Before 2016, it was unimaginable to get a Michelin-starred meal for chump change. The century-old tyre institution is known for being the veritable guide to fabulous foods that typically range in the hundreds to thousands of dollars.
These restaurants come in the form of places like The Fat Duck (Heston Bluementhal’s brainchild) with dishes that are more akin to works of art. Which is why it startled people when they started giving stars to street food vendors.
There are no smooth leather sofas or fancy champagne flutes at these places, only good food tucked away in small hot metal corners. In the last decade, Michelin has slowly moved to get rid of its French Snob title by broadening their scope. With waning influence in Europe, they realised that they had to expand to find different audiences.
In 2008 they decided to step into Tokyo to branch out into the East. Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guides at the time told The Guardian then that they had tried their best to adapt to the many small eateries with fantastic dishes in Japan, giving three stars to minute places like sushi restaurant Jiro.
A spark was ignited and the guide exploded into countries across Asia. In 2009, the guide swept into Macau and Hong Kong but it wasn’t until 2016 that street food was included in it. According to the Michelin website, this initiative was done to accurately represent the dining culture in both countries.
In the same year, Singapore’s guide gave out the first stars to two street food vendors. The expansion didn’t stop there because in 2017, Bangkok got it’s very own guide as well as a single-starred street food stall.
The Good and The Bad
For many chefs, achieving Michelin stars is akin to reaching Nirvana. Gordon Ramsay admitted to crying when one of his establishments was stripped of its two stars. Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong banked in on the star by claiming the title “World’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant”. The small 20-seater exploded into an international franchise with 46 outlets across the globe.
But to some in the culinary world, the award is more pain than it’s worth. Marco Pierre White, famous for being the youngest chef to be awarded three stars is also known for returning the stars and snubbing inspectors at his new restaurant.
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This curse of the Michelin star, however, takes a slightly different shape in Asia. In Hong Kong, the curse took the form of increased rents. Kai Kai Dessert found itself receiving a 120% rent raise when the starlight was shone on it. In Japan, The Wall Street Journal reported that many chefs were reluctant to accept the star for fear of the unmanageable jump in bookings which was the same issue faced by Bangkok’s only starred street food stall, Raan Jay Fai.
When perusing the online reviews of these places, there is a common thread of negative comments, legitimate criticism aside. Many people still make comparisons of these street stalls with typical Michelin-starred high-class fine dining establishments.
Cries of “Is this really worth a Michelin Star?” or “Has Michelin gone mad?” are common in the TripAdvisor comment sections. The expectations and reality kill both patrons and chefs. Wait times are also criticised by overseas visitors but it’s only to be expected from stalls which don’t really offer reservations.
The last year has seen difficult times fall on everyone and businesses of all kinds have been affected. It’s no surprise that many street food vendors in various countries have taken a harder hit than most. With all the restrictions and lockdowns controlling the spaces they normally occupy, many have had to shut down.
Large gathering areas have been closed, streets emptied and tourism has been slashed. Some have moved onto the internet and Instagram in hopes to survive through delivery services instead like the larger restaurants have done. Local governments have been doing their part and helping out businesses with special financial schemes. In Thailand, they have included cash handouts and soft loans, though many vendors complain of the complicated processes to apply.
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For Singapore, the virus hit street food vendors at an economically vulnerable time, due to ageing and lack of takeover from the younger generation. The rise in costs of essential items and the restrictions on eating out have halved businesses causing owners to suffer great losses.
Although times are still tough, restrictions are loosening and more people are going back to these places. Thailand has maintained a steady grip on the spread of the virus and Raan Jay Fai has remained open, with TripAdvisor reviews even now.
Raan Jay Fai
This place is the eponymous Thai food stall run by the fierce 75-year-old Jay Fai (a nickname that translates to Sister Mole). It has been famous for decades because of two things: the monster-sized omelette stuffed to the brim with fresh crab meat, and the goggled lady with flames surrounding her. With a price range starting at 700 baht and tipping up to 1,000 baht, this is one of the most expensive street food in Bangkok.
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A standout from the rest, in 2017 the Michelin Guide inspectors listed her for the respected award. But Jay Fai in hearing that Michelin was inviting her for the gala dinner responded with “Doesn’t Michelin sell tyres? What are they doing with food?” Her stall has since been visited by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart who dubbed her “the best cook in Thailand”.
Although she was happy to be awarded the accolade, after receiving it she changed her mind. The Bangkok Post noted that her demeanour had changed; before she was friendlier but now she is easily irritable.
The small stall is not meant to deal with the hundreds of customers who turn up every day and the 75-year-old complained that many weren’t even there for the food. The tax people even came round to knock on her woks to ask questions about her income.
If anyone should decide to visit this stall, we suggest that you call to make a booking or go early and put your name down and manage your expectations.
Raan Jay Fai
327 Maha Chai Rd,
Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon,
Ipoh-born Chan Hon Meng is among the first to receive the Michelin star for his street food stall Liao Fan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. The stall offers a small range of scrumptious quick meals like char siew and roast pork, but it’s the Hong Kong-style soya sauce chicken that really hit the spot for Michelin. Singaporeans who turned up at the stall say that the quality has been maintained at the original outlet.
The small store owner took all the fame that came with the award in his stride, taking a page from Tim Ho Wan’s playbook and owning the title ‘‘World’s cheapest Michelin star Meal’’. He has since opened several restaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan under the name Hawker Chan. It was a strategic move to bank in on the fame as well as manage the spike in customers, which Hon Meng admits does add on more pressure.
The chef has even initiated pop-up stalls in London and Manhattan, which drew hundreds of customers who waited in long queues. Today the long line remains at his stall, so if you want to see what the hype is about, be prepared for the long winding queues.
335 #02-126 Smith St,
Complex Market & Food Centre,
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle
This Singaporean stall is different from the others – it has remained the same since the star was awarded to them. The iconic pork noodle joint was first opened in the 1930s by Tang Joon Teo; it was later taken over by his second son Tang Chay Seng who still runs it today.
The stall has moved twice: from Hill Street to Marina Square and then to Crawford Lane where it remains. They have maintained the same stall, menu and quality of noodles since then. Today it’s still famous for its pork noodles with super-rich soup; the owner constantly adds a ladle of freshwater to the broth to maintain the flavour. Many visitors have raved over the springy noodles laced with black vinegar.
The prices have remained the same as before the star, at SG$6 to SG$8 for a bowl of noodles.
466 Crawford Lane,