Weekly Local Biography

  Alain Besson

The man behind the Chez Gibus Restaurant is one of the largest restaurateurs in Chiang Mai. At 180 kg, he is a very large restaurateur! He is a man who has never forgotten the role his father played in his life, and the restaurant Chez Gibus is actually a memorial to his father. Besson Senior’s name was Gilbert, contracted to ‘Gibus’ in his native Switzerland. “It’s easy for Thai people to say, too,” said Alain.

Alain was born in Geneva, the French-speaking end of Switzerland, the only child to a mechanic and a waitress. However his mother became ill and spent protracted periods in hospital, eventually dying when Alain was still young. This necessitated Alain becoming involved in the running of the house, and by the time he was 10 years old, he was cooking the meals for his father. By the time he was in his mid-teens he was cooking regular Sunday lunches for his friends. Alain and cooking seeming to be a good combination.

When he finished school he went to work for the Migros supermarket chain and his first job was selling product in the cold meat section. He had to go to the butchery to receive his stock for the day and the butcher there suggested that Alain should become a butcher and take an apprenticeship. This was a good move that his father supported. A trade certificate being a ticket to prosperity in the minds of people from the post-war hardship era. Alain applied himself at the butchering trade, and during his three year apprenticeship won the first prize in Geneva for his course.

After receiving his indentures, he went to work for two years in a small town outside Geneva, becoming responsible for the kitchen. For his holidays he decided he would try Thailand. That was 1981, and before the bars closed at midnight, and he enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. He enjoyed it so much that he came back every year for a holiday.

He also found that he had an affinity for the Thai people, and one Thai woman in particular. However, this was not a lady that he met over here, but a Thai lady working as an au pair in Switzerland that he met over a cheese fondue!

They were married in Switzerland, and it looked as if they were going to live their lives in Europe, but Alain’s father died, and Alain felt he had no real reason to remain in Switzerland anymore. “I think it would be interesting if we go to your country,” he said to his wife, who did not initially share the same enthusiasm. But the big man got his way, and they came to Thailand to live and look for a business opportunity.

Their first stop was in Phuket where they opened a restaurant. However, they found that this tourist island was very expensive, so they looked elsewhere. That was to be Chiang Mai and they invested some money in a small hotel with a partner. This also did not work out, and they moved on. “So I lost some money, but we kept on looking,” said Alain. The Thai acceptance of life and what it brings you seeming to have rubbed off on him.

Alain’s profession was in the kitchen, so they opened a small restaurant in Kampeangdin Road which they called ‘Auberge Chez Gibus’. “In Chiang Mai there was only three French restaurants back then. My target was just the same as it is today. Quality and a good portion of simple food. For me, number one is quality. Swiss quality and Swiss hygiene standards.” Three years later they moved further down the road and after another three years they moved to the site of the present restaurant, now known as just Chez Gibus. “In 13 years I have had three different restaurants in the same road,” said Alain, smiling in retrospect.

Alain is very appreciative of the fact that his wife works with him to make the restaurant a success. “Having my wife in the restaurant is a great help. She is everywhere, helps with preparation, public relations and marketing, and is the cashier. She is the one who goes to the market every day,” he says.

While he has been here now for more than a decade, one should not just assume that he is here forever. One place he would not move to, however, is back to Europe. “Last year I went back to Switzerland after nine years. It was very expensive!”

He admits that business in Thailand is not always easy. “But for me, 80 percent of my customers are locals, so the decrease in tourist numbers is not a really big problem. I have a good reputation in the French (speaking) community.”

He also has a desire to look at South America. “My father had three things he wanted to do. Go to Rio and see the huge statue of Christ, go to Wembley for the cup final and thirdly to meet the Queen. I have done the last one, having met Queen Sirikit.”

China also attracts Alain. “We should look at China also. It is a big market.” The ‘we’ he uses refers to himself and his wife. “Number one is my wife,” he says. “She is the foundation of the restaurant. 13 years with me in a restaurant is not easy!”

He does have a little time for hobbies, and golf he enjoys very much. He is even going to the Desert Classic in Dubai this year and is hopeful of meeting Tiger Woods and getting his photo taken with him.

The very large restaurateur is unlikely to downsize. “I like to eat!” said Alain. “Maybe because of my size, people remember me,” laughing while his tummy undulated. However, there are many other people in Chiang Mai who also like to eat, and a fair percentage of them all remember this big man and they eat at Chez Gibus too.