Never shy of experimenting or innovating, Henry Tham defined the Chinese restaurant experience in Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s. He passed away yesterday.
Henry Tham’s father, Tham Mon Yiu, came to Bombay from Calcutta—as the cities were then called—in the early 1960s and set up Kokwah, then one of the very few Chinese restaurants in the city. It went on to be renamed Mandarin and became a favourite of the swish SoBo set. The iconic Kamling in Churchgate, which was opened in partnership with Tulun Terence Chen, followed.
It was Mon Yiu’s son, Henry Tham, who transformed Mandarin into an elegant, fine-dining concept. Renamed Henry Tham’s, it thrived till 2004, by which time Tham’s sons, Ryan and Keenan, had added cocktails and house music to the mix.
As a restaurateur, Tham was able to offer something to all diners. With his ear to the ground, he eventually ventured into pan-Asian and nightlife venues rather than stick to a tried and tested, if tired, formula with offerings like Henry Tham’s, Trilogy, and The Good Wife. But above all, Tham was part of the social fabric of Bombay/Mumbai.
In his tribute, interior designer Sumessh Menon said, “A culinary legend, yet kind, supportive & humble in nature. He was my mentor. He was always helpful & encouraging and taught me about restaurant designing & functionality. You made me who I am today. Thank you. RIP Henry Tham.”
‘Harry’ Hakuei Kosato, entrepreneur and owner of Sushi and More, told TravelDine, “I was told the news this morning and have been feeling very sad—because he was an amazing man and a stable, warm, loving, caring gentleman, and a visionary in our industry.”
Not many may know that Tham was also one of the original partners of Olive. A.D. Singh said: “I’ve known Henry a long time but we became really close when we opened Olive together and then worked hard for so many years to build it. Henry was much loved by everyone he met. He was always so much fun and always a pleasure to hang with. He was a great dad, always spending more on his boys than he ever did on himself. Under his mentorship both of his boys, Ryan and Keenan grew up into very fine restaurateurs themselves…We were all reassured as he’s been fighting cancer for some years now and always beating it and I can’t imagine that it ever beat him.”
Social media is replete with condolence messages and tributes to Tham.
Farzana Contractor, editor of Upper Crust, reminisced in an Instagram post: “There was a time I would see Henry every Saturday night when he dropped in at Mandarin, even if just for a few minutes, to check on his father, Mon Yiu Tham. Mr Tham was Behram’s [Behram Contractor, better known as Busybee] best friend I can safely say, and Saturday nights were spent at the special ‘Tham table’ under that giant and very arresting phoenix made of plaster of Paris. Both men would drink away to glory, while I slept on the sofa using Behram’s lap as a pillow. We never left from there before 3 am. ‘But it’s Sunday tomorrow love,’ Behram would try and cajole me when I would protest it is late. Henry was a man of few words and many smiles. I am truly saddened and will miss him.”
Tham’s legacy lives on with his sons, Ryan and Keenan, who have followed in their father’s footsteps in creating interesting restaurant concepts under the Pebble Street Hospitality umbrella over the years, the latest being the fine-dining Koka, a gastro pub with eclectic pan-Asian offerings and a bar menu designed by a celebrated mixologist and the more affordable Foo which is an Asian tapas concept.
Tham is survived by his wife Ashita and his two sons.