Michelin food inspectors are set to gauge Thailand’s restaurants, hand out prestigious stars and publish a guide for the kingdom. Here’s What the country’s top restaurant personalities feel about it
Despite its world-famous street food, Thailand isn’t just about pad thai and somtam. At least, it will serve up plenty of startling discoveries for the Michelin food inspectors when they are in the country later this year to gauge its restaurants, hand out its stars and publish a Michelin guide for the Kingdom – hot on the heels of the Singapore edition that came out last year, and Japan’s and Hong Kong’s before that.
Thailand is joining the Michelin fold at a time when its food scene is at its most vibrant. Bangkok is one of the 23 best cities in the world for street food this year, according to CNN. The best restaurant in Asia is Gaggan, a progressive Indian restaurant of chef Gaggan Anand, also based in Bangkok.
Thai food, at the same time, has steadily cemented its position – certainly in the top 3-4 most popular Asian dishes in the world – arguably alongside Chinese, Japanese and Indian.
Thanks to the Thai Cabinet approval of a five-year budget of Bt143.50 million, the internationally renowned tyre-maker and publisher has been commissioned to publish a Thailand edition that is expected to come out at the end of this year.
“For me, Bt143 million is nothing. I could have paid a billion to get a Michelin Guide here. It’s fair to pay this kind of money to bring credibility to this country,” says Deepak Ohri, CEO of lebua at State Tower.
Thailand is no stranger to Michelin.
As a global tyre-manufacturing company, Michelin has been in Thailand for quite a while. Its Thai tyre plant was among the first French companies investing in Asia in a joint venture with Siam Cement Group. As Thailand became a regional automobile hub, the joint venture grew. And as tourism to Thailand swelled, Michelin serviced a regular drive travel guide.
The French tyre company introduced the little red guide in 1900 to encourage people to take road trips. Its star system began in the 1920s. But it was not until 2005 when it covered a country outside Europe with the launch of its very first American guide focusing on New York. Two years later, the Michelin Guide for Tokyo was published, followed by the Hong Kong and Macau edition in 2008. The Singapore guide came out last year.
A range of criteria
Michelin’s full-time food inspectors visit restaurants and gauge their food anonymously. Restaurants are rated on such criteria as creativity, personality, the quality of ingredients, value and consistency. Michelin claims that its guides are reliable and independent. Can Thailand make another leap in fame? Will the guide take Thailand’s food scene or the Thai government’s “Kitchen of the World” initiative to another level?
Ironically, the first Thai restaurant to have been awarded a Michelin star was far from Thailand or Thai ownership. It was Nahm, the Thai restaurant run by Sydney-born David Thompson in a London hotel. Thompson has since written a series of books on Thai food and its history, and he was honoured with the 50 Best Asian Restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
A steady stream of Michelin-starred chefs continues to add to Bangkok’s gastronomic fame thanks to their fancy dinners at restaurants attached to the likes of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok Hotel, Four Seasons (now rebranded Anantara) Hotel and lebua at State Tower. These Michelin-starred chefs also cook exclusive meals for Thai gourmands at venues in hot tourism spots such as Samui and Phuket regularly.
The planned red guide for Bangkok has received a mixed reception. The Thai government believes the guide will raise the standards of Thailand’s restaurant scene, bring in more renowned chefs, and stimulate local tourism in Bangkok and other cities.
Ohri is a staunch supporter of this policy, saying a Michelin guide will benefit Thailand’s tourism industry.
“The new TAT governor is smart and sees the opportunity and he has got it done. Thailand is No 1 in Asean when it comes to tourist numbers. The country passed the 30-million mark last year. It’s high time Thailand gets a Michelin guide to add to the credibility so that we are not getting low-level tourists but high-level ones. Having the red guide means you’re already at an international level. Can you imagine Bangkok without an LV store? So, how can you imagine Thailand for so long without a Michelin guide?
