A recognised 'icon': Why the pandemic won't stop Bangkok’s goggles-wearing street food star, Jay Fai
The world's first Michelin-starred street food restaurant's chef may have struggled with the fame the accolade has brought, but she won't be stepping down from the kitchen any time soon
After decades of working anonymously in her Thai restaurant, a Bangkok woman found celebrity in her seventies.
She is the wok-wielding, goggles-wearing grandma who's stunned the culinary world with her succulent Thai street food. Cooking from a basic kitchen in an old Bangkok shophouse, Supinya Junsuta, 76, is the chef of the place that became the world's first Michelin-starred street food restaurant. Now her celebrity status has been further boosted, after earning the "icon" status in the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
But fame hasn’t changed the woman known as “Jay Fai”. Even as Thailand has been gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s been working 60-hour weeks. Wearing goggles to protect her eyes as she operates a wok over an open flame, Jay Fai has continued making her signature dishes of rad na noodles, tom yum soup and crab omelettes at her restaurant, Raan Jay Fai.
For Jay Fai, it’s always been about the food. She is such a humble, dedicated chef that when Michelin called in late 2017 to tell her that she’d been given a star, Jay Fai initially told them she couldn’t attend their awards ceremony. “Michelin called twice, and I told them I’m too busy in the restaurant to come collect an award,” she told me at the time.
That was during our first interview at her restaurant, in December 2017. Jay Fai had received her restaurant's Michelin star just days earlier and was still trying to process what it all meant. Unlike many of her culinary colleagues around the world, she’d never aimed for the accolade. Michelin stars were for exclusive restaurants with sumptuous decor and expensive ingredients, not for street food cooks who served noodles in plastic bowls.
What was already clear to Jay Fai, during our first meeting, was that the Michelin star was going to “make my life crazy”. “Look how busy it is,” she told me, gesturing to the line of customers snaking down the street in Rattanakosin, Bangkok’s most historic neighbourhood.
“And all these people want my time, too,” she added, referring to me and the several other journalists and bloggers who had visited her restaurant that day. “I don’t mind speaking to them quick but I can’t lose focus on my work.”
I was fortunate that when I visited Jay Fai that time, and again the next year, I was accompanied by my Thai wife, who is both charming and a terrific translator, which helped earn me extra time with the busy chef.
But when I phoned Jay Fai in February, from my home in Australia, she didn’t have time to talk. She appreciates the awards, the fandom and the media exposure, but now finds it difficult to dedicate energy to anything outside of cooking and her family.
Throughout the pandemic, she’s continued waking early in the morning to prepare ingredients for a long day of cooking. When the Thai government shut down restaurants owing to coronavirus outbreaks, Jay Fai toiled away preparing dozens of delivery orders. When businesses were allowed to reopen, she went into overdrive, making up for lost time.
This heavy workload is why her daughter, who goes by Khun Fai, was tasked with speaking to me on Jay Fai’s behalf. Khun Fai said her mother was honoured to receive the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Icon Award. This prize is given each year to a chef who, according to the awards panel, has made an “outstanding contribution to their community and the broader restaurant industry".
Previous recipients include celebrity Spanish chef Jose Andres and revered Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto, whose restaurant in Tokyo holds three Michelin stars. Khun Fai admitted the award had been a surprise. “It was very exciting for my mother, a real honour, and it made us all feel proud,” she said. “Jay Fai doesn’t make food to win awards, that is not her style; we have our own ideas about how we want to make food here. So it’s great that people appreciate this.”
Icon is, in fact, a fine description for Jay Fai. Although she was unknown outside of Bangkok just four years ago, she is now is a world-recognised symbol of one of Thailand’s biggest tourist draws – cheap yet delicious street food.
Visiting her modest restaurant has become a bucket list activity for many travellers, who have read about her in media outlets around the world. Sampling Jay Fai’s carefully prepared dishes is not enough for some. Many tourists also want selfies with this inspiring and unique woman, who smiles from behind her famous goggles, sweat streaking down her face.
All of this attention has been both a blessing and a curse. Soon after she received the Michelin star, Jay Fai told me her business had never been stronger. The restaurant was packed to the rafters day after day. But, as rapper The Notorious BIG's song famously states: “More money, more problems”.
Along with the accolades, headlines and increased revenue came increasing troubles. Just three months after the Michelin awards, she told me she wished she could return her star, which she viewed as a curse. The publicity associated with it had created unmanageable crowds at her restaurant. Neighbouring businesses were angry with her for creating human clutter outside their premises.
Amid this “circus”, as she described it, Jay Fai claimed she began to get harassed by Thai government auditors, who were demanding money. “None of these problems were here before,” she told me at the time. “Life was simple.”
In 2020, of course, life got a whole lot more complicated for almost every person on the planet. The related nosedive in tourism to Thailand has, in a way, allowed Jay Fai to get back to her roots. Her restaurant is no longer a sideshow. The selfie-obsessed hordes have largely been replaced by courteous food lovers. For Jay Fai, that’s a welcome change.
The main question, now, is how much longer she remains the head chef of Raan Jay Fai. Khun Fai said this was a question both she and her father regularly posed to the passionate cook.
“My mother doesn’t like being asked this,” she told me. “She says she will keep running the restaurant until she can’t physically do it anymore. Until then, she keeps cooking.”
Updated: February 17, 2021 07:50 PM