share of difficulties too. “I actually opened a restaurant / bar / nightclub in London that went ‘tits up’,” he says laughing, “I lost everything, all my money, literally lost everything!” Noticing my surprised expression at his amused response, Thomas is quick to explain.
“It was maybe not so fun at the time, but I turned it around and used that experience. I had learned more and more and more about (the F&B industry), but that experience taught me that everything is attached to a cost and that has helped me greatly in my career.”
That experience was something Thomas was able to take with him when he eventually moved on from London after 14 years, destined for Dubai and the ‘glitz and glamour’ of another up and coming food and beverage hub. Again, he was located front and centre of the changes, opening another award-winning restaurant in 2009. Under Thomas’ management, OKKU became one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in the city.
However, whilst Thomas’ career went from strength to strength in the Middle East, he admits Dubai was ‘harder’ than the previous places he had been. Fortunately, another opportunity was about to come knocking.
“I picked up so many experiences in terms of working in different cultures when in Dubai” he says, “But a friend of mine, who was working in Indonesia, contacted me and said ‘It’s time for you to move over here’ and I was very happy to move on to Southeast Asia and explore my Asian roots.”
The project was the now internationally recognised Potato Head Beach Club in Bali, and Thomas once again used the opportunity as a learning experience. Starting as Operations Manager before becoming Project Manager, Thomas looks back on the period fondly.
“I loved working there,'' he says emphatically. “They’re very friendly. They had a kind of culture where you treat your staff as family, and people who came to the restaurant or facilities are treated like part of the outer family. I love the respect and smiles of the Asian culture”.
Home from Home
After two years in Bali, Thomas was eventually given the opportunity that brought him to Vietnam. “It took a long time,'' he says, “46 years! But a friend of mine asked if I was interested in opening a beach club here, which I was, but…”
“...it was also the opportunity to come to Vietnam and really meet, not just my family but also the country. It was an opportunity for me to go back to my fatherland.”
Since arriving to Saigon, Thomas has been reunited with his father, albeit briefly, as he still lives overseas. However, while understanding his personal heritage is clearly a priority for Thomas, for once, he is not only focussing on learning. Now, he is keen to share his wealth of knowledge with those around him.
“I am in a situation now where I can share (my) experience with the Vietnamese staff. And I really feel that if I share as much as I can with them, I’ll also get so much back. By listening to the staff here, I really feel like I have a chance to find parts of myself, and because we have a lot of Vietnamese customers, that makes me want to go deeper into Vietnamese culture. Working here, I learn more about myself as I am learning about my roots.”
Knowing that I’ve kept Thomas talking for much longer than I should have, I ask if he ever thought that his first job in Stockholm would have taken him around the globe to work with industry leaders over and over? He replies with a shake of the head.
“I am a dreamer” he says with a broad smile. “I haven’t been trying to achieve something specific, but I focus on getting the most out of every experience. This has come up from being open minded, I think. The F&B industry is full of opportunities, there are so many things you can do. If someone wants to become a bartender, they should try it, but go in with an open mind and try to learn as much as you can. (At Shri) I tell my staff ‘Don’t be afraid! Go for it!’”
And while that advice is often easier said than done, it’s hard to argue with Thomas’ track record and infectious enthusiasm. I end our conversation with a quick question about what the future has in store.
“I will stay here indefinitely” he replies with certainty...
“...Vietnam is the place that is happening now, I’ve not just heard it, I’ve seen it. People are coming over here, but it’s the Vietnamese people that are the key. They are so eager to learn and to be part of the world but without losing their originality! And being Vietnamese, that’s what I’m here for too. To become more Vietnamese and to honor my Vietnamese heritage.”
Image source: Shri Saigon