STARS OF BANGKOK
Fine dining in the Thai capital
Last year, Bangkok restaurants of every sort, from the highest echelons of fine dining to street-food eateries, were searched out, inspected and reinspected by the people behind the Michelin Guide. Finally, on December 6, 2017, three two-star restaurants, 14 one-star restaurants and a longer list of Bib Gourmands and Plates made it into the world-famous little red book.
Without a doubt, the chef who stole the Michelin show was the diminutive 72-year-old Jay Fai (or Auntie Fai), the culinary talent behind the only street-food venue to win a star. She is renowned for the high-quality, and relatively high-priced, crab omelette and prawn noodles she wok-fries at her family’s open-air Banglamphu shophouse.
A surprised and rather overwhelmed Auntie Fai donned chef whites for the occasion (she usually wears a rather beguiling outfit of T-shirt, apron, beanie hat and protective ski goggles) and confessed that before the event she really had no idea what a Michelin star was and almost decided not to attend.
By contrast, one-star winner
Bee Satongun, co-founder of Paste alongside Australian husband Jason Bailey, said she had been waiting a long time for Michelin to come to town. The 42-year-old chef has been cooking since she was five, and now specialises in giving old royal Thai recipes a contemporary touch.
“Thai cuisine can take its rightful place as one of the most diverse, intense cuisines in the world today,” announced Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide, at the awards event. “In Thai food you can find something nowhere else in the world, a combination of all the tastes found on the palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami are all mixed with different temperatures and textures.”
Of course, foodies don’t need a Michelin Guide to tell them how good Thai food is. However, the newly awarded one-star Thai restaurants alongside Jay Fai and Paste (which include Bo.Lan, Chim by Siam
Wisdom, Nahm, Saneh Jaan and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin) will likely be even busier in the future. As will Bib Gourmands such as Thip Samai, with its delicious pad thai, and Go-Ang Kaomunkai Pratunam, whose succulent chicken rice is a local favourite.
But it was French fine dining and progressive Indian that were the cuisines to scoop two stars. Go to Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental for elegant haute cuisine or to chef Ryuki Kawasaki’s Mezzaluna on the 65th floor of the State Tower for organic and innovative dishes. Meanwhile, if you’d like to watch your dining companions eating with their hands and licking their plates, chef Gaggan Anand’s progressive and irreverent Indian cuisine at Gaggan delivers entertaining surprises.
While international chefs are at the helm, it’s mostly Thai chefs who work behind the scenes. “My first challenge, when I arrived more than five years ago, was to teach my Thai staff to cook French style,” says French chef Arnaud Dunand-Sauthier. “Today is a victory for the restaurant, but more for my staff and the people of Thailand. We show that Thai people can cook anything.”
The cross-cultural theme is pushed to its limit at Mezzaluna, where Japanese chef Ryuki cooks French food in the Thai capital. And as chef Gaggan said, “I think Michelin proves you can be a global citizen and win here. You can cook what you want to cook. If I can get a star then anyone can, nothing is impossible in this city.”
Case in point: several international chefs have specialised in Thai food in Bangkok. Michelin’s Ellis called Danish chef Henrik Yde Andersen a pioneer for his innovation at the now one-starred Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin.
“Thailand adopted me,” says Yde Andersen, humbly. “I was trained as a French chef, then came out here where there are no rules, and that’s what I love about Thai cuisine – sugar in the main, salt in the dessert.”
Similarly, the Australian patriarch of Thai cuisine David Thompson, who won his first Michelin star six months after opening Nahm at The Halkin, London, in 2001, picked up another star for his Bangkok restaurant, thanking the gathering in fluent Thai.
“There are some questions, some absences, as Michelin finds its feet,” commented Thompson later. Scrolling through social media, 80/20, where chef Napol Jantraget and chef Andrew Martin mix Western dishes with Thai ingredients to high acclaim, as well as Le Du, where chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn reinvents Thai dishes, seemed two of the most missed.
“There is always passionate debate afterwards, which of course we welcome,” says Ellis. “We have a point of view, we don’t pretend to have the truth. The ‘Oh no they missed my favourite!’ conversations are normal. We would be concerned if no one cared – we’re pleased people are passionate about their food.” If Michelin’s presence reflects the city’s increasingly sophisticated gastronomic scene, the culinary landscape reflects the passion residents and visitors have for eating here. “Bangkok is booming,” say the Suhring brothers Thomas and Mathias, whose contemporary German cuisine riverside restaurant Suhring won a star after being open less than two years. “Ten years ago there wasn’t such a variety of restaurants that would have deserved one or two stars.” Michelin also created guides to Guangzhou and Taipei in 2018. “We have a road map, literal and figurative, with cities of gastronomic interest,” says Ellis. “The bottleneck for us is our ability to identify and recruit, train and deploy inspectors.”
This bizarre situation (who wouldn’t want to be a Michelin Guide inspector?) comes with some hard truths of just what it takes. “You have to be obsessed with food,” emphasises Ellis. “It is a very technical job and we need people who have highly developed palates. You need the ability to taste and translate what is happening on your →
“Chefs who want to be part of the Michelin universe are part athlete, part artist”
palate into words. Plus, awarding or taking away a star is a big responsibility. It comes after multiple meals and must be a unanimous decision on the part of the inspection team.”
Ellis adds that the solo on-theroad lifestyle comes with personal sacrifices. “You’re not there to have a good time.” He acknowledges the sacrifices made by the chefs too. “Chefs who want to be part of the Michelin universe are part athlete, part artist,” he believes.
Love it or loathe it, the Michelin Guide gives chefs meaningful worldwide recognition, welcoming them to an exclusive club that, for many, is worth the long hours and pressure. And talking about pressure, while some chefs have renounced their stars, chef Gaggan believes this to be irresponsible.
“It would be very selfish to my restaurant to give away my stars,” he comments, saying they are as much for his team as for the city. “I have to give Michelin enough motivation to stay, so that other chefs are able to get recognition too. It’s important for the future of Bangkok.”
For a number of chefs the Michelin Guide is a life changer. Chef Chan in Singapore, for example, went from a one-star hawker market restaurant to opening new venues, while Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong has expanded within Hong Kong and overseas. And, by all accounts, the queue for Jay Fai is currently over two hours.
As chef Gaggan humorously predicted at the award ceremony, “We should all go to Jay Fai tonight because after tonight you’ll never be able to get in there again. You’ll be able to book a table at Gaggan, but not at Jay Fai!”
“Thai cuisine can take its rightful place as one of the most diverse, intense cuisines in the world today”
ABOVE: Jay Fai is considered one of the city’s best street-food cooks, winning a Michelin star for her open-air Banglamphu shophouse
LEFT: Bangkok now boasts a host of newly minted Michelin-starred restaurants
LEFT: Known for its modern take on traditional Thai dishes, Nahm at COMO Metropolitan Bangkok uses robustly flavoured ingredientsABOVE: Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, offers contemporary French cuisineRIGHT: Beautifully crafted beetroot roses at progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan