By Pravit Rojanaphruk, Tappanai Boonbandit, and Asaree Thaitrakulpanich
BANGKOK — While accepting one of the most prestigious food awards worldwide, Chef Supaksorn Jongsiri dedicated his win to the country’s most humble – rural farmers.
On stage, he said he had cried tears of joy for receiving the award – but farmers in the south of Thailand were crying in despair because they couldn’t sell any of their produce, while expensive imported ingredients were prized and coveted.
“Sea urchin from Japan sells for 20,000 baht per kilo, but mangosteen sells for 3 baht per kilo,” he said, visibly emotional on stage. “The farmers had to throw them away. And then they cried.”
Sorn was one of two restaurants, both serving Thai cuisine, that got an upgrade from one to two Michelin stars at the awards ceremony Tuesday.
The two-star distinction for Thai restaurants in Thailand were a first, as the other two-star awardees all served foreign cuisine. Supaksorn and other awarded chefs this year stressed the importance of cooks going locavore to support the country.
“What I said on stage was to encourage everyone to elevate Thai ingredients,” Nakhon Si Thammarat native Supaksorn said to Khaosod English after receiving the stars. “I’m just a messenger. The real burden is on the farmers who provided me with the ingredients. They gave me the chance to be here today.”
Supaksorn said he was proud to present Thai southern cuisine to the world. Sorn is the only starred Southern Thai cuisine restaurant.
R-Haan’s celebrity chef Chumpol Jangprai, one of Thailand’s Iron Chefs, echoed a similar sentiment about elevating Thai cuisine to new heights.
“It’s the proudest day in my life as a Thai chef, to bring Thai food to this number one rank for the first time. I feel so fulfilled. I believed in the knowledge of our ancestors and their varied cooking skills that were passed down,” Chumpol said.
At a panel in May that brought together foreigners in Thailand’s food scene and innovative Thai chefs, including Michelin star winners, the former group said restaurant rankings diluted what they saw as “authentic” Thai cuisine, while the actual Thai chefs had similar sentiments as these newly-starred chefs – that the awards give visibility to Thai cuisine on the world stage and help revive forgotten ingredients and dying cooking methods.
The attention for indigenous ingredients was also stressed by Chef Napol Jantraget of 80/20, a Michelin restaurant awarded a star. Napol said his restaurant was named so because he wanted to sourced 80 percent of the ingredients locally, but progressed to using all local ingredients.
“You can’t be hopeful about the future of Thai food if cooking schools teach Thai students to debone imported salmon, while the use of local freshwater fish like snakefish is overlooked,” Napol said.
The guide describes his fare as using “folksy ingredients such as caviar-sized aquatic flowering plants found in rural ponds, known as Asian watermeal, and black chicken from the Northeast” as well as koji-fermented fish sauce made in their own fermentation lab.
“We can compare our cuisine to the Italian and French that have unique ingredients,” Napol said.
Chef Vichit Mukura of one-Michelin star Khao (“rice” in Thai) said Thai farmers should be supported to grow unique strains of the country’s staple food – rice, in order to enrich both stomachs and pockets.
“We should seek to find market for unique rice,” said the chef, adding that his red organic jasmine rice came from a village in Buriram where he buys the rice at 90 baht per kilogram instead of the usual 70 baht per kilogram. “We cannot compete with other countries by selling cheaper and cheaper rice in the future.”
He added that rice isn’t just for the main course but can be made into novel desserts like ice cream as well. “Rice itself should be appreciated as a rite of bringing people together over a meal,” Vichit said.
Chefs who retained their one-star rankings from previous years said they were happy to retain their distinction and would continue to keep up the quality of the ingredients they sourced.
Street food legend Supinya Junsuta, better known as Jay Fai best known for her 800-baht crab omelette and 600-baht Tom Yum was able to retain one-Michelin star for the third year and is still the only starred street food entry.
She said quality ingredients, such as her crab from Mahachai area in Samut Sakhon, is indispensable so her dishes won’t come cheap.
Despite the two-month booking queue, she said she hasn’t raised the price of her dishes. Currently, she has 10 assistants in the kitchen and regardless of the long queue, she continues to be the only one who presides over the charcoal stove, cooking the dishes order-by-order.
“Food should not be cooked in large servings because one cannot control the cooking well,” Jay Fai said.
Sharing the same one-star designation, Banyen Ruangsantheia of Suan Thip – whose exquisite Lotus Trays are sourced from the restaurant’s pond – said she was proud of the award, which made her forget the cold she was having.
After being decorated with the star the past year, she saw a surge of customers and felt mounting pressure, but said she believed that her traditional fare will continue to impress diners and critics.
When asked about the chance of joining the two-star club, the 63-year-old chef replied that “that this is already enough to fulfill my pride.”
Besides Thai journalists, foreign food critics are also present on Tuesday. Takefumi Hamada, 45, who writes for the Japanese online food ranking site Tabelog, flew in from Tokyo just for the event.
Hamada said Bangkok is unique as a food scene because of a large expat population willing to support food experiments.
“Restaurants like Gaggan could not have existed in India,” Hamada said, referring to the former two-Michelin star experimental Indian restaurant which closed in August.
He added that there is no definitive food judgment and that an on-going conversation between local and foreign food critics are always good for the food scene.