Outside of the kitchen, Jay Fai resembles any ordinary, petite, 73-year-old woman. But once she starts cooking, that demure composure quickly transforms into a fiery passion. Eyes protected from the flames by wide goggles, hair securely tucked in a tight-fitted hat, black apron tied around her waist, a sheen of sweat across her forehead.
Maybe she’s rolling a crab omelette, or aggressively frying drunken noodles; tending a dry tom yum or searing prawns. But then again, it doesn’t really matter what she’s cooking. Jay Fai is the most famous street food chef in the world—with a Michelin star to boot. You know it’s going to be good.
And on Netflix’s latest smash culinary hit, ‘Street Food,’ which follows in the illustrious footsteps of its gastronomic predecessors (Chef’s Table, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Mind of a Chef, Cooked), we get an inside look into the street food scene in Thailand’s capital—one that Jay Fai unequivocally reigns over.
And after watching, we couldn't help but share our favorite tidbits from the episode.
“Street food is one of the most important aspects of life in Bangkok,” says Chow Naulkhair, author and blogger behind Bangkok Glutton, in the show. “It’s a kind of unifier. One of the most democratic parts of Thai life and one of the few things left that glues people together. And Jay Fai has long been the queen of [it].”
Growing up watching her mother sell rice porridge and noodles at the market, Jay Fai never set out to do the same. In fact, she spent ten years working as a seamstress and likely would have continued had a devastating fire not destroyed all of her possessions, sewing machine included. In her 20s at the time and at a loss for what to do next, she began helping out her mother, soon purchasing a wok to start practicing herself. Night after night, she stir-fried noodles with abandon, at one point pouring oil into the wok and forgetting about it. When it began to burn, she quickly dumped it out and, in a fit of frustration, furiously tossed noodles into the pan. But because the heat was so high, they browned in a way they hadn’t before, producing what Jay Fay says was “a wonderful taste and aroma.” No oil necessary.
Fast forward a few years and her confidence wasn’t the only thing that had boomed. Her reputation did, too. And yet, like many other street food vendors in Bangkok, she found herself fighting a steep uphill battle to even operate—a reflection of what Naulkhair explains in the beginning of the episode as a government-decreed restriction on street food, implemented in response to the fear that vendors were encroaching on taxpayers’ space.
“We cooked a lot,” says Jay Fai, “sometimes until 4am. Life was very hard—I had to put all my tables out on the sidewalk. Sometimes the authorities would chase us off, [and] on nights when it rained or they didn’t let us put out tables we were doomed. I was trying to make money but I was facing a dead end. I realized I had to do something.”
And that something was exactly what catapulted Jay Fai into the spotlight.
Deciding that the only solution was to open a “permanent shop house,” she set out to make more money by way of elevated ingredients—notably fresh tiger prawns—which would sell for a higher price.
But because, as she says, “anyone could stir-fry pad Thai,” the challenge wasn’t for her to master the tried-and-true. The challenge was to develop something indisputably her own. So she taught herself how to make Japanese omelettes and distilled those techniques into a flattened and rolled omelette that’s impossibly light and fluffy, bursting with hefty chunks of crab meat.
“When I took my first bite,” recalls Jay Fai, “[I thought] ‘Oh so beautiful, I’ve done it.’ Now I had something to sell.”
But if you snag a table at her eponymous Raan Jay Fai street-side restaurant today, you’ll quickly realize that she has many, many things to sell. Over 100, actually. And outside of her world-famous omelettes, a dish she’s known for is her tom yum soup—a spicy, salty and tart quintessential Thai favorite.
“Jay Fai’s tom yum is one of the best in Thailand,” says Naulkhair. “It’s got fist-sized prawns, juicy cuttlefish. It’s pretty amazing.”
She even makes a dried version composed of all the aromatics rendering tom yum into the crowd-favorite dish it is today, but without the broth. ”It blew my mind,” says Naulkhair. “It had never been done before.”
While she has long been known throughout Bangkok, it was only when Michelin awarded her a star did the world take notice. And the crowds are showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
But then again, neither is Jay Fai.
“Whenever anyone asks, I say I’m not tired. I know my strength. I have faith in charcoal fires and iron woks. They taught me to be clever. They taught me to be brave. So if I still have the strength, I’ll continue cooking. This is me.”
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