Is a Southeast Asian Michelin restaurant guide just around the corner? And how would the red book alter Bangkok’s dining scene?
This March, our friends in the restaurant industry were all gossiping about the same thing. “The Michelin inspectors are in town this week,” they would say, conjuring up images of grumpy Ratatouille-esque food critics slipping quietly into restaurants throughout town. Bangkok has long been enamored with Michelin chefs, despite the French restaurant guide not covering our city. Chefs from Michelin-star restaurants regularly visit Bangkok’s five-star hotels and at least a dozen chefs based here have previously worked at Michelin-star restaurants. Some restaurants, such as Nahm, Yamazato, Sra Bua and D’Sens, are even spinoffs of restaurants in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Montpellier respectively that have held, or still hold at least one Michelin star. But is Bangkok ready for its own Michelin guide? Who here deserves a star—or three? How will we fare compared to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore? Can we even afford this level of dining? And would the guide be relevant given Michelin’s hotly debated track record with Asian cuisines?
THE CHEFS ARE COMING
Michelin did not respond to our emails, so their imminent arrival is just a rumor at this point. But industry insiders believe a guide for Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur is in the works with a scheduled release in 2014. Much of this speculation follows the announcement made by PACE Development Corporation Plc that Joel Robuchon, the chef with the most Michelin stars, would open at CUBE, the retail wing of the Mahanakorn building. “Robuchon and Michelin are very tight,” says Oliver Kramny of the Water Library group, whose flagship is located in Grass Thonglor. “When Robuchon arrives in town, Michelin always follows.”
Water Library is betting big on Michelin’s arrival. They have signed up Juan Amador, whose restaurant earned three Michelin stars in Langen, Germany. They plan for the chef to open five restaurants in the region, including two in Bangkok: one-fine dining venue and a more low-key restaurant. “The aim is to get three stars for one place and perhaps one star for the other,” says Kramny. The new Central Embassy mall, set to open this December, is also rumored to be pushing hard for a Michelin-star chef to get on board, if not in the mall, than at least in the adjoining Part Hyatt Hotel due to open in October 2014.
THE BETS ARE ON
Were the Michelin Guide to sweep into town, it would not just be awarding out-of-town talent. Existing restaurants should get stars, too. Speculation is rife as to who would actually get a star, though. Chatree Kachonklin, of La Table de Tee, worked at one-star restaurant Roussillon, in London, and he thinks Ian Kittichai would be a likely candidate. “If a Thai chef got some stars, it would be so exciting,” says Chatree. “It would be a huge encouragement for all Thai chefs in the country.” While he is confident in local chefs’ ability to seek out the best local produce, Chatree is quick to add that cooking it is another matter: “Michelin-starred restaurants also really excel at the cooking technique and art part. And if they come here, it’s a chance for Thai chefs to understand that side of cooking. It’s exhausting but it’s fun.”
The Okura Prestige hotel's Elements restaurant's chef, Cyril Cocconi, who has previous experience working under multi-Michelin-star powerhouse Joel Robuchon is betting on another Thai restaurant, the Metropolitan Hotel's Nahm. Headed by David Thompson, Nahm had a Michelin-star in London, before he relocated the restaurant to Bangkok. "He makes really amazing food," says Cocconi. "And he's able to source all the best produce."
Pressure on finding that good produce will quickly mount, though. Chatree’s daily morning routine is to scour four different markets for his ingredients. “Lots of great local ingredients exist, but most go to the hotels. It’s a who-pays-more-gets-more system,” he explains. Chef Herve Frerard, of Le Beaulieu, who has long been described as one of Bangkok’s most serious contenders for a Michelin star, concurs. “I’m a consultant for the Royal Projects,” says Frerard. “So I get first pick for a lot of things. But honestly, I still have to import a majority of my produce. There's just no consistency here.”
Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava, who worked at Nahm in London, is now chef at Bo.lan (along with her husband, Dylan Jones) and recently won The Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef Award. She thinks standalone restaurants may actually be at an advantage over hotels. "There's fantastic produce here. You just have to order it directly from small producers, and hotels just can't do that, because they order such big volumes."
Quince's Wilfrid Hocquet is another French chef with a star-filled resume that includes time working for Michelin superstar Alain Ducasse and the Pourcel Brothers (chefs of one-star Le Jardin des Sens, in Montpellier). Having recently arrived in Bangkok, Hocquet admits he was struggling to find not just produce, but also staff. "When the going gets rough, staff will just quit. It's very hard to get them to change how they work," he says. The soon-to-open Ku De Ta deployed a full-fledged marketing campaign to hire the 400 staff needed to properly run its restaurants and nightclubs. "To train staff is hard. To retain them is even harder," says Duangporn.
Gaggan Anand, of contemporary Indian restaurant Gaggan, thinks the front of the house will be the biggest challenge. “You’ll see Thai smiles as soon as you get off the plane at the airport, but the biggest disadvantage when the Michelin Guide arrives is probably the language barrier. Still, if Tokyo didn’t get penalized for that, then the Michelin Guide should respect our culture too,” he says.
One other crucial element might also be missing: diners. Imported franchises typically struggle in Bangkok. D’Sens, Zuma or Grossi never attract the kind of crowds you’ll see at Gianni's or Le Beaulieu, both of which are headed by charismatic chefs who know how to work the tables. “In Singapore or Hong Kong, seeing the chef is not that important,” says Water Library's Kramny. “But in Bangkok, the chef has to be there.”
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
There’s also the question of cost. “To get Joel Robuchon is so expensive. Even if he does get his three stars, you’ll never get your money back. To open a Robuchon restaurant is at least 1.5 million dollars [B45 million]. Half of that goes to Robuchon. Then there's the equipment he expects, the salary of a good head chef... The costs are very, very high,“ says Kramny.
“49 percent of my cost is produce. I’d be fired immediately if I worked in a hotel. The costs of running this restaurant are huge because I love great produce. But people call me expensive or overpriced,” says Beaulieu's Frerard. "I'm lucky to have been here 15 years, and I have a hiso clientele. But you can't charge much more in this town than what I'm charging, which is B2,500 to B3,500 per person for the food alone."
At those prices, can fine dining turn a profit? Not according to Kramny, who says, “Three-star Michelin restaurants aren’t designed to make money. The money comes from merchandising, like books, or engagements for the chef. Usually, the place is subsidized by the hotel or owner somehow. It’s a vanity thing.”
The other big question is whether Bangkokians will even care about Michelin's arrival. Michelin’s first Japan guide was panned by some critics for being out of touch and irrelevant. With so many fantastic tiny eateries in every little back alley of Tokyo, Michelin was accused of missing out on the dining scene outside of the high-end establishments. Celebrity Chef Bobby Chinn adds that Michelin's obession with silverware and sommeliers isn’t what’s hot these days: “If you fast forward to look at what’s going to happen in the food world, it’s moving to the street.”
“No one can compete with our street food,” says Gaggan. But the chef believes Michelin just might be able to tap into that. “I tried a Michelin-starred ramen restaurant in Japan. It was perfect. And I hope that they will understand our khao mun gai shophouses, too, as it’s all about the same dedication.” Will your favorite restaurants—and khao mun gai stalls—get the stars they deserve? Maybe not all. But the red book is bound to move our dining scene forward.
68/1 Soi Lang Suan, 02-652-1700. Open daily 6-11pm
Elements and Yamazato
The Okura Bangkok, Wireless Rd., 02-687-9000
La Table de Tee
69/5 Soi Sala Daeng, Silom Rd., 02-636-3220. Open Tue-Sun 6:30-10:30pm
42 Sukhumvit Soi 26, 02-260-2962. Open Tue-Sun 6:30-11pm
G/F, Athenee Office Tower, Wireless Rd., 02-168-8220-3. Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-2:30pm, 6:30-11:30pm
The Grass Thonglor 12, 02-714-9292. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-1am. 2/F, Chamchuri Square, Rama 4 Rd., 02-160-5188. Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm, 6-9:30pm
Sukhumvit Soi 45, 02-662-4478. Open daily 11:30-1am
22/F, Dusit Thani Hotel, 946 Silom Rd., 02-200-9000. Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm, 6:30-10pm
G/F, Metropolitan, Sathorn Rd., 02-625-3333. Open Mon-Fri noon-2:30pm; daily 7-11pm
1/F, Siam Kempinski, 991/9 Rama 1 Rd., 02-162-9000. Open daily 11am-2pm, 6-10:30pm