“It’s not about one, or two stars. It’s about something that this country has which many people have ignored, just as in Singapore nobody knew about chicken rice, or roast chicken, which now has a star. You need people from outside to tell you how good you are. When I dress up, my family says I look smart. But when people say you look so good, I feel happy. That will happen to Thailand when Michelin says Thailand is so good with food. All Thais will feel proud that their country also has a Michelin guide,” says Ohri, who has lived in Thailand for 16 years.
‘Are they knowledgeable enough?’
But ML Sirichalerm Svasti, a celebrity chef better known as chef McDang, a consultant to Bangkok Airways on its in-flight meals, is sceptical about the Michelin Guide Thailand project – and Michelin food inspectors’ level of understanding of Thai cuisine and its history.
“Food inspectors. Who are they going to use? Do they understand Thai food? Do they know how many types of Thai food there are? Do they understand levels of Thai food? We have market food, street food, single-stall food stores, fine dining, hotel food, then ‘modern Thai cuisine’, that is for expats. What do they want to do? If the Michelin guide only covers big places, it’s not gonna work. I don’t know. It should not be a high-class guide, or on expensive food only in fine establishments,” says chef McDang.
Ohri, however, feels the little red guide is reliable and independent because of its credible judging process. “You never know who the judges are. They visit the restaurant anonymously and pay the bill. With other guides, everybody knows who the judges are. The process to get a Michelin star is not very easy,” he insists.
He believes the guide book appeals to tourists, especially those with deep pockets. “If an A380 lands here together with one private jet with four guests who have come here because of the guide, the country will make more money from those four guests than 500 people who came on the A380,” he says.
Ohri consults the red guide every time he’s out dining with guests. He loves Lung King Heen, the Cantonese restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong. He’s also a big fan of Restaurant Villa Rothschild in Frankfurt, which has two Michelin Stars. Another favourite of his is Epicure in Paris. “For me the best restaurant in the world after lebua’s Mezzaluna and Breeze [personal bias aside!] at our place is Epicure. This is the No 1 restaurant in the world outside of Thailand. I eat there every time I go to Paris. I must have dined at Epicure about 20 times. Every time, it’s a delight. For me, if I have to dine outside of Mezzaluna and get a comparable experience, I think Epicure is the one that gets me that kind of experience,” says Ohri.
Having someone who understand Thai food would add to Michelin’s credibility. But McDang wonders who at Michelin is qualified to taste the food in Thailand.
“Michelin doesn’t [seem to] have anybody who understands Thai food. You have to understand the history of Thai food, what it’s all about, where it came from. Chilli pepper, for example, is not a Thai ingredient. Thai sweets like thong yip thong yod are also not Thai. Anything that has eggs is all Portuguese. Do they know our culture? The government has to be careful in doing this. What would help a great deal is that if the government would have Michelin people come to me, I am more than happy to give a lecture on Thai cuisine, royal Thai cuisine and its history and the history of Thai desserts. I can explain all the taste profiles of what Thai food should taste like,” chef McDang says.
Considered Thailand’s foremost authority on Thai food and royal Thai cuisine, chef McDang is a proponent of teaching cooking through science as opposed to the rote memorisation of ingredients and procedure. The Australian Sian Powell once described McDang as the Thai equivalent of Britain’s Gordon Ramsay (but far more courteous) or Australia’s Neil Perry. He’s written the internationally acclaimed “The Principles of Thai Cookery” that pays tribute to rice as the first and most important part of a Thai meal. Thai food exhibits influences from India, Portugal and China, he writes. According to Chef McDang, the Thai dining scene is of high quality, but when it comes to service and personnel, there’s room for improvement.
“No Thais who speak English want to become a server. They don’t have passion. They just want money. The new generation of people are not service-minded. They don’t know how to eat either. It’s very difficult now to find really good chefs who have passion, who do it because they love doing it. Everyone cares about money. So, they think the Michelin guide is going to give them money,” says chef McDang.
