Bangkok Finally Has a Michelin Guide
Bangkok’s first-ever Michelin guide wants you to know that the city offers so much more than street food—though the street food is world-class, too. The new guide dropped on Dec. 6, awarding 20 stars to a total of 17 restaurants, one of which is a cult-favorite cart. No one clinched three stars; even Joël Robuchon, the most starred chef in the world, only snagged one. Three restaurants walked away with two: Gaggan, Le Normandie (at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel) and Mezzaluna (at The Lebua Hotel).
If Gaggan sounds especially familiar, it’s because chef owner Gaggan Anand was profiled in season two of the Netflix docuseries Chef’s Table. His contemporary Indian cuisine has received increasing critical recognition in recent years, and his new Michelin stars seem to be a natural extension of his rising success. Collectively, Bangkok’s starred restaurants represent cuisines from all over the globe, including India, Germany, France and Japan. The new guide drives home the fact that the city merits cosmopolitan consideration—the kind that’s been previously reserved only for Singapore and Hong Kong.
Fourteen of Bangkok’s chefs also received one star. Among them is Jay Fai, a cult-favorite, 70-year-old street vendor. (This actually isn’t the first time a street vendor has earned Michelin stars; that happened last year with the Singapore guide.) Her signature touch are the ski goggles she wears to shield her face from oil splatter. That, and her 30-dollar omelets. (Yes, that’s U.S. dollars. Also, her omelets have crab in them.) Other dishes like the poo phad phong karee, stir-fried crab in yellow curry, are at similar price points—and her customers say it’s worth it.
"Of course, many people told me that I was crazy, because they said it was too expensive," she told Vice earlier this year in an interview. "But I think we should value our own seafood and cuisine the way the Japanese and other cultures do. I pay my staff well and I use the best ingredients. If people don't like the prices, they can go elsewhere."
Everyone everywhere is slow-clapping right now. The triumphant ending to Fai’s narrative is a hard-earned one. At one point, her shop burned to the ground, and she had to rebuild it from scratch. “With the street food, it feels political,” she said. “The government can't get money out of the big people so they squeeze the little ones. But this culture is important."
The Michelin Guide has received a lot of slack for prioritizing Japanese and Euro-centric cuisines. In recent years, it’s tried to change that approach. In a press release, Michael Ellis, International Director of the Michelin Guide, praised Bangkok’s “astonishing variety of wonderful street food” and its “Thai cuisine served in different forms.” (35 of the city’s restaurants were also awarded a Bib Gourmand, which calls out good value spots that tend to be more rustic and traditional. All in all, a whopping 28 food stalls got recognized this year, even though Fai’s is the only one that earned a star.)
These recognitions are important: Michelin is still one of the most respected culinary arbiters in the world. To maintain global relevance, it can’t judge every restaurant through the lens of fine French dining. Although that might be a reductive criticism, it’s been made in the past; as the company expands into Asia, it’s one the organization is trying to refute.
This isn’t just about being "woke," though, or even having democratic tastes. It’s also about selling tires. For those who don’t know, the Michelin man of your childhood nightmares is one and the same. Although hawking automotive supplies seems contradictory to fine dining, the link makes perfect sense given the brand’s origin story. The guides were started in 1900 by the car tire manufacturing company as a way to entice people to drive more to drive-worthy restaurants; consequently, it was hoped, they’d buy more tires. And they did.
Amazingly, that’s still a relevant M.O. today. According to statistics released by Bloomberg a couple months ago, the majority of the company’s global sales are in Europe, and it’s trying to woo more Chinese drivers. China’s tire manufacturers are undercutting Michelin in price (no surprise there), and where the brand can’t compete on price, it’s hoping to leverage brand equity. “The guide is part and parcel of our brand image in mature countries,” Michelin Chief Financial Officer Marc Henry told Bloomberg in October. “In emerging countries where more and more people are buying a car for the first time, we see that we can re-create a bit of this brand attraction.”
To that end, Michelin is launching in Taipei next spring. Currently, the guide is in Hong Kong and Macau, Japan, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore and now Bangkok. The full list of Bangkok awardees is below:
Two Michelin-starred Bangkok Restaurants:
Le Normandie at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Mezzaluna at The Lebua Hotel
One Michelin-starred Bangkok restaurants:
Chim by Siam Wisdom
Nahm at The Como Metropolitan
Elements at The Okura Prestige
J'AIME by Jean-Michel Lorain
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Savelberg at The Oriental Residence
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at The Siam Kempinski Hotel
Upstairs at Mikkeller