Restaurateur Chandini Gulrajani knows how to seek opportunities amidst adversity. While the Bangkok native’s journey in the F&B industry has been marred with political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic, it hasn’t stopped the go-getter from moving forward. Her name is tied to two restaurants in Bangkok: Indulge Fusion Food & Cocktail Bar, her family restaurant at Asoke, where, according to Gulrajani, she is “part-owner, part manager, part-admin and part-everything else”, and Ministry Of Crab at Soi Sukhumvit 31. A Sri Lankan household name that she brought over to Bangkok under her own company, The Hungry Nomad Co Ltd, the restaurant serves 90 seats over two floors.
Gulrajani started her journey as a waitress at The Landmark London after graduation. Since then, she’s worked in guest relations, corporate sales, marketing, and branding. She conceptualised and opened Indulge Fusion Food & Cocktail Bar with her family in 2013, a month before political unrest and anti-government protests in Bangkok. Located in the main intersection of Asoke and Sukhumvit, Indulge was right in the thick of the red and yellow shirt protests. Seizing an opportunity amidst unrest, Gulrajani began promotions that resulted in word-of-mouth marketing among protesters.
When COVID-19 hit just two months after the opening of Ministry Of Crab, the restaurateur was forced to make her business leaner, shifting strategies. She started importing and supplying Sri Lankan crab to other restaurants to stay afloat.
This International Women’s Day, we check in with the entrepreneur on her journey as a woman in the industry, and the triumphs and tribulations along the way.
Was this what you envisioned your career to be when you were younger?
Having done my Bachelor’s degree in Fashion and Textile Retailing, my ambition was to own my own clothing boutique or brand. I stumbled into F&B by accident. After graduating in Manchester, I applied for a post-study work visa to work and stay in London. 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 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.
You’ve been in the restaurant scene since 2013. How do you think Bangkok’s F&B industry has evolved in terms of female representation since then?
I did notice that most chefs and restaurant managers in Bangkok were male when I first moved back to Bangkok. That being said, when we go to restaurants today, I see more female chefs, managers, and owners. We have become empowered to take on roles that were otherwise thought to be dominantly male, so I definitely think that our collective voices have been amplified.
Women have long fought for a rightful place at the top of the food chain, and for spaces that have been traditionally perceived as suited for men. What are some obstacles you face when it comes to gender bias and stereotypes?
To be completely honest, I used to think it was tough being a woman in the F&B industry — with the strains of work-life balance, the possibility of future family planning, and so on. I am extremely lucky to find a husband — Deepanker Khosla — who is in the same industry, the same soi, and with whom I can discuss work with. He just gets it. Being professional, passionate and committed to work is not about gender. It’s about your support system.
The F&B industry needs to set the table for equality. How can it start doing so in Bangkok?
As a restaurant owner and a woman myself, I think we should encourage the hiring of female staff, hostesses, waiters, chefs, and managers. For example, the ratio of women and men in my restaurant is 7:8 respectively, which was actually 50% prior to COVID-19. If we encourage this practice across the board and reward restaurants that have this equality within a platform like Chope, I think it could become a huge movement for equality in our industry.
Do you think there are still barriers of entry for women in F&B in Bangkok?
As soon as a woman goes for a job interview in the industry, they are judged based on their appearance — a role as a hostess for a restaurant is a classic example. Secondly, they are judged based on the number of hours they can work, whether they are married, or have children. However, I think that employers are opening up their minds and looking past these factors and focusing rather on the skill set rather than gender.
What is one piece of advice that you’d give to a fellow woman who wants to have a successful career in F&B?
I believe it’s not so much about gender, but rather more about skill set, attitude and your support system. My husband, chef DK of Haoma, often says, “If a woman can deadlift 100kg in a gym, what stops her from carrying 20kg of tomatoes in the kitchen?” I say, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and lift those tomatoes!
Lastly, who’s a woman in the scene to watch now and why?
Tanjira “Fay” Tragoolvongse is a close friend, and quite frankly, also my role model. As a wife of the famous Michelin starred chef, Dan Bark, she not only owns and manages their two restaurants (Caper and Cadence), but also works as a sales director for Chiva-Som. If there’s someone who puts a superwoman to shame, it’s her.
Are you a restaurant owner and manager in Bangkok looking to digitise your business? Contact our representatives in Bangkok to find out more.