Some call it street food, but Jay Fai’s signature crab omelette costs 800 baht and doesn’t qualify – Michelin star notwithstanding. (Photo by Jetjaras Na Ranong)
Jubilation for “street food” restaurant owner Jay Fai, who earned a prestigious Michelin Star last month, has ended in a twist.
The award has put the eatery, and some others, on the connoisseurs’ map of the world.
Among the long list of international chefs expected to be awarded one or two stars in the Michelin Guide Bangkok, Jay Fai’s was the only street food joint to make its way to international fame overnight after winning a star.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
Unsurprisingly, Jay Fai has since come to the attention of many international media outlets in past weeks. Surprisingly, her food shop appeared in a newspaper in Germany, where people are arguably not as interested in gastronomy as in say France or Italy.
Media attention is a huge booster for the domestic tourism industry as a Michelin-starred outlet enjoys longer waiting lists. The twist for Jay Fai is that she is also being haunted by the taxman. Frustrated, she told Ariane Sutthavong-Kupferman, a Bangkok Post writer, that she wished to return the star (although her daughter later retracted this statement via other media channels).
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is now keeping its fingers crossed that every baht of the 144-million-baht-budget to attract global food certification firm Michelin Guide to rate establishments in Thailand from 2017-21 will yield benefits.
I don’t mind the budget the TAT used in the campaign, but it is still interesting to see how the TAT and City Hall — which previously took a tough stance against street food — have tried to promote the capital as a gastronomic destination while locals have continued the struggle to access affordable, clean food.
But whether Jay Fai’s eatery can be categorised as a street food establishment is a debate in itself. It is well known that her joint is not for just any passerby given the costly menu. Even before she gained Michelin recognition, her shop, despite its modest location, attracted patrons who mostly arrive in expensive cars.
No low-income earners on the 300-baht minimum wage could afford her famous crab omelette that costs at least 800 baht or a dish of rad na (noodles in gravy) that starts from 200 baht.
This is a different story from the two food stalls in Singapore which won the prestigious stars in July last year. “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle” and “Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle” were among 29 dining venues to feature in the new Singapore guide.
The two stalls were among over 100 open-air hawker centres and 6,000 stalls selling food in city-state.
According to The Guardian, a plate of soya sauce chicken and rice at the Michelin-starred stall costs just two Singaporean dollars, or less than half the price of a Big Mac at McDonald’s. The stall was named as the world’s cheapest Michelin meal by CNN Travel.
But look at our street food award. The majority of Bangkok residents won’t be able to eat at the city’s only Michelin-starred street food restaurant. One may argue that there are quite a few affordable street food joints in Bangkok that have been highlighted in the Bib Gourmand by Michelin Guide; it’s different because they didn’t win any stars.
Street food for most people living in Bangkok, or at least the majority of people I know, both foreigners and locals, means a convenient, delicious, clean, and most importantly affordable meal.
It is clear that the term street food, used by the TAT (also City Hall with a series of bans on street food in the past several months) has hinted at a different meaning and function.
The TAT aims to increase gastronomy business income from 20% of total tourism income forecast for 2017 to 25% in 2018. This year, the TAT aims for 2.77 trillion baht in tourism revenue, 20% of which is projected to come from gastronomy. Tourism revenue is expected to climb to 3 trillion baht next year, with gastronomy accounting for 750 billion.
The TAT governor even told the media in November it would heavily promote gastronomy tourism as well as street food, especially in Bangkok, next year, aiming to push the country to become a destination for gastronomy in Asia.
It is sad to see how government agencies have used the term street food to lure more tourists without feeling awkward.
Earlier this year City Hall evicted numerous street food vendors without finding new locations for them.
The government’s perception of street food is clear: It’s a culinary attraction for tourists who have a fortune to splurge during their trip to Thailand. It’s definitely not for local people who, despite living here 365 days a year, struggle to make ends meet.