The Michelin Man is a familiar sight on Thai highways: It’s a popular decoration on freight trucks, where glow-in-the-dark statuettes of the cheery tire mascot wai (a gesture where palms are pressed together as a greeting or sign of respect) at passing motorists. Now the French tire company is preparing to make its mark on Bangkok restaurants, announcing in February that the city’s Michelin Guide will arrive by the end of 2017. This expansion is backed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), who have pledged five years of financial support in the hope that Michelin will attract tourists and legitimize the country’s culinary offerings.
Historically, Michelin’s two- and three-star picks have almost exclusively gone to restaurants with tasting menus (like New York’s two-star Momofuku Ko or the three-star Restaurant at Meadowood in California’s wine country), with one-star selections including high-end cuisine along with “affordable” options like the Breslin in New York — “if you can consider a $27 burger affordable,” says Ryan Sutton, Eater’s New York-based dining critic and go-to Michelin prognosticator.
With a rich culture of street food and shop houses, whose kitchens and seating sometimes spill onto the pavement, cheap Thai snacks are literally around every corner in Bangkok. The city’s multifaceted dining scene also includes chefs who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens abroad. With plenty of dishes that far exceed typical European spice levels — like somtum (green papaya salad) and tom yum (a soup prepared with Thai bird’s eye chile) — and a service style that often manages to be both overbearing and inefficient, Bangkok provides a unique challenge for the Michelin inspectors currently eating their way through some of the city’s favorite dining spots.
If Michelin can’t figure out how to thoroughly and deeply engage with the nuances of Thai cuisine, the spiciness of its offerings, the country’s service culture, and Bangkok’s diverse restaurant scene, the guide, expected in December, will fail to offer a representative sample of the city’s best eats — and potentially lose credibility as a global dining authority.
So, besides the TAT’s desire to boost tourism, why Bangkok and why now?
“Bangkok’s in a food revolution,” says chef Chet Adkins, who previously headed the kitchen of Ku De Ta (now Ce La Vi) in Bangkok and Hong Kong before going on to found New Road Development, a Bangkok-based restaurant group. “In the last five years or so, higher-end cuisine has really started to elevate since people are striving to [get attention] from awards lists.”
Rankings like Asia’s 50 Best, which launched in 2013, and BK Magazine’s Top Tables offer proof. Adkins sees the Michelin announcement as a sign that the city’s food is “going to keep getting better and better,” and thinks the guide will encourage competition and “breed better-quality” offerings from everyone, from high-end establishments to mom-and-pop shop houses. Because of these rising standards, he thinks Michelin will “definitely” impact his businesses by “firing us up to do better.”
“Michelin definitely has more prestige, but Asia’s 50 Best has more pizzazz,” says Samantha Proyrungtong, an entrepreneur, food writer, and founder of the website Bangkok Foodies. She points to the ability of the World’s 50 Best organization to market itself on social media, a move she thinks Michelin will need to copy in order to engage a younger generation of Bangkok diners. While she agrees that the city’s food has continued to improve in recent years, she believes Michelin’s reputation, and its range of rankings and categories, will inspire more changes in Bangkok’s food scene than the arrival of Asia’s 50 Best did.
Sutton, who has written extensively about both awards, agrees. “I think without question some of Michelin’s most unexpected expansions have come in the wake of the success of the World’s 50 Best list,” he says. He sees Michelin stepping in as a more “open-minded” guide that won’t only favor the “traditional notion of a fancy restaurant” featured in World’s 50 Best.
But one of the list’s local detractors is Romain Dupuy, the co-founder and head cook at Foojohn, a multi-concept bistro. He has “no respect” for 50 Best, which he considers a “commercially sponsored award.” Though Dupuy and Proyrungtong do concede that Michelin has many critics too, they point to the brand’s undeniable influence and the standards — and inspectors — that are expected to make it more reliable than many other guides currently covering Thailand.
Everyone’s got a theory, but no one knows exactly what to expect
“Michelin will probably start [by looking at] Asia’s 50 Best,” predicts Thanavut Kosolwongse, one of the co-owners of 80/20, a “Thai-inspired modern restaurant” that was recently visited by a Michelin inspector who enjoyed a meal anonymously before identifying himself to the staff and sharing a photo on Twitter. (Michelin has confirmed that after inspectors have paid their bill, they are allowed to introduce themselves and ask the restaurant for more information.)
Though the upscale restaurants on Asia’s 50 Best list, such as "progressive Indian" tasting menu destination Gaggan, the contemporary Thai Nahm, and the more rustic Bo.Lan, are considered shoo-ins for high Michelin ratings, no one quite knows how things will shake out. Proyrungtong is confident that Michelin will heavily feature Thai restaurants along with international fine dining, since as a guide for tourists it has a commercial interest in promoting local cuisine. Photos from Michelin’s Twitter feed reveal a few of the inspector’s Bangkok stops, from Gaggan to street stall khanom bueang (Thai crepes).
“It is hard to say if the judges will be able to appreciate the flavors and complexity of Thai food,” says Sirin P. Wongpanit, local dining expert and Eater contributor, referencing one of the most commonly expressed concerns about the guide’s arrival in Bangkok. Chef Cameron Barker of Quince, a Euro-Mediterranean bistro, is also curious to see how Michelin handles some of Bangkok’s “mouth-burning” menus.
His friends’ restaurants were visited by inspectors last month who described themselves as being on a recon mission. Barker’s educated guess, informed by other whispers in the industry, is that these visits are a sign that even inspectors “don’t understand the criteria yet… [and] are still trying to work out how to judge the restaurants [and] what level to peg everything at.”
