BANGKOK — Instagrammables, fancy plating, Michelin stars – some see them as marketing tricks that standardize 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 on what the induction of restaurant rankings means for the Thai food scene in a discussion held Tuesday night by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
“The arrival of Michelin Star and San Pellegrino has corrupted the nature of Thai food,” said Jarrett Wrisley, the proprietor of Soul Food Mahanakorn, Appia and Peppina. “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 the 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, one cannot trick enough tongues to win 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”, the Thai restaurants recognized as the world’s best are the ones supporting Thai culinary heritage.
“Making liquid nitrogen green curry ice cream won’t work, unless the curry tastes great to begin with,” Irvine said.
Chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn of one-star Saawaan agreed that properly mastering the modern means having long mastered the basics.
“Combine 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, behind the innovative fusion cuisines of Karmakamet Diner and Karmakamet Conveyance, said that modernizing Thai food is just 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 culinary timeline,” she said.
Wrisley, however, warned that modern food must 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 asked.
A total of 27 restaurants in Thailand were awarded a Michelin Star in 2018, the second year that the country was visited by the food guide. Bo’s Bo.lan has one Michelin star and is the subject of an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table”. Saawaan has one star as well.
Both Wrisley and Bo derided the general political jockeying that is 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 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 – all Thai women – disagreed with the idea that Thai traditional food “dies” as new gastronomy is introduced into the country. Rather, Thai people at large have forgotten their indigenous roots of using ingredients at their best, and are using canned or ready-made ingredients instead.
Getting the best taste, they advised, needs the best ingredients, effort put in and a price tag to match.
Bo described the lengthy, labor-intensive processes of crushing and squeezing coconut milk and pounding shrimp paste and vegetables that go into a simple curry – but the result should be worth the effort put in. For her, using “hyperlocal” ingredients that support local communities, food security and biodiversity 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 don’t bring out the full flavor 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.”
At Chef Som’s Karmakamet restaurants, one of her signature dishes is “Bangkok Street No. 1” – a fried oyster served in a ceramic hand cupping a clump of ice.
At Conveyance, her debut seven-course meal is priced at 1,800 baht, or 4,300 for a course with wine. At Chef Aom’s Saawaan, a 10 course meal that elevates Thai rural or street food like kai look koey or khor moo yaang costs 1,950 baht, while a course with wine costs an additional 2,350 baht.
At many upscale restaurants across the city, sometimes it’s style over substance, especially since many Thais are in the habit of posting food on social media.
“People want to take stupid photos of stupid food. We’re just satisfying your urge,” Wrisley said. “Chefs now have the tendency to think of the presentation of the dish ahead of the taste.”
But for Chef Aom, known for her exquisite presentation, appearance and taste aren’t mutually exclusive. “We are proud of our cooking, and people want to spread it to other people,” she said.