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July 4, 2020

Deepanker Khosla: How to build Bangkok’s first urban farm restaurant

Read how Deepanker Khosla created Haoma and how he managed to grow his new restaurant concept and stay true to his core beliefs about sustainability.
July 4, 2020

“I’m not going to stop until I can really make a difference, and even if I’m making a difference, I will keep going. I'm not just cooking to feed people. I'm cooking to nourish your soul. This is what I was sent for.”

Deepanker Khosla created Haoma after spending seven months traveling around Asia in a food truck. We talked with him to learn more about the way he managed to introduce and grow his new restaurant concept while at the same time, staying true to his core beliefs about sustainability.

Why did you decide to open Haoma?

I’ve been working in hotels and restaurants for over ten years. When I was 26 the opportunity came up to open my own restaurant in Bangkok. I knew that Haoma had to be something where I could make a difference. I wanted to do more than cook great food, I wanted to give back to the environment and show people an alternative.

An alternative to what?

Many people don’t have a basic sense of sustainability. If you look at Asia, it’s so rich in biodiversity and produces. People aren’t aware that our biodiversity is being taken away by industrialisation. We’re letting nature go to ruin. Over many years of globalisation, we’re losing ourselves. With Haoma, I want to take a stand against that. I asked myself, how can I do more than just supporting local suppliers?

What does sustainability mean to you?

I grew up on the banks of the Ganges, in a small town in India. In our backyard, we grew coriander, tomatoes, chilies, potatoes - everything we needed. I remember my father refusing to use plastic 25 years ago, and my mother making bags out of old bedsheets. I have had a plastic-free home since 1995. So sustainability is what I do and how I was raised. It’s my family traditions, it’s in my blood.

Were people ready for a sustainable urban farm restaurant in Bangkok?

In the beginning, we had empty tables every night. People were not ready for a restaurant like ours in Bangkok. Journalists told me that the hardest story to write is sustainability because nobody wants to read about it. It seems that everybody wants to push sustainability under the carpet and walks away. I cannot let it go. It is who I am. If you ask me to let this go, it’s like you’re asking me to cut off my hand.

How did you grow Haoma to where it is today?

My approach to building a brand is through being sustainable and honest, that’s the core of my business. I want Haoma to grow organically.

Why is it essential for a restaurant to build a strong brand?

Today, the branding game is competitive, out there, and in your face. As a restaurant, if your branding is not strong, you will never be able to fill your restaurant’s seats. I believe in word of mouth. Haoma’s popularity is the reward from nature and all the hard work I put in, not down to any branding campaigns. A true brand is one that has the guts to believe in themselves and work with nature.

How do you ensure your guests come back to Haoma?

It’s all about the guest experience. It has to be a sensory experience, an experience where you dine with all of your senses. Haoma’s experience is about being close to nature, and in turn, close to what being human truly is. The essence of my restaurant is to fill the gap between the guest and nature, complete the part that is missing.

Every guest that comes to Haoma is taken on a tour around our garden, tasting raw vegetables and looking at our fish, along the way. It’s important that every guest understands what we are doing. A lot of our guests say our food is maybe within the top 10 restaurants that they have eaten at in the world. But our concept and heart are what’s a step ahead of everyone else in the world. That is what makes our day. It's what keeps us going.

What’s unique about Haoma’s culture?

I do not hire anybody without having worked with them for two weeks. If you work with me for two weeks, then we both get to know each other. During two weeks, you get the job of turning soil with your hands. If you enjoy the dirt, moisture, and worms - then I’ll hire you. I also hire with a minimum two-year contract. If you’re not passionate or dedicated enough for a two-year contract, I won’t hire you. I’ve run our kitchen with only six people for almost a year and a half. I find that one motivated chef is better than 4 demotivated chefs.

How do you inspire your team?

I try to empower them every day. I drive my team through spirituality and creativity, not through operations. My Sous Chef drives the operation, I create the dishes. My team briefings are all about focusing our energies to manifest the guest experience we want to create. I look at them and I say one thing every single day, when I shake their hands, I look into their eyes and I say, we will not accept mediocrity - that's how we drive. That’s how I make them fulfil their potential and keep them motivated.

What do you think are the key ingredients to being a great restaurant owner today?

Discipline, focus, and passion - in that order. I believe that if you bring discipline, focus, and passion to what you do, you can excel in anything. My father once told me it doesn't matter what you're doing, you just have to fucking love it. Some people, after 40 years are still trying to find what they love, I found out when I was just 21. I'm very lucky.

What have you learnt from opening a restaurant?

Don't entirely invest your own money, unless you have tons at the age of 26, unlike me. Find an investor. It’s very important to have a sustainable source of income before you start a restaurant. Starting a restaurant is not just “starting a restaurant” - it's running a restaurant for the next six months in order to start making money. It’s is very important. I never got an investment until later when my best friend stepped in a pooled in. I saved up for Haoma by driving around Thailand and Cambodia in a sustainable food truck, for seven months. It’s possible without investment if you have a great restaurant concept, but you need to be very passionate and have a sustainable stream of income in order to fund at least one year of operations.

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