Legendary Bangkok chef Supinya Junsuta has been lauded with the prestigious Icon Award 2021 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Occupying a humble seven-table hawker shophouse on Maha Chai Road, Supinya’s restaurant, Jay Fai — meaning ‘Sister Mole’, her nickname referencing the birthmark on her nose — has served multitudes of customers, from regular foodies to gourmets, chefs and celebrities from across the world, for 40 years.
It is the first time the accolade has been given to a hawker cook. She joins a prestigious line-up of previous winners, including acclaimed Japanese master chef Seiji Yamamoto of three-Michelin star Nihonryori RyuGin and Yoshihiro Murata, whose three restaurants earned seven Michelin stars in total.
Jay Fai too has been recognised by the Michelin Guide. Supinya turned the world of street food upside down when she began incorporating premium seafood and produce into her dishes on top of innovative traditional Thai recipes. In 2018, her restaurant became the first and only street food venue in Thailand to earn a Michelin star, bringing about the attention of global gastronomes.
People would line up from sunrise to try her poo pad phong karee (yellow crab curry), pad kee mao talay (drunken noodles with seafood) and her special dry tom yum, a dish imbued with all the flavours and fragrance of the soup, but without the broth. But those who make the pilgrimage to Bangkok are there for her famous khai jiao poo (crab omelette), fresh crab meat encased in Japanese-style tamagoyaki omelette.
The 76-year-old’s creativity and relentless spirit of excellence still burns as it did when she just started out. She was a seamstress for 10 years until a fire destroyed her home, and only tapped into her culinary talents when she started working alongside her mother and sisters selling chicken noodles and rice porridge.
In order to distinguish herself from other vendors, she devoted her time to developing new skills and recipes as well as experimenting with premium seafood. King prawns were served as part of her own version of pad thai, and although her rivals scoffed at the pricing — it was 10 times the cost of their own dishes — the line at her stall grew longer as word about a woman serving humble dishes with luxury produce spread. After saving for two years, she purchased a small shophouse in the early 1980s’ and established her own restaurant.
Her story was told in the premiere episode of Netflix’s Street Food: Asia in 2019. She attained iconic status as Jay Fai’s sole cook, who stirs flaming iron woks over charcoal fires while donning her signature black apron, beanie cap and ski goggles — a get-up to protect herself from the scalding oil and searing heat.
"I am grateful to be recognised for my hard work and craftsmanship,” says Supinya on accepting the Icon Award. “This is truly the reward of a lifetime for an ordinary chef like me. But most importantly, I hope everyone can learn from my story that dedication, hard work and patience can help you achieve your goals."
The announcement of the Icon Awards precedes the virtual ceremony of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, which will be streamed on March 25 on Facebook and Youtube.