Bangkok Michelin Guide: Chinatown crab omelette queen on earning her star alongside fine-dining restaurants

Until very recently I had no idea what Michelin stars were, says 72-year-old Jay Fai, whose restaurant was honoured in publisher’s first guide to the Thai capital along with the likes of Gaggan, Le Normandie, Nahm, Bo.lan, and Paste

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 2:47pm

At the age of 72, Jay Fai, who for decades has cooked crab omelettes over a wok while working her way up from a street cart, unexpectedly joined the global craze for fine dining last week when her humble shop in Bangkok’s Chinatown joined the ranks of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Actually, she almost gave stardom a pass.

“Someone from Michelin kept calling me to invite me to the awards ceremony,” says the diminutive chef, who sports the same ski goggles she has used for years to avoid splatters of boiling oil. “Until very recently, I had no idea what Michelin stars were. So I kept turning them down.”

She and her restaurant, Raan Jay Fai, became an overnight sensation when she took the stage for Thailand’s first Michelin guide awards ceremony on December 6 at the Siam Kempinski Hotel, alongside the Michelin tyre icon. That character she knew, having kept a toy replica by her bedside for years. But until she arrived and joined the chefs at the awards, “I had no idea the tyre man had anything to do with food”.

Aside from Fai’s debut, there were few other surprises at the glitzy bash, where guests paid US$600 per person for a cavalcade of dishes served by celebrity chefs from around the globe. Familiar names from Bangkok’s fine-dining scene dominated the list of 17 restaurants that received stars in the new Michelin guide, which is the city’s first.

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At the top of the list, three restaurants received two stars. One of those was Gaggan, which for the last three years has also held the No. 1 spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list (and is seventh on its World’s 50 Best Restaurants list). Owner and executive chef Gaggan Anand took the latest accolades in his stride.

“It really wasn’t that big a surprise,” says Anand, who has taken Indian gastronomy to new heights with culinary inventions from his innovative food laboratory. “The surprise was waiting to see who got three stars.”

None did, but Gaggan and its fellow two-star awardees – Le Normandie, a legendary 60-year-old French institution at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Mezzaluna, with its sky-high views from the 65th floor of the State Tower – won’t be put off.

“This just gives us something to shoot for next year,” Anand says.

I was so happy that I slept with the award
Jay Fai

Fourteen restaurants received a single Michelin star, half of them Thai restaurants. Besides Raan Jay Fai, these included David Thompson’s Nahm, Bo.lan, Saneh Jaan, Chim by Siam Wisdom, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, and Paste. The other half comprised Suhring, an inventive German restaurant run by a pair of bubbly twin chefs, Ginza Sushi-Ichi, Elements, Upstairs at Mikkeller and a trio of French establishments: L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, J’Aime by Jean-Michel Lorain and Savelberg.

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Thompson, a renowned scholar of Thai cooking who has written a pair of well-researched books about his adopted country’s cuisine, is disappointed that international establishments on the list outnumber those serving the Thai cuisine he has long championed.

“Still, this is a good first step, and great recognition for many on the list – not just the starred restaurants,” he says.

The guide honours scores more restaurants with its Bib Gourmand and Michelin Plate designations – nearly 100 establishments in all. More than two dozen of these serve Thai street food.

“Thai food is amazing. It has all the taste sensations – sweet, sour, pungent, savoury – often in the same dish,” said Michel Ellis, international director of the Michelin guides. He was in Bangkok on a whirlwind tour, introducing 16 new guides around the globe in less than three months. “Thai food is what it is all about – so much flavour in your face.”

Anand remembers how, after moving from India to Bangkok, he and Thompson were among the city’s pioneers of non-European fine dining. “In the last 10 years, the whole landscape has changed, and the next 10 years is going to be off the charts,” he says.

Thompson compares Bangkok’s booming food scene to those of London and Sydney, which he considers world capitals of cuisine. “Bangkok is now a place with a lot of restaurants – Thai and international – with chefs who could work anywhere in the world,” he says. “There is just this huge cauldron of talent.”

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This has become crucial to Thailand, where tourism is one of the main industries buoying an economy that has been sluggish since a coup in 2014. A record 34 million visitors are expected in 2017.

Gastronomy generated 20 per cent of tourism revenues in 2016, according to Thai statistics. Thailand, which spent a reported US$4.3 million in sponsorship for Michelin, hopes to push that to 25 per cent in the coming three years.

The Michelin Guide was launched in 1900 in France by one of the world’s largest tyre companies to promote travel, and its reviews of hotels and restaurants has guided generations around France and beyond. Michelin only expanded outside Europe 12 years ago, but Ellis is especially bullish about Asia. He points out that established guides to Hong Kong and Japan have been bolstered recently by additions in Singapore, Shanghai and Bangkok. Taipei will be added in March 2018. “It’s a great time for Asia, and Asian cuisines,” he says.

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The value of the awards, based on the vetting of teams of Michelin inspectors who anonymously scour the culinary landscape, is undeniable. Bangkok has been buzzing with rumours of food checks for months, and chefs told the Post that they were booked up for weeks simply in anticipation that they might win a star.

“There is a wonderful moment of recognition,” says Thompson, who can offer a unique perspective – before arriving in Thailand, the Australian chef won the first star ever awarded to a Thai restaurant for his Nahm in London (now closed). “Awards like these are vindication that Bangkok is a great food city, but it’s always been a great food city.”

He applauded recognition for up-and-coming restaurants like 80/20 and Soul Food Mahanakorn (which recently expanded to Hong Kong), along with one-star Paste. Paste is run by married couple Bongkoch Satongun and Jason Bailey, who had laboured mostly under the radar in Thong Lo district before opening a grander establishment in the upmarket Gaysorn Plaza.

Bongkoch was near tears as she took the stage with some of the better-known Bangkok chefs. For years, the couple had remained devoted to old recipes, including a passion for the flavourful pastes that gave the restaurant its name.

“I think Thai cuisine locally is going through a period of refinement and creativity with a stronger loyalty and focus on local ingredients,” she says. “It is a very exciting time.”

She emphasises that the honour will only strengthen Paste’s commitment to great hospitality and cuisine. “The award is a great thing that is happening to us, but we do have to keep ourselves centred,” she says. “We have to remember that our aim is cooking and not to focus so much on going after the fame.”

That fine balance also weighs on the Cinderella celebrity chef Fai, who was hardly a secret. Locals and visitors have long made the trek to her small, no-frills restaurant, where diners perch on stools under fluorescent lights, and where the chef, with make-up, jewellery and pink rubber boots, cooks seafood specialities over old-fashioned charcoal stoves. “We’ve all been dining there for years,” Anand says. After the Michelin ceremony, queues of over three hours started to form outside the restaurant.

Now, Bangkok’s belle is a global darling. “When I went to the awards and entered the room, I was at a complete loss for words,” Fai says. “I felt so small compared to all of the other top chefs there, but it made me so happy, and I felt so honoured to be there.

“I always do my best, and what makes me most happy now is to know that more people from around the world will know about Thailand.”

There had been widespread rumours that she was contemplating closing, but she says her plans for the future include a commitment to continue serving her famous dishes.

“If you come back in 10 years this place will be here, and will be the same,” she promises.

However, one change has already occurred. After the gala dinner, her Michelin figurine had an award plaque for company. “I was so happy that I slept with the award,” she says.

Additional reporting by Mason Florence