Oct 27, 2020
Why #cheflife is as much about Michelin two-starred headliners as unknown refugees. This year’s annual World Gourmet Festival in Bangkok will help some of the globe’s neediest make a new life for themselves and their families.
The World Gourmet Festival, now in its 21st edition, is known for its series of exclusive dinners that feature internationally celebrated chefs. (See below for the 2020 lineup.) But beyond the glamour, the festival has always spared a thought for those less fortunate and to date has raised almost Bt15 million for a string of charities over the years.
This year, the festival is working with the non-profits Na Projects and refugee rights activists Asylum Access Thailand (AAT) to invite a non-traditional group of chefs to participate. Refugee families from Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam will showcase some of their finest dishes at a one-time-only event on November 4. All the proceeds will benefit the families.
The money is welcome for the refugees, most of whom receive just Bt300 per person per month and depend on assistance from NGOs to survive. But it is much more than just a fund-raiser. The event is designed to raise awareness about the plight of an estimated 26 million refugees around the world who after the trauma of fleeing war, religious persecution and violent discrimination find themselves living in precarious situations.
The dinner also gives the families hands-on vocational experience that they can apply when settling in their new host countries. Taking their culinary knowledge from their respective homelands, they work with the chefs from Anantara Siam, which holds the event, on skills from menu planning to portioning to prep schedules.
Ahead of their special dinner, mother Fairouza sits with her daughters Nilofar, 14, and Hanifa, 12, to talk about their lives and what the dinner means for them. (Their names have been changed to protect their identities.) Hanifa sits at the far end of the table and plays on her phone, while Nilofar, who like her younger sister attends Thai school, listens in Thai, translates the questions into Dari, and then translates her mother’s responses back into Thai. If it weren’t for the subject of the conversation, it would be almost an ordinary scene.
When she left Afghanistan 15 years ago, Fairouza went first to Pakistan, before making her way to Thailand and obtaining status as a refugee from the UNHCR, the United Nations agency for refugees. “There was war in Afghanistan,” Fairouza says, “and that brought financial hardship.” She seems reluctant to elaborate.
“Women are not allowed to go out to work,” Fairouza says about her home country. But here in Thailand she is proud of being able to provide for family. She mentions that her husband left Afghanistan with her, but eventually went back, leaving her to fend for herself and their two young daughters. “As a woman from our culture, I have to take care of my own family. It is a respectable thing to do,” she says with visible satisfaction.
Talk turns to the food they will be serving at the dinner. They have chosen Desi kabobs, plump meatballs cooked in an earthenware casserole served with yogurt and coriander and roti flatbreads. “We want to do the best we can, and we hope that people will enjoy our food from home,” she says.
As time passes, Fairouza lets down her guard a bit and tells more of her story. “We like living in Thailand but we have problems here so we have to go somewhere else.” She eventually reveals what the problem is: her husband came back to Thailand to find her working and his daughters in school. He refused to accept the situation and became violent. Mother and daughters found no support from their own community. Worse they received threats from outside the family as well.
“I couldn’t stand it any more, so we separated and I left with my daughters,” says Fairouza with quiet determination. “But in my country that’s a serious offense.” Cases of domestic violence are difficult to document and police are not always trained to provide support. The victims themselves don’t necessarily want to press charges, and the NGOs who advocate for their rights can only do so much. Looking around the room where the families have met to put the finishing touches on the menu, an observer can see that past the good-natured banter and the growing excitement about the dinner, the refugees share a world-weary gaze. “Even my mother was angry at me for leaving my husband,” Fairouza says. “I didn’t intend to do this without a husband. It’s been very hard.”
Attending the dinner will go a long way to assisting the families with their immediate needs. Outside of the festival, the pop-ups organized at Na Café in the gorgeously restored Bangkok 1899 house are another way to exchange with the families and provide support. AAT can also provide more information about its campaign to get Thailand to officially recognize the status of refugees, currently absent from Thai law books.
- The Urban Refugee Dinner features two-dozen dishes of home-cooked food from six countries, all prepared by refugees. (Bt4,900 at Madison)
- Royal Osha‘s chefs Vichit Mukura (formerly of Khao and Mandarin Oriental’s Sala Mae Rim) and Kewalin Pitthayanukul serve up a Thai feast. (Bt6,000 at The Spice Market)
Photos courtesy of Royal Osha.
- Anantara’s own Alessandro Banchero of Biscotti serves a classic Italian menu. (Bt3,000 at Biscotti)
Photos courtesy of Anantara.
- Chefs Pisit ‘Jino’ Jinopong of Anantara Golden Triangle and Rick Dingen of Anantara Siam’s Madison highlight some of the best food the group has to offer. (Bt3,500 at The Spice Market)
Photos courtesy of Anantara.
- Chef Andy Ricker of the Pok Pok restaurants, champion of Thai food in the US, brings his classics back to the City of Angels. (Bt1,800 at Aqua)
Photos courtesy of Pok Pok.
- Chef Gaggan Anand, who held two stars for his now shuttered Gaggan and now runs Gaggan Anand, goes French for the first time ever. (Bt12,000 at Biscotti)
Photos courtesy of Gaggan Anand.
- Chef Amerigo Sesti from one-star J’aime moves into Madison for one night only. (Bt4,900 at Madison)
Photos courtesy of Anantara.
- Chefs Kawaguchi Daiki of Ginza Tenharu and Inoue Manabu of one-star Ginza Sushi Ichi, Bangkok bring together the finest tempura and sushi. (Bt8,000 at Shintaro)
Photos courtesy of Ginza Sushi Ichi.
- Sake masterclass (Bt3,000 in the lobby)
- Chef Garima Arora of one-star Gaa anchors the Sunday brunch (Bt2,900; with free-flow wine pairing Bt3,900; Bt1,500 extension after 3 p.m.) ahead of the opening of her all-day breakfast and evening wine bar venue and the reopening of her restaurant in Thong Lo.
Photos courtesy of Gaa.
- Also, some of the biggest names in Bangkok street food will also be plying their wares at the brunch. Vendors include: