The Tham brothers talk about India’s hunger for Asian food and Foo Bangalore
The heart of Bangalore is now home to an all-new 5,500-square-foot space that celebrates modern Asian bites. Here, bold red trim meets soft floral details, airy balconies, curved Asian roof tiles, and gorgeous lanterns — setting the space apart as one of the city’s most Insta-worthy destinations. The menu, meanwhile, offers a dizzying array of options — from ceviche to sushi. At the helm of the business? Legacy restaurateurs Tham Brothers who have successfully translated their family’s love of all things culinary into a thriving business. In an exclusive interview with Lifestyle Asia India, Ryan Tham talks about Foo and the future of food in the country.
Dining at Foo – one of Mumbai’s best-loved spots for all things Asia – promises to be light-hearted. In part, this is down to the attention to detail brought to the table by the owners – Tham Brothers – a small factor that becomes apparent with each new launch. At their Bangalore address, Ryan Tham stays alert, carefully rearranging table placements while offering refreshments to his guests with an easy smile. “Since we already had KOKO and such a large bank of dishes we wanted to experiment with, we joked that we could just open another restaurant like this,” he says, reflecting on how the exclusive reputation of their glittering, elegant restro-bar had they considered a more casual culinary cousin. “Someone would drop KOKO one day anyway, that might as well be us,” he adds with a laugh.
Ryan and Keenan Tham inherited their passion for the business from their father and grandfather who ran iconic restaurants such as Kamling, Henry Thams and Mandarin. The brothers are known to have given traditional Asian cuisine a youthful twist – combining it with trendy ingredients, expanding the menu to accommodate different dietary preferences, and pairing every bite with groovy music and a buzzing ambiance. Foo lives up to its reputation for innovation with its tapas-style dining concept and unique offerings. Naturally, it has piqued the interest of Bangalore – a city known for its experimental taste. In a short conversation, Ryan explains what went on behind the scenes of the chic new space and why, among other things, he swapped the meat in his menus for plant-based creations.
The Tham Brothers about India’s love for all things Asia and Foo
What does it take to be a good restaurateur?
Not much at all (laughs). It is not an extensive set of skills or theoretical knowledge that you need as such. Just passion and taste. I think the key is to have a welcoming nature. You must enjoy receiving and entertaining people. This was ingrained in us because we grew up seeing Dad do it so often. In high school, we would even take our friends to our father’s or grandfather’s restaurants and try to do what they would do. So a lot for us stems from our background. But I have also seen this quality in people who are not from this industry. In addition, it is important to build restaurants that you want to go to and have prices that you are comfortable paying.
Otherwise, the business itself is not so complicated. And that’s why I think we see so many new people coming into the business every year, even after the pandemic, especially in Bombay. The track looks very glamorous on the outside – and it is – but it also has long hours. You have to be alert while everyone else is on vacation. At one point we were sitting in the restaurant every weekend. We miss moments with loved ones, events and other things – so you have to make some sacrifices.
For generations, the Tham family has seen India truly embrace Asian food. What do you think is the reason behind this growing appetite?
First, Asian food has bold flavors unlike European food. Also the way it is cooked is perceived as healthier – it is not fried, there is less oil, it is raw and natural – so it is preferred. It is also very close to Indian food especially regarding variety and the food culture. You know, an Indian meal is about sitting together and it involves different things on the table – dal, rice, meat, bhaji, roti, dessert, chaas, the work. The same is true with Chinese food. Dining is a family affair and different textures, flavors and ingredients emerge. In addition, India and China are so diverse, with variations in regional cuisine. We are half Indian half Chinese so we experienced both growing up.
Are there any noticeable changes or shifts you’ve noticed over the years in this Asian food revolution?
I think it’s definitely gaining popularity. In addition to just Chinese and Southeast Asian food, people now enjoy Japanese cuisine. Even Neikkei, a Japanese-Peruvian kitchen. K-pop is huge, so is Korean food. I don’t think it’s just a fad either, I think we’ll see a lot more Korean restaurants popping up in major cities, beyond the current cloud kitchens and small establishments. In a year or two, we’ll probably see one in a five-star hotel, too.
Which do you think works better: spaces that adapt to the Indian palate and dining sensibilities or spaces that stick to their authentic flavors and eating styles?
Indians are open to new things. This is especially true for the current generation who have traveled extensively and been exposed to Asian food outside of India. It’s easier to serve them authentic food. That said, only if you have a small 30-seat space can you stick to a size restriction. If you need to fill 100 seats every day, you need to broaden your offerings. We mix it at Foo with old-fashioned Chinese dishes and some new-age stuff that’s still within diners’ comfort zones. In our grandfather’s day, this was difficult because Chinese food is so meaty. The menu was then 90 percent non-vegetarian. Now we have adapted to these changing eating habits and have a 50 percent vegetarian menu. We also have Jain, Vegan and Gluten Free options – not just two or three, but a good selection. Our bestsellers are even vegetarian sushi and dim sum.
Each space of yours has its own personality, how did you manage to do justice to those different vibes?
Foo as a brand has a certain theme, but the restaurants themselves are not copy-paste models. We employed five different architects in eight Foo spaces. The idea is that they should look like they are from the same family, but not twins. And with each new opening we raise the bar even higher. We grew up in Bombay and it’s our backyard, so this process is easier. For Bangalore, we had to rely on our architect who, among other things, advised us to have an outdoor space. Personally, we think this is our second most beautiful Foo.
We often don’t get to see an establishment until it’s launched, what’s your checklist for a restaurant when you’re building it?
The customer’s entire journey must be mapped – from the moment they drive to the restaurant. For example, if there is space to park or how easy it is to get to the place. In addition, it is also important to be close to other F&B projects, because clusters work. You used to want to sit as far away from another restaurant as possible, but now the way of thinking has changed. There is power in numbers. We considered these factors before narrowing down to a location.
Your menus are known for being extensive and inclusive – how do you put them together?
We’ve always tried to balance things out and make sure every category is appropriate – from flavors to protein type. We can’t just have things spicy or meaty. We talk to our chefs about these factors. Post that, they are the artists and creators, and they produce the options. There is daily research and innovation. Now that we have multiple locations, we encourage our young chefs to come up with their own ideas to keep things fresh.
You changed the way people in India approach Asian food when you introduced tapas style dining. Why bring Asia to a Western (Spanish in this case) concept?
Honestly, we wanted to change the way we eat and go for variety through smaller portions. For example, if you go to a tapas restaurant, you will find at least 8-10 different things on the table. You can try new things and the same goes here. We have a very extensive menu of over 130 options, most of which are small plates. Few people even make it to the main course, mainly because nowadays people want to drink, chat and eat until they are satiated, not full. This also lightens things up so you can pop in around 4:30pm and grab some dimsums and sushi. We see it in malls – weary shoppers in need of a quick snack look for quick bites. So we made Asian food snackable.
And on that note, what other trends or eating habits do you see taking on in the future?
I think people are starting to become very aware of organic food, especially with Sikkim becoming an organic state. I also see a shift from red meat consumption to more fruit and vegetables. In addition, I see greater cross-pollination of regional cuisines across India. For example more Bengali restaurants, Andhra restaurants in Bombay and maybe Goan restaurants in Delhi. We also considered experimenting with Assamese food, playing with the idea of limited festival menus.
Why should you choose Bangalore as your next destination and how does this particular Foo differ from the others?
We wanted a city where we could put a cluster of restaurants in and Bangalore is huge, bigger than what people in Bombay think of it. I believe we could have four to five Foos here. The people here are nice too and this is one of the fastest growing cities in recent years, with a huge influx of professionals. So we thought there would be room for us – and another Asian place here.
Address: Ground Floor, Forum Rex Walk, Brigade Rd, Bengaluru – 560001.
times: 12:00 – 01:00 (Monday-Sunday)
Contact: +91 93217 07545
All images: courtesy of Foo/Tham Brothers