Since Michelin ranks restaurants with stars or a spot on the Bib Gourmand list (which is less prestigious and often viewed as a consolation prize), it can include a more diverse mix of dining options, like the affordable Michelin-starred meals that can be found at Nakiryu, a one-star ramen restaurant in Tokyo, and Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, a one-star hawker stall in Singapore. That doesn’t mean Michelin always gets it right when it comes to regional or casual cuisines. Michelin has awarded very few stars to restaurants serving American staples like barbecue and pizza, and there are only two Michelin-starred ramen shops in Japan.
Will Bangkok’s street food make the cut?
In the April press conference announcing the guide’s Bangkok debut, Lionel Dantiacq, the president and managing director of the Michelin Group in East Asia and Australia, praised the city’s “amazing cuisines from various types of dining establishments” that range from fine dining to street food hawkers.
“Street food in Thailand is the best, and to not give it recognition would be a poor move on Michelin’s behalf,” says Proyrungtong.
To many, it remains unclear how Michelin will apply its historically strict criteria to Bangkok’s street food, especially in regards to consistency — which is one of the five elements Michelin inspectors look for. “There’s no planning about how to zone and sanitize food being sold on the street,” points out Sirin, which is one of the reasons the municipal government has begun a campaign to clear many stalls from Bangkok’s streets. Sirin, who is strongly opposed to street stalls for health and environmental reasons, thinks that if Michelin awarded a stall a star, it would make the iconic French guide look like one of the many “wannabe critics” who praise street food without understanding its negative impact. Other industry types I interviewed agreed, suggesting that their ingredients and hygiene can be inconsistent.
Instead, most people I spoke with in the local food scene believe Michelin will give a nod, either with a single star or a Bib Gourmand mention, to some of Bangkok’s generations-old shop houses. Serving up affordable Thai fare, shop houses fall into the category of “street food” since many have kitchens or seating areas that extend onto the sidewalk, but provide greater consistency than the street stalls that Sirin and others consider unlikely Michelin candidates.
What are the potential consequences of Michelin’s arrival?
International attention has given some hawkers, like Chan Hon Meng, whose one-star Singaporean stall is touted as the world’s cheapest Michelin meal, the ability to find business partners and expand. For others, like Hong Kong’s Kai Kai Dessert, getting a nod from Michelin has resulted in landlords hiking up rent, forcing them to relocate.
Proyrungtong is concerned about how Michelin fame could impact more modest restaurants that might not be prepared for the influx of new customers. She also notes that after the guide’s arrival in Singapore and Hong Kong, diners were unhappy with price hikes. In response to landlords raising rents, or perhaps because of increased fame, some restaurants, such as Chan Hon Meng’s chicken rice outfit in Singapore, started charging substantially more after receiving a star. Though she’s not sure what the Thai government could do to avoid these issues, Proyrungtong is hopeful it will find a way to create regulations to protect business owners and customers.
But the guide is already causing changes throughout the industry. Though many local vendors aren’t concerned by or aware of Michelin, “some vendors [who have] good connections… [have] revamped their shop houses to prepare for the awards, [and] many, I have been told, have been graced with visits from Michelin,” Sirin says.
“Within the [higher-end restaurant] industry, they’re absolutely preparing behind the scenes,” says Proyrungtong. “I’ve seen a lot of menu updates. Some are trying to be a little more French [and] some are trying to stand out by being very local in order to be original [and] attract a Michelin Guide rating.”
Barker sees it happening, too. “The guys up at the top of the game are [facing] more pressure to fix the little things that need fixing, especially the front of house,” he says.
Proyrungtong says “the food itself, the dishes, the innovation, the quality — the bar has been raised, but the service needs to be improved at a rapid pace,” pointing to a larger cultural belief that service jobs aren’t prestigious. Though many of these high-end restaurants already attract foreign diners and emulate fine dining restaurants from abroad, table service has never been the priority. There are the small, but frequent, uncomfortable moments foreign visitors might notice, even in upscale Thai restaurants, where servers will stand at the table until an order is placed or clear dishes that still have food on them. Proyrungtong thinks Michelin will contribute to the demand for better service and hospitality training in fine and midrange dining as standards begin to rise — and as restaurants aim for inclusion.
How will the Michelin Guide impact diners?
While Michelin is already changing the city’s kitchens, will the guide also change where people eat? Many Bangkok residents seem to think it unlikely. “To be honest, I don’t think many regular Thai people care,” says Sirin, who believes the guide will primarily be used by tourists and wealthy locals. Astray predicts that after the initial hype dies down, the habits of the city’s food-obsessives won’t be impacted by the guide — a sentiment echoed by others, like Dupuy, who believes it’s unlikely the picks will be a huge surprise anyway. (Though, of course, there’s always hope Michelin will dig up some truly unheard-of gems.)
But for those visiting Bangkok, the Michelin Guide has the potential to serve as a valuable resource and an introduction to great Thai food, especially if, as everyone hopes, it manages to encompass the diverse range of cuisines, price points, and delicious dining experiences that the city has to offer. The guide’s original purpose was to give motorists advice on the best places to eat during their travels, and “that’s what it should be,” Barker says. “So I’d like to see when people come to Bangkok, they don’t miss any of these places worth going to.”
Micaela Marini Higgs is a freelance arts and culture writer based in Bangkok who moonlights as a collage artist.
Editor: Hillary Dixler