Foodie Confidential

Harry's International CEO Nasen Thiagarajan: Making a beeline for the bar

Harry's International CEO Nasen Thiagarajan finds out where the nearest bar is and tries the local beer whenever he visits a new city

Who: Mr Nasen Thiagarajan, 44, chief executive of bar and restaurant group Harry's International.

The group, which started its first outlet in Boat Quay in 1992, runs 21 Harry's bars across the island.

It also owns and operates five bars in India, in cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi, and has two outlets in Yangon, Myanmar, run by a franchise partner.

Mr Thiagarajan, former chief operating officer of restaurant and lifestyle group Refinery Concepts, started out as a bar-back at the now-defunct Fire disco at the age of 18.

He joined Harry's International as its chief executive in October 2016.

He and his wife, 36, a housewife, have two children aged 11 and six and another one on the way.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • My mother, who is Chinese, makes the best black sauce chicken - a soya sauce chicken stew - and steamed egg with minced pork.

    Everyone cooks chicken stew differently and I have not been able to find anywhere else that familiar taste I grew up with.

    She cooks these dishes at least once a month.

What are some changes you have made since becoming Harry's head honcho?

Most of the changes have been operational and structural ones, but in terms of the brand, which was 24 years old when I joined, I felt I had to revisit what it was all about.

Other than the bars, we also had a more diverse portfolio at the time, which included The Club Hotel and Tiger's Milk restaurant in Ann Siang Road, but they were not going well for us. So I decided to close anything that did not carry the Harry's brand.

I also decided that we had to place more emphasis on knowing and understanding our customers at each of our bar locations.

The menu was also refreshed. I felt that as a local brand, we lacked locally inspired dishes. Now, we have items such as otah toasties, kurobuta pork chop rice and laksa popcorn chicken, besides our popular Western offerings.

We also revamped our classic cocktail offerings, given Singapore's lively cocktail scene, and started serving craft beers on rotation alongside the commercial ones to cover a broader spectrum of beers.

What are your expansion plans?

Our franchise partner in Myanmar will open its third outlet in January next year.

In India, we have a new franchisee and will work with this partner closely.

We have plans to be more aggressive in 2020 and would like Harry's to be in all major cities in South-east Asia, including Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong.

What is your favourite type of beer?

I like lagers - commercial and craft ones. Lagers are fermented at a lower temperature than ales and are generally more crisp and less fruity with a golden hue.

For me, they are refreshing and easier to drink because they have a lower alcohol content by volume than other beers. I also enjoy an India pale ale every now and again.

You have a ritual whenever you go to a new city. What is it?

After I check into my hotel, the first thing I do is find out where the nearest bar is.

Then, I try the local beer. If it is available from a street vendor, I buy a bottle and drink it on the street before making my way to the bar.

This gives me a sense of the local bar and drinks scene and its entry-level beers.

Where are some of your favourite local food haunts?

For chicken rice, I go to Pow Sing Restaurant in Serangoon Garden Way and Hainanese Delicacy Chicken Rice at Far East Plaza, where I also like the kiam chye (salted vegetable) duck soup.

My favourite part of the chicken is the buttocks, just above the bishop's nose - it is tender, juicy and flavourful.

For hawker food, I go to Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon. I order Hokkien mee from Chia Kheng Fried Hokkien Mee, where I always ask for extra pork belly, and char kway teow from Chomp Chomp Fried Kway Teow Mee, with extra lup cheong (Chinese sausage).

My go-to place for Vietnamese food is Long Phung in Joo Chiat Road. The best things to eat there are the deep-fried spring rolls, deep-fried quail and beef pho.

Akashi Japanese Restaurant at Orchard Parade Hotel serves good sashimi and omakase meals.

Fat Cow at Camden Medical Centre has the best wagyu foie gras donburi in town.

For yakitori, I like Otowa at Orchard Plaza, a quiet, hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Do you have a secret indulgence?

I enjoy a nice shot of espresso with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, either on the side or in my coffee as an affogato, depending on my mood.

If I crave it at home, I make a cup of Nespresso coffee and take out a tub of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream from the freezer.

What dish of your wife's do you like the most?

My wife, who is half-Thai and half-Australian, makes a good kiam chye soup with pork ribs and chicken.

Her version includes tau cheo (fermented bean paste), which gives it a more distinct and round flavour.

• Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 26, 2018, with the headline 'Making a beeline for the bar'. Print Edition | Subscribe