Fine din­ing in the Thai cap­i­tal

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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

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