Jay Fai’s eyes well up as she recalls the fire that destroyed everything she knew as a young seamstress. “All I had were the pajamas on my back,” she says.
She wasn’t to know it then, but that tragic event would set her on the path to becoming a street food legend who would eventually have a Michelin star to her name. The septuagenarian chef’s story, captured in vivid detail by Netflix’s new Street Food series released over the weekend, is one littered with hardships. When it comes to street food vendors, she’s hardly alone.
Across its nine episodes, the new series from the creators of Chef’s Table drops into some of Asia’s most vibrant cities to explore the rich culture of street food and profile the career arcs of nine prominent cooks.
While Chef’s Table
is known to follow the lives of the world's elite fine-dining chefs, including Bangkok luminaries Gaggan
, Street Food
really zeroes in on the everyday dining scenes of its cities in all their flaming-wok, back-breaking, damn-tasty glory.
For the opening Bangkok episode, Chawadee “Chow” Nualkhair, the blogger behind Bangkok Glutton
and a regular BK Magazine contributor
, helps to not only provide a narrative to Jay Fai’s five-decade career, but also paint a picture of the common struggles faced by Thai street vendors in these changing times.
Jay Fai tells us of her opium-addict father, her mother who worked tirelessly cooking noodles at a market to feed the family, and her own powerful drive to succeed against all odds. It’s a remarkable story, albeit one that takes on the feeling of an authorized biography rather than a tell-all reveal.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first example of myth-making in the restaurant world. Like Chef’s Table
, Street Food
is in the game of making heroes of its subjects. And that makes total sense with a subject as captivating as Jay Fai—we see that from the moment she dons her trademark ski goggles, black beanie and red lipstick, she’s in complete control
After winning her Michelin star
in 2017, there were rumors that the attention had become all too much and that Jay Fai was considering handing back the accolade. But you don’t get that feeling here. One senses that she is prouder than ever of her accomplishments and work ethic.
While Jay Fai and foodie expert Chow easily enjoy the most screen time, the show also spotlights two other Bangkok institutions: Jek Pui, a renowned curry stall in the Old Town, and Famous Ba Mee on Sukhumvit Soi 38, beloved for its hand-pulled egg noodles.
Permeating the interviews with these vendors is a fear of being shut down. We’re told of money-hungry property developers and a government
hell-bent on destroying the social fabric provided by generations and generations of street food vendors.
With the help of its loyal customers, Famous Ba Mee was able to withstand the market forces that saw the decline of former street food hub Sukhumvit Soi 38 and remain open, but many others will not be so fortunate.
While we’re well and truly rooting for the little guys, we know things are not as black and white as Street Food sometimes makes them seem. Interviewees are given almost complete license to tell their own side of the story. As informed and likeable as they may be, you’re left craving an oppositional voice—any oppositional voice—especially when it comes to complex topics like city planning.
This 30-minute documentary may not give a complete sweep of Bangkok’s street food situation, but we are grateful for the reminder of why these vendors are so integral to our way of life.
Street Food is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.