But in a country where people don’t speak English, it doesn’t mean the country is bad, insists Ohri, adding his waiters and waitresses speak English well. Thailand is a food paradise for Ohri, who says its food scene is “very diversified”. Thailand’s food scene is constantly evolving, says chef Gaggan. “It’s a big evolution. I’m just a part of it – just one per cent. Ten or 20 years back, we might have been lagging behind Singapore and Hong Kong. Now we are catching up very fast because we are so close in fine dining. The government has realised the potential of this country, and is doing the right thing with the Michelin project. But my perspective is different from Michelin’s. The government has to make it fair,” says chef Gaggan.
When it comes to Thai food, our eating culture tends to leave foreigners disillusioned.
“Thais have this conception: good Thai food cannot be expensive,” says chef McDang. “But then somewhere, you know, khao pad gaak mou costs Bt300. The point is good Thai food has to be cheap and dirty! Once I was eating at a noodle shop, and there was a strand of hair in my kuaytiew [noodle soup]. I asked the seller, ‘what’s this?’ The seller stared at me and smiled: ‘Oh, that’s good stuff, that’s saneh [charm]!’ That’s how we used to think in the olden days. How is the Michelin guide going to do that for all those people? Hygienically our food is still not that great. People still don’t understand hygiene. The Michelin people need to come and first see the variety of food, the grades and levels of restaurants and eateries. Are you going to all the expensive places, and leave kuaytiew places and kuaytiew khua gai in Yaowarat (Bangkok’s Chinatown)? The owner of that shop is rude to everyone. Thai people like that kind of stuff. Are farang going to like that kind of stuff?”
Like chef McDang, chef Gaggan, whose eponymous restaurant recently claimed the top spot on the prestigious list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third consecutive year, says he’s not convinced of Michelin’s expertise when it comes to Asian food cultures.
“I don’t know whether I may be able to meet their expectations because they [Michelin people] are old-schooled. We are not sure if my restaurant will be on the guide. It’s difficult to say because we make people eat food with their hands. But to judge the food, you have to understand the cuisine. If they have local inspectors who understand Indian food and judge me, I am happy. If you have someone who doesn’t understand the cuisine, how can they judge me? If you are French, can you understand Thai food? How can they do that?” quips Gaggan.
Gaggan used to enjoy dining at Michelin-Star establishments as part of his search for good food. A number of encounters with Michelin-Star restaurants overseas have raised doubts in him. “Honestly, I don’t trust them [Michelin],” says Gaggan.
At some Michelin-Star restaurants elsewhere, the experience wasn’t quite right for Gaggan. “I dined at a celebrity South Korean chef’s Michelin-Star restaurant in Seoul last year. The chef cooks in Seoul, and uses original ingredients in his own country. It has one Michelin Star. But his restaurant in New York, where he’s not present, has two Michelin Stars. I’ve tasted the food at both places. The one in Seoul was better,” he says.
‘They must be fair’
Gaggan can still recall a Michelin-Star restaurant in Hong Kong or maybe Singapore using melamine plates. “I am not shocked. I am very okay with it. The food is very good. But then make sure our restaurants here with plastic plates get one star too. Please be fair,” he says. Gaggan found another restaurant in Hong Kong with three Michelin Stars, where the food was cooked and kept in an oven for three hours before serving.
“I’m cooking fresh. Why didn’t the 3-star chef put more effort?” he says.
Gaggan also dined at another restaurant with three Michelin Stars that served tasty fried prawns.
“I just thought the deep-fried prawn was amazing. But I found out later that they put in some powder, a mix of salt and pepper, from a brand known for selling monosodium glutamate [MSG]. Did Michelin food inspectors see that? I’m confused. But you know, I come from a very mature and philosophical background,” he says.
Gaggan has great admiration for two of Japan’s Michelin-Star restaurants, though: Michel Bras Toya in Toya, Hokkaido, and Kikunoi in Kyoto.
“When I ate at Michelin-Star restaurants in Japan, it felt very correct. For me, Kikunoi serves the best kaiseiki,” he says.
Michelin was not available for comment. But Michelin is expected to organise a press conference in Bangkok later to introduce the Michelin Guide for Thailand project.
Despite the cold shoulder, there’s a lot of merit to this guide-book project.
The guide will benefit not just Thailand’s tourism and food scene, but the world of food reviews and restaurant rankings as well.
The Michelin guide could well give the on and off Thai government’s “Kitchen of the World” plan a lift as a broader national food strategy.
Ohri says the guide will put an international spotlight on local dining establishments, and will not only recognise fine dining places but hawkers’ food, too. “As the Michelin guides for other Asian countries show, the Michelin guide appreciates people who have been working for 40 years and feeding their mothers. We always talk about so many awards that most likely don’t recognise street food. For me the Michelin guide should have come earlier,” says Ohri.
The guide will be an important motivational factor for chefs and restaurants, insists Gaggan.
“The guide is a good thing for Thailand,” he asserts, adding: “Yes, very good. It’s a very big motivation for chefs to get stars. The guide will help many restaurants. Restaurants like Eat Me, Issaya and Bo Lan have changed public perception of Thai food. We’ve changed from a one-dollar bowl of noodles on the streets to fine dining. But Michelin, you are late. Now that you are seeing we have the best restaurants in Asia you are coming to capture the market. The guide will boost the fine dining scene too. In Singapore, there were good restaurants that were empty. Once they got a star, they became full.”
Gaggan adds that Michelin Stars could be a curse, too: “In Hong Kong, Michelin is a curse especially to some hawkers. If you are recognised by Michelin, the rent goes up.”
Must cover Thailand in entirety
The guide will be a blessing for Thailand if Michelin covers Thailand’s dining scene in all its entirety, suggests chef McDang.
“If the Michelin guide covers more down-to-earth places, and gives us a variety of levels of eating experiences, then it’s good. But you need to go to this little corner, that little street, places that don’t have a farang menu, or places that not only backpackers but foodies can go to, then that could be good. I want grass-roots restaurants to be able to make it into the guide. If they want to bring more tourism, you must include not just top-tier tourists but backpackers alike, so the guide must include places that backpackers can enjoy this kind of stuff too,” he says.
Ohri says among the plethora of restaurant awards and rankings in the world, Michelin is the most credible. “Everybody in the industry knows that the Michelin guide has more credibility than anything else. They don’t have any hidden agenda… When it comes to restaurant awards, people are confused. Michelin will set everything right,” says Ohri.
In Thailand, Ohri believes the Michelin guide will set a benchmark for food reviews, adding that in emerging countries, the food review is always different from that of developed countries. “Food review has got nothing to do with food writers, food review has got to do with how newspapers work, the independence people have, and how the economy works. How is the food review of The New York Times different from the food review of The Strait Times? As for restaurant rankings, those who win an award say it’s the best award. Those who don’t win say it’s not authentic. That’s how it goes,” says Ohri.
Every restaurant award has its pros and cons, insists Gaggan.
“I just want Michelin to be fair. I have got my fame, my success. I won’t change for Michelin. Michelin won’t change for me. But don’t judge a country on the French perspective. Hong Kong and Singapore are developed markets. Thailand is a completely different market. You can’t judge a country by the level of other countries. You have to judge a country by the culture of that country. Don’t judge it by your culture,” stresses Gaggan, who says he won’t be accepting any awards in 2018 because he wants to make room for the others. However Michelin food inspectors judge restaurants, the guide will feature street food, as is usual with the Michelin guides for other Asian countries. That signals the Michelin guide is not just about expensive food.
“That will bring about diversity. Why are people talking against it then?” wonders Ohri.