HAS MICHELIN RUINED ‘MODERN’ THAI FOOD? – THE EXPERTS DON’T AGREE

Instagrammables, fancy plating, Michelin stars – some see them as marketing tricks that standardise the Thai food scene, others as a classy boon to uplift and update the country’s culinary heritage.

Thai chefs, farang restaurant proprietors, and a food expert diverged in views on what the induction of restaurant rankings and modern food means for the Thai food scene in a discussion  held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

“The arrival of Michelin Star and San Pellegrino has corrupted the nature of Thai food,” Jarrett Wrisley, proprietor of Soul Food Mahanakorn, Appia, and Peppina said. “They have predictable criteria: a serving menu, a publicist, you need to serve three proteins. … This is not the criteria for delicious food. It’s a criteria for being on a list sponsored by a water brand.”

However, the editor of BK Magazine, and three Thai female chefs – two of whom have Michelin stars – said nothing truly Thai has been lost amidst all the rankings and modern interpretations of tom yum. Without good ingredients and proper know-how, it would have been hard to trick tongues long enough to get awards.

Oliver Irvine, editor at English-language lifestyle website BK Magazine, says that although now people “know what they need to do to get on a list,” he believes that the Thai restaurants recognised as the world’s best are the ones supporting and indicative of Thai culinary heritage.

“Making liquid nitrogen green curry ice cream won’t work, unless the curry tastes great to begin with,” Irvine said.

Saawaan’s petit fours: from left, a durian chocolate, a mango sheet with a passionfruit filling; a magnolia meringue and a sour orange mousse.

Chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn of one-star Saawaan said that properly mastering the modern means having long mastered the basics. “Combine the modern and basic cooking techniques, while keeping the original flavor as much as possible,” Aom said. “If you want to make Thai food innovative, then you have to know the basics of making it.”

Jutamas “Som” Theantae, chef of the innovative fusion cuisines of Karmakamet Diner and Karmakamet Conveyance, said that Thai food evolving to become more modern was just a natural artistic progression.

“The culinary timeline is like the artistic timeline. Impressionism, to post impressionism…knowing about the past can create a better future. And maybe one day, we can bring something new to the timeline of the culinary period,” she said.

Wrisley, however, said that modern food had to stray away from the ridiculous.

“When you’re trying to innovate and serve modernist food, that’s fine. But is the silly thing you put on the plate better than the original thing after you freeze it and foam it?” Wrisley said.

A total of 27 restaurants in Thailand have been awarded a Michelin Star in 2018, the second year that the country was tested by the food guide. Bo’s Bo.lan, has one Michelin star as well as an episode about them on “Chef’s Table.” Saawaan has one star as well.

"Bangkok Street Food No. 1" at Karmakamet Conveyance.

Both Wrisley and Bo derided the general political jockeying that was the world of restaurant rankings.

“I don’t do marketing, PR…that bullshit,” Bo said. “I’m surprised I’m still on the Michelin and top 50 lists because I talk so badly about them.”

Wrisley added that Evian and San Pellegrino sponsor the Michelin and World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists, respectively.

“Evian and San Pellegrino. Choose one, or serve both,” Wrisley said.

All the chefs on the panel – Thai women – agreed that the idea that Thai traditional food “dies” as new gastronomy is inducted into the country is false. Rather, Thai people at large have forgotten the indigenous roots using ingredients at their best, and are using canned or ready-made ingredients instead.

So to get the best taste, they said, there needs to be the best ingredients and effort put in, with a price tag to match.

Pumpkin custard surrounded by pandan chiffon cake, pralines, tangerine foams and coconut rum jelly.

Bo described the lengthy, labor-intensive process of crushing and squeezing coconut milk and pounding shrimp paste and every vegetable needed for a simple curry, which should be worth the effort put into it. For her, using “hyperlocal” ingredients that support local communities, food security, and biodiversity is of utmost importance and also yields the best raw materials for restaurants.

“But sometimes, chefs just use this vegetable for the sake of putting it in, like decorating plates with orchids like they did in the 80s,” she said. “They didn’t bring out the full flavour profile.”

“It’s a discredit to Thai food to think that it ought to be cheap. It was cheap because Bangkok used to be cheap. But Bangkok is not cheap anymore,” Wrisley said. “People often have romantic notions of Thai food as chicken grilled on the street.”