There's something new in the air up north. 

With Chiang Mai making international headlines for record levels of air-pollution, the northern capital could do with some good publicity. That’s exactly what came its way Friday, April 26, when Michelin announced they’ll be covering the city for the first time in their 2020 edition of the Michelin Thailand restaurant guide.

But don’t say French fine dining. As when the guide launched in both Phuket and Bangkok, the emphasis was firmly on local food culture. While Michelin might be most famous for its ultra-hard-to-come-by stars, its ranking of cheaper restaurants and even street food under the “Bib Gourmand” label now accounts for almost half of the guide’s 200-odd recommendations in Thailand.
 
“Michelin is not only about stars. We have the Bib Gourmand also, the value for money distinction, with almost 80 Bib Gourmand restaurants now around Thailand,” said Gaelle Van-Hieu, vice president of Michelin Experiences for Southeast Asia.
 
In fact, just one star came Phuket’s way when the guide entered the island, going to the locavore-centric Pru at Trisara Resort. Stars are likely to be thin on the ground up in Chiang Mai, too (we’ll be holding out hopes for local chef Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan and his creative Blackitch Artisan Kitchen), but the north’s native culinary culture is thriving. Whether it’s juicy, herbal sai oua sausage at the night market or steaming bowls of creamy khao soi at an out-of-town roadside shack, Chiang Mai is home to some of the most wonderful flavors and foodie experiences in Thailand. It’s also the base of the Royal Projects farming movement.
 
“Chiang Mai answers all the requirements of the Michelin inspectors, being strong cultural heritage, terroir, homegrown products, local farmers and region specific ingredients,” said Van-Hieu. “The region has a vibrant culinary scene, qualitative and diverse, as well as a growing trend for sustainable tourism grounded in beautiful nature.”
 
Recognition for the cuisine is picking up international momentum, too. Penguin Random House recently published Austin Bush’s The Food of Northern Thailand (read our interview), which is perhaps the most comprehensive English guide yet to the region’s cuisine, while trending Thai restaurants outside of Thailand like Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in the U.S. and London’s Som Saa are increasingly exposing the country’s culinary culture beyond the usual tourist staples.
 
While Michelin is quick to stress the independence and anonymity of its inspectors, who are employed full time by the company, the act of bringing a Michelin guide to a new market is big business. The Tourism Authority of Thailand paid a reported B144 million in 2017 to launch the first Michelin Thailand as part of a five-year deal.
 
If the north’s restaurants can replicate the success of many Bangkok shop-houses and street vendors with Bib Gourmand awards, where snakes of tourists are a regular sight, it will prove money well spent for the province.