Features

Dining: Taste of Bangkok

1 Mar 2018 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Caviar Osciètre et Oursin Menu at Le Normandie, Bangkok

Last year, restaurants from the highest echelons of fine dining to street food eateries were carefully searched out, inspected and re-inspected. 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 gastronomic world’s 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 beguiling outfit of T-shirt, apron, beanie and protective ski goggles) and confessed that before the event she 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 husband Australian 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, Michelin Guide’s international director, 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 together: 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 like Thip Samai, with their delicious pad Thai, and Go-Ang Pratunam, whose succulent chicken rice is a local favourite.

But it was fine-dining French 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 helm the restaurants, it is 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.”

Gaggan restaurant, Bangkok

Pushing the cross-cultural theme to its limit, at Mezzaluna, Chef Ryuki is a Japanese chef cooking French food in the Thai capital. And as multiple award winner 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 taken the brave step to specialise 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 – 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 Sühring brothers Thomas and Mathias, whose contemporary German cuisine riverside restaurant Sühring won a star after less than two years of operation. “Ten years ago there wasn’t such a variety of restaurants that would have deserved one or two stars.”

Jay Fai restaurant, Bangkok

Coming up next for Michelin will be guides to Guangzhou and Taipei. “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 seemingly 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. And you need the ability to taste and translate what is happening on your palate into words. Plus, awarding or taking away a star is a weighty responsibility. It comes after multiple meals and must be a unanimous decision on the part of the inspection team.”

He adds that the solo, on-the-road 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 criticise it, the Michelin Guide gives chefs worldwide meaningful 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 own restaurant to give away my stars,” he comments, saying they are as much for his team, as well as the city. “I have to give enough motivation to Michelin to stay, so that other chefs also get recognition too. It’s for the city, for the country. It is important for the future of Bangkok.”

For a number of chefs the Michelin Guide is a game changer, even a life changer. Chef Chan in Singapore 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, for example. 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 will never be able to get in there again. You will be able to get a table at Gaggan, but not at Jay Fai!”

MICHELIN IN BANGKOK

TWO STARS

Gaggan (Indian)

68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 652 1700; eatatgaggan.com

Le Normandie (French)
5/F, Mandarin Oriental, 48 Oriental Avenue; Khwaeng Bang Rak; tel +66 2 659 9000; mandarinoriental.com

Mezzaluna (European)
65/F, Tower Club at Lebua, State Tower, 1055 Silom Road, Bangrak; tel +66 2 624 9555; lebua.com/mezzaluna

ONE STAR

Bo.Lan (Thai)
24 Soi Sukhumvit 53, Khlong Toei, Watthana; tel +66 2 260 2961; bolan.co.th

Chim by Siam Wisdom (Thai)
66 Soi Sukhumvit 31 Yaek 4, Khlong Toei, Watthana; tel +66 2 260 7811; catbox.fr

Elements (French)
25/F, The Okura Prestige Bangkok Hotel, Park Ventures Ecoplex, 57 Wireless Road, Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 687 9000; okurabangkok.com

Ginza Sushi Ichi (Japanese)
Erawan Bangkok Mall, 494 Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 250 0014; ginza-sushiichi.jp/english

J’Aime by Jean Michel Lorain (French)
2/F, U Sathorn Bangkok, 105, 105/1 Soi Ngam Duphli, Sathorn; tel +66 2 119 4899;
jaime-bangkok.com

Jay Fai (Thai)
327 Mahachai Road, Samranras Subdistrict, Phra Nakon; tel +66 2 223 9384

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (French)
5/F, MahaNakhon Cube, 96 Narathiwas Ratchanakharin Road, Silom, Bangrak; tel +66 2 001 0698; robuchon-bangkok.com

Nahm (Thai)
G/F, Como Metropolitan Bangkok, 27 South Sathorn Road, Sathorn; tel +66 2 625 3388; comohotels.com

Paste (Thai)
3/F, Gaysorn, 999 Ploenchit Road,Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 656 1003; pastebangkok.com

Saneh Jaan (Thai)
Glasshouse at Sindhorn, 130 Wireless Road, Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 650 9880; glasshouseatsindhorn.com

Savelberg (French)
Oriental Residence Bangkok, 110 Wireless Road, Lumpini, Pathum Wan; tel +66 2 252 8001; savelbergth.com

Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin (Thai)
Siam Kempinski Hotel, Rama 1 Road 991/9; tel +66 0 2 162 9000; srabuabykiinkiin.com

Sühring (European)
10 Yen Akat Soi 3, Chongnonsi, Yannawa; tel +66 2 287 1799; restaurantsuhring.com

Upstairs at Mikkeller (American)
26 Ekkamai Soi 10, Lane 2, Phra Khanong Nua; Watthana; tel +66 91 713 9034;
upstairs-restaurant.com

By Catharine Nicol

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