The arrival of the infamous “little red book” is about to change the face of fine dining in Bangkok
The rumours had been bubbling under for months, if not years, but finally in April of this year it became official. With the support of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (to the tune of 143.5 million baht), Michelin will be launching a Bangkok edition of its august restaurant guide towards the end of 2017.
A casual observer might have assumed that Michelin already had a foothold in the city’s dining scene. After all, chefs trailing a collection of stars have been operating in the city since 2004, when the Pourcel twins from Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier opened D’Sens at the Dusit Thani (RIP).
But it was as the Noughties turned into the Teens that things got really exciting, with David Thompson (Nahm), Jean-Michel Lorain (J’Aime), Henk Savelberg (Savelberg), Henrik Yde-Andersen (Sra Bua) and Vincent Thierry (Vogue Lounge), all of whom had fronted Michelin-starred places overseas, bringing their talent and cachet to Krung Thep. For out-of-towners, there was Aziamendi at Iniala in Phuket, overseen by Basque wunderkind Eneko Atxa. And if you got jaded with that selection, it seemed that every week one or more of the big hotels was hosting a Michelin-anointed guest chef, rolling out his or her specialities for the palates and Instagram accounts of Bangkokians. And when L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened at the end of 2014, surely that meant Bangkok had made it to the upper reaches of fine dining?
Well, yes and no. Clearly the city was raising its culinary game, catering to a critical mass of Thai and foreign residents who not only had the cash to support so many high-end enterprises, but were sophisticated and experienced enough to want to sample these new, sometimes challenging menus, and compare them with other meals in the world’s major dining locations such as New York, Paris, London and Tokyo. Not just the “locals”, either—suddenly, foodies were coming to Bangkok not just for the pungent aromas of street food, but for high-end dining. One of the most exciting developments was the improvement in the quality and variety of Thai food; the success of Thompson’s Nahm, and Bo.Lan, run by his protégés Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones, provided an inspiration to others who wanted to take the cuisine to new levels, from old hands such as Ian Kittichai (Issaya) to young Turks including Ton Tassanakajohn (Le Du and Baan) and Bee Satongun and Jason Bailey (Paste).
But still Michelin wasn’t biting. It’s important to remember that, despite the pervasive use of phrases along the lines of “Michelin-starred chef”, the coveted étoiles are awarded to restaurants rather than individuals; there may be a wizard working magic at the hob, but to earn the approbation of guide’s notoriously picky (and anonymous) inspectors, everything else has to be equally transcendent, including service, décor, and all-round ambience. And, despite all the jasmine-scented PR about the ‘Land of Smiles’, it was often in these areas that Bangkok’s restaurants could be found wanting, even those that aspired to elevated high dining kudos. Waiting tables is not seen as a high-status career and finding staff who aspire to more than just taking orders and bringing the dishes is still a challenge in Thailand.
Of course, just because the guys with the tyres didn’t seem interested, it didn’t mean that Bangkok was entirely off the foodie map. Restaurants from the city started showing strongly on the World’s 50 Best and Asia’s 50 Best lists, with the molecular Indian wonderland known as Gaggan topping the latter poll for the past three years. And the Gelinaz Shuffle, a genre-clash project where top chefs are uprooted from their posts and deposited in new kitchens on the other side of the world, last year featured three Bangkok-based chefs (Thompson, Bo, and Gaggan Anand). Bangkok is clearly somewhere the culinary world takes seriously.
But, hey, better late than never; although it seems that not everyone is entirely happy with the arrival of another set of metrics to separate the sheep from the goats. Some of these objections are predictable. ML Sirichalerm Svasti, aka celebrity chef McDang, has gone into his standard tirade about silly foreigners not understanding Thai food, having possibly missed the memo explaining that it won’t just be native cuisine under the microscope; in the latest Michelin Guide to Singapore, all the two- and three-star places are French or Japanese. More serious worries have been prompted by the example of territories such as Hong Kong, where restaurateurs have raised their prices to capitalize on their new-found fame, and landlords have similarly whacked up the rents.
However, despite Michelin’s reputation for favouring iterations of classic French cuisine, with fine wines, starchy linens, and even starchier waiters, the Guides have broadened their remit. In recent years, particularly in Asian cities, they’ve acknowledged smaller, more humble establishments that offer local specialities done very well. Street food and shop houses are all in with a chance; also places that do non-posh variants of non-Thai food, like ramen, burgers, and tapas. The Bib Gourmand awards, that recognize admirable establishments worthy of any foodies’ attention, are bound to throw up a few surprises (the irony of the inspections coinciding with the BMA’s controversial “reorganization” of street food has not gone unnoticed).
According to the rumour mill, Michelin inspectors have been hard at work in the capital’s eateries, checking out the places that have cropped up on other lists and some new ones as well. Establishments will thrive or die, not just on the basis of the food but on whether the staff are watching TV soaps and talent shows when they should be taking orders. And inevitably every serious foodie in town is drawing up two parallel lists, of the restaurants that will be in the guide—and the ones that should be.
So who’s going to get the big accolades? Well, for a start, it’s not a done deal that there will be any three-star awards; after all, Singapore still only has one restaurant that made it. But it would be surprising if Joël Robuchon didn’t maintain his impressive record with the inspectors—his restaurants around the world share 28 stars, more than any other chef. At the same time, it might look perverse if Gaggan or Nahm went unrecognized. Add a few old warhorses such as Le Normandie or Blue Elephant, newer places (maybe Sühring, Le Du, or 80/20) and a couple of affordable, down-home wild cards, and you’ve got the makings of a sensible guide to all that’s good about high-end dining in this crazy city.
Ultimately, though, the fine details of which restaurant gets what don’t matter—except to the people who work at them, of course. This is really about the city as a whole, recognition that its dining scene is now being taken seriously, and an encouragement to everyone, starred or not, to raise their game even higher.
It’s Written in the Stars
The first Michelin Guide for motorists was published in France in 1900 but it wasn’t until 1926 that stars were first awarded to the best restaurants. It restricted its scope to Europe until 2005, when the guide to New York came out. The first Asian city covered was Tokyo, in 2007. The Michelin inspectors are restaurant and hotel professionals who maintain their anonymity and pay for their meals. The famous star system, formalized in 1936, is summarized as follows:
1 STAR: A very good restaurant in its category
2 STARS: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
3 STARS: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey
By Tim Footman