Thailand looks forward to its first Michelin Guide

Thailand will be the sixth Asian nation to get its own Michelin Guide.
Thailand will be the sixth Asian nation to get its own Michelin Guide. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - It's official.

Thailand is finally getting a Michelin Guide, the sixth in Asia to get its own version of the little red book that foodies consider their bible.

Ironically, the announcement made by the Thai Ministry of Tourism & Sports and French tire manufacturer Michelin comes on the heels of a crackdown by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) on street food, which has outraged food lovers and threatened the livelihood of hawkers.

"The guide will inspire local restaurants to improve their quality and raise the bar in terms of gastronomic excellence," said Ms Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which is reportedly spending 143.5 million baht (S$5.8 million) for a five-year contract with Michelin to publish the food guides.

Last week, BMA said it would regulate hawkers in Yaowarat in Chinatown and Khao San Road, two top destinations for street food in the capital, to ensure that they follow proper sanitation and traffic regulations.

Locals and tourists raised a furore over the move, saying doing so would kill the vibrancy of the city's street culture.

"Bangkok is one of the world's culinary capitals," Mr Lionel Dantiacq, president and managing director of Michelin East-Asia Oceania, said in a statement.

TAT hopes that the guide would attract more tourists to the country. Last year, Thailand welcomed 32 million international tourists.

"Thai food is world famous. I've always said that the best example of Thai food is here in Thailand, it's not anywhere else. If you are a lover of Thai food, you have to come here to experience the real thing," Mr Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, TAT deputy governor for marketing communications, told The Straits Times.

"We consider ourselves a heavyweight in the culinary world and we have a lot more things in store," he added.

Bangkok already plays host to chefs behind restaurants that have earned stars from the prestigious list.

They include Dutch Henk Savelberg, who closed his one-Michelin-starred restaurant in The Hague to focus on Savelberg Thailand and three-Michelin-starred chef Jean Michel Lorain whose J'aime, which is famed for its Burgundy cuisine, is managed by his daughter Marine.

"Every country deserves a Michelin," Mr Curtis Duffy, whose Grace in Chicago is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, told The Straits Times. He recently travelled through Thailand.

"There is something for everybody here given the diversity from street food all the way to fine dining and everything in between. If they can capture that in a guide book, that's amazing," he added.

Hong Kong chef Alvin Leung said Bangkok's culinary scene is growing and has a lot of interesting things to offer.

"You have the masters and the big conglomerates, then you have very, very unique restaurants that are very innovative," he told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the Bangkok Gourmet Festival 2017 in March. He owns the three-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and its one-star London version.

Mr Leung said Thailand's edge over other food hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore is the availability of local ingredients. "The unique thing about Thailand is they do have a lot of ingredients sourced locally, even caviar," he said.

Two restaurants in Bangkok, Gaggan and Nahm, have been ranked first and fifth, respectively, on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for 2017 published by William Reed Business Media.

Gaggan, which serves Indian cuisine, is among those expected to get a Michelin nod. The London branch of Thai restaurant Nahm had been awarded a Michelin star in 2001 but it was withdrawn in 2011.

While the Michelin Guide may add to Thailand's credibility and boost its bid to become a major food destination, it may not make much of a difference to some.

"Is it the tyre?" Ms Mai Thopakun, 38, said when asked if she has heard of Michelin. She was queuing up at Go-Ang Kaomunkai Pratunam, a favourite among locals and tourists for its chicken rice. She said she frequents the restaurant whenever she is in the central business district because "it's cheap, the service is fast and the food is delicious".

Ms Mai is not really off the mark. Michelin Guide has been published by the tyre company for more than a century now and was meant for French motorists as a marketing ploy to encourage them to buy more tyres. 

It has become a yardstick for foodies and sought-after validation for restaurants. Its star system began in the 1920s.

The guide already covers China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.

The Singapore guide first released last year was controversial and highly talked about because of the restaurants chosen and the inclusion of two hawker stalls.

"It's always controversial, any guide is controversial," Mr Leung said. "You have to use a list or guide according to your interpretation. At the end of the day, word-of-mouth is just as important as any guide," he added. 

It's anybody's guess whether one of Bangkok's street hawkers will get a star.

Thailand's Michelin Guide will be released in Thai and English in December.