For this special chefs issue we sat down with perhaps the most famous chef in Bangkok and an icon of street food, Jay Fai, to discuss sourcing the best ingredients, earning a Michelin star, why hard work and dedication—no matter the age—is essential, and we hear about her unique invitation from a very special chef. Here is Jay Fai in her own words
“I opened Jay Fai almost 40 years ago. I was born opposite and lived just over the road from where the restaurant is now. I helped my mum with the cooking, and as I grew older, I became more and more interested in ingredients. I wanted to help, but also, to find the best ingredients possible so I could cook great food. I worked hard and made sure that I never cut corners. Don’t use shortcuts in cooking as that is very dangerous. Lots of restaurants do this, they want to produce food quickly and cheaply, but the customer can tell.
All I want to do is cook. If I’m being rewarded, then it’s because of the ingredients I use, and that then helps with the food I produce. Everyone should use the best ingredients possible, and making things from scratch is an important skill; curry paste, animal bones for broth, source the best and freshest seafood. This has always been very important to me.
I get through around 20 kilos of crab per day. I only use the best, but it’s also the most expensive. The challenge for me is finding the very best crab and always the best ingredients; it’s my main concern. Working hard and getting tired, that’s normal. Finding the best produce is still the challenge for me.
The khai jiew poo (crab omelette), boo paht pong baree (crab curry) and my use of crab have become my signature, but the guay tiew kua talay (stir-fried noodles with seafood) is very good, and I think my most important dish is gai lan with abalone. It’s good because I cook what I want to cook. I get the abalone from Mexico. It’s very, very, very good. However, it’s 10,000 baht. It has to be as it’s not cheap to source and it takes skill and much time to prepare and cook correctly. It is wonderful though.
Everyone always asks me about Michelin. However, it’s okay. Yes, it was and still is a great honour. I am very proud. The whole story is strange though. Someone from Michelin called to invite me to the ceremony. They had called me before, but I ignored them and even turned them down. I kept wondering why they wanted to invite me to a ceremony? I didn’t know what it was. I thought, this has nothing to do with food and I don’t need to buy tyres.
After a while, I asked my daughters and some other people and eventually accepted the invitation from Michelin. Many years ago I saw a Michelin doll on a truck and thought he was really cute. I told my daughters, and they found me a doll and gave it to me as a gift. I loved it and kept him in my bed for years. I still do.
When I walked through the doors for the ceremony, I thought wow! I didn’t know what to say. I looked around and recognised some of the top chefs. I was very happy to be there. Then, I listened as names were read out and I was so pleased for all of these Bangkok chefs. Everyone was happy. Everyone was smiling.
I listened to the restaurant names and then… “Jay Fai”. My world stopped. It was the best moment of my life. I never dreamed of anything like this. When I was awarded the Michelin star, I was just so happy. I went on the stage and the people were clapping. On the stage was the Michelin man. Like, a big doll. There he was. I took the award to bed that night, so it was with my doll.
I work hard and always do my best, but this was a real surprise. Yes, there is pressure too. I am really busy. My team are really busy. More and more customers now come. It is difficult and stressful for me, but it always has been.
I’m happy that more people know about Thailand and Thai food because of Michelin, that’s a very good thing for the country. I hope more chefs win more awards next time, but not me. I love seeing all of the customers but it’s too busy all of the time. Some government and tax department officials have started visiting, not for food, but to talk to me as they are curious about business. They never were before. Really, the best thing about receiving the award was seeing how happy it made the people around me.
I had already eaten at Bo.lan before Michelin but none of the other restaurants. Since receiving the Michelin star, I have tried to eat at other restaurants in Bangkok, but I work very hard and long hours and do not have much free time. Although this is the way, I think it’s important to try foods around you. I would say to young chefs, work hard. Be dedicated. Always be strong and keep the passion. This is my advice.
For me, it’s all about cooking and making people happy. Yes, I’ve had many visitors over the years, even members of the Royal family. There have been politicians and diplomats visiting the restaurant late at night or very early in the morning. Martha Stewart also visited. Lots of chefs visit after service. I like cooking for local chefs. That makes me happy.
Because of this honour and my age, I know there have been rumours that I might retire and close the restaurant, but that is not true. No, no, no. In fact, if you come back in ten years, everything will be the same. I don’t want my daughters to take over though; it’s a tough job and a tough life. My daughters are very talented, and I want them to lead a better life, not to go through life always exhausted.
For the future, who knows? I would like to eat in more local restaurants and travel more, especially around Thailand. Going abroad would be very nice. I always thought that it would be too difficult but I’m travelling to Copenhagen at the end of the month to be the opening presenter at the MAD Symposium with René Redzepi.
At the Michelin ceremony, the man presenting even suggested there could be plans for expansion and even Jay Fai chains. I don’t see this. Me cooking here is manageable. Just me with my woks. There has to be Jay Fai at Jay Fai.
In conversation with Mason Florence and David J. Constable
327 Samran Rat Intersection, Phra Nakhon
Tel: 02 223 9384