Street Food, Jay Fai, and the Power of Documentary
“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 will continue cooking.” —Jay Fai
When I was a teenager, somehow I got it into my head that adding cream of chicken soup to rice was a good idea. Sometimes it was edible, and sometimes it was just barely edible. But those dishes were just the beginning of my love for cooking.
I grew up in a home where my dad loved to cook. He’d often recount stories of the food he ate growing up. Sometimes his mom would put a piece of bread submerged in milk into the microwave and call it bread pudding. Other days his dad would grab all the leftover food in the fridge, throw it into a pot and call it stew. How my dad learