As the co-CEO of Hospitality Management Asia, SOUL MAXENCE LE BARTZ operates 17 restaurants across Thailand. He speaks to Neetinder Dhillon about the eventful life journey that led him from Toulouse to Bangkok.
The sweeping views from the 64th-floor lounge of the Four Seasons Private Residences are a powerful distraction, but the quiet charm that Maxence Le Bartz brings to the conversation forces them into the background. At 36, this former banker from Toulouse has reinvented himself as a restaurateur in Thailand, currently co-owning 17 restaurants spread across Bangkok, Samui, Phuket and Pattaya.
The company, Hospitality Management Asia (HMA), of which he is co-CEO, operates some of Bangkok’s most popular casual dining destinations, including Cocotte Farm Roast & Winery, Victoria By Cocotte, Mozza by Cocotte, and their latest, Leon By Cocotte. The flagship venue of this quartet, usually referred to simply as ‘Cocotte’, is a Phrom Phong neighbourhood go-to. The informal setting, the focus on quality ingredients, and a menu that nails it every time, are core to HMA’s ‘bistronomy’ concept. “We have two core businesses,” Maxence says, elaborating on the subject. “First there’s the upscale ‘bistronomy’, like Cocotte, and then there’s the places focused on the tourism market.”
When he first joined the company, back in 2015, it was called ‘The Kitchen’ and consisted of just three restaurants, with a focus entirely on tourism. “We followed the formula and opened 10 more restaurants, but then I reached a point where I wanted to create something new. And that’s when Cocotte happened. My partners [David Nemarq and Laurent Hulot] were initially not inclined to experiment, but I knew it was time to take a risk. Focusing just on the tourism industry meant that six months a year, during the low season, we’d suffer. That made no sense. We needed something upscale in our portfolio that could balance it out.”
For Maxence, Thailand is a land of opportunities. “The country benefits already from excellent infrastructure, but it needs to jump on the digitalisation bandwagon and focus on attracting digital nomads with disposable income like Indonesia. One of the country’s biggest challenges is its dependency on tourism.”
Interestingly, the first time Maxence ever got on a plane was in 2000, to catch a flight to Bangkok for a banking job. Fast forward two decades and now he’s married – to Nonlaphan (Aor) – and has a two-year-old daughter, named Mila. His future has Thailand written large all over it.
As Maxence and I continue our chat I discover he’s a huge fan of Cape Verdean singer-songwriter Cesária Évora, and has seen the movie Rocky IV “probably a thousand times”. He also loves skiing – Niseko’s slopes are a firm favourite – but during the pandemic he took up golf. As for his first job, it was in the food business: delivering pizza when he was a 14-year-old.
Nowadays, he’s into delivering more “curated” dining experiences, and every day is a challenge. “The F&B market in Bangkok is incredibly competitive. It’s important to deliver the best experience every single time. With Cocotte, we started by sourcing the ingredients first and then creating a menu, working closely with suppliers to access the best products. The focus is good food, not the chef per se. Our service standard is the highest it can be, and it’s rewarding seeing our clients enjoy themselves in all our vibrant and buzzing restaurants.”
As industries go, F&B is a minefield with an extremely high failure rate and no established formula for success. Maxence agrees: “Developing a great restaurant is a complex formula, combining the overall concept, the food offering, top-notch service and creative design. It isn’t easy to have all four aligned. The concept is the most important. People want unique, immersive experiences, rather than just a specific cuisine. Especially in cities like Bangkok, which has such a vibrant F&B scene already.”
A firm believer in the power of consistency, Maxence’s advice is, “Don’t stop trying… you’ll eventually find the right way. Taking small steps and making small mistakes will bring you closer to your goal. Chase the vision, not the money, and set small goals. They often beat big goals.”
He describes himself as result-driven, but points out the value of collaborative effort. “Sharing ideas and letting the staff take the initiative is important. The art of being strong yet flexible is a challenge, but key to any managerial position. The human dimension of this business is critical. I have so much respect for all the people that work in the kitchen or front-of-house. They sacrifice a lot. In this business, you must be resilient, a multi-tasker, and incredibly patient. A leader must radiate good vibes and be a skilful communicator; someone who is approachable and embraces risk and diversity.”
Curious, I ask what made him move from banking to restaurants. “Not a logical move,” he admits, “and while I loved my work at the bank, I always wanted the challenge of running my own business. So, when I got the opportunity to join an F&B company, I took a sabbatical for two years and began my journey.”
Maxence tells me he finds inspiration in the people surrounding him – family, partners, and co-workers – and shares that his most treasured possession is a photo on his desk, “It’s a picture with our first employee, Yanisa. She was our head of graphic design and left us tragically in her late 20s. She was such a talented soul! I keep this picture on my desk to remind me that every day is a chance.”
As we wrap up, daughter Mila marches in with a “bisou for papa”, as he has just spent the weekend giving her swimming lessons. Although fluent in Thai, he speaks to her in his native French, perhaps underscoring the fact that while he loves the life he’s made for himself in Bangkok, at heart he’s still that boy from Toulouse. Not surprisingly, the south of France is a favourite vacation spot for the summer, where you just might catch him on the ski runs of Val d’Isère in the French Alps.