This first version of this post is in today’s Sunday Times (South Africa), 20 May 2018
Jay Fai has always pulled a crowd. Her eponymous shophouse on Maha Chai Road in Bangkok took pavement Pad Thai to new heights when she first opened it fourty years ago and being listed in the city’s inaugural Michelin Guide book has brought a new wave of fans and demand is off the charts.
The diminutive cook is only the third street food chef in South East Asia to win a single Michelin star and when first told about it she’d not heard of the Guide and had to be persuaded to attend the ceremony. The other two stalls – Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Singapore – each won theirs when the first Singapore Michelin Guide was published last year.
Jay Fai cooks solo and plays her recipe cards close to her chest. The long queues and constant stream of foodies, journalists, bloggers and critics has her on her feet eight to ten hours a day, six day week, and the restaurant’s popularity shows no sign of abating. “Now that we’ve been singled out and interviewed they’re coming at us,” she told the Bangkok Post last year, “oh, I wish I could give the star back already.” Miffed she may be but the way I see it there are perks, like being able to charge 300 to 1000 Baht (R115-R385) for dishes that would typically cost 50 to 100 Baht at other sidewalk eateries, so hopefully that offers some consolation.
There are a few signature dishes on the two-page menu at Jay Fai, like the drunken noodles and the giant crab omelette, a favorite that is requested the most and has earned her the nickname ‘the omelette queen’. Looking more like a plump enchilada and served on a plastic plate atop a paper napkin, it’s not the most photogenic presentation you’ll ever see, but judge not because this is a case of looks being deceiving and time and again enthusiasts wax lyrical as they break into the eggy folds and relish the sweet meat within. The Guay-tiew-phad-see-ew Talay, made with stir fried rice noodles, egg, sweet soya sauce, mixed vegetables and enormous succulent prawns, was my favourite though, a heap of deliciousness and dense with flavour and distinct Thai aromas.
Jay Fai, whose formal name is Supinya Junsuta, was born in 1945 to Chinese immigrant parents who sold chicken noodles for a living. Instead of joining them in the business, she took work as a seamstress until a turn of events saw her open her own restaurant in the 80’s in the Phra Nakhon District, home to iconic landmarks like Wat Pho Temple, the Democracy Monument and further down on the grittier side of town, Khao San Road with its cluster of Bohemian bars, backpacker lodges and tattoo parlors.
As a rookie cook in her mid Thirties, Jay Fai kept to basics like congee (porridge) and mostly referenced her mother’s recipes, but as her confidence grew she experimented more, upped the diversity and expanded the offering to include wok-cooked seafood dishes that have since become her forte. She has always been fastidious about quality and is said to travel the length and breadth of Bangkok daily to procure the freshest of ingredients. Her excellent reputation dates as far back as 1999 when a reviewer hailed her as “one of those increasingly rare Mozart’s of the noodle pan who can transform very ordinary, lunchtime-at-the-market dishes into masterpieces of local cuisine,” and celebrity Martha Stewart once rated her the best cook in Thailand.
At Jay Fai you are paying for an experience. She herself is the main attraction as she gets down to business in full view of a diverse clientele, many of whom gather around to film and photograph her as she flamboyantly lifts and swirls the pans before ladling the steaming contents into rows of waiting bowls. At age 73 and with remarkable energy, she tirelessly moves back and forth between two charcoal braziers and counter tops crammed with utensils in the rudimentary kitchen in the side alley alongside the canteen.
The day I met her she was impeccably groomed right down to rouge and ruby red lipstick and eccentrically dressed in a camo t shirt, mauve wellies, a woollen beanie and, the much Instagrammed ‘Despicable Me’ goggles that are both cool and practical. I instantly loved her and when next in the city I’ll be back in a flash to lean against the cool green tiles and watch the delicious drama unfold because she is the stuff of legends.
*Don’t forget to book in advance, details below.
Accommodation: Siam@Siam Design Hotel
Getting to Bangkok: Ethiopian Airlines / Cloud Nine (business class)
Jay Fai address: AD327 Samran Rat Intersection, Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep | Booking: firstname.lastname@example.org / @jayfaibangkok on Instagram
Travel guide Bangkok: Diethelm (my thanks to Katy)
Bangkok to Chiang Mai: Bangkok Airways
(*I wasn’t hosted at Jay Fai – meal paid for in full by myself & all opinions are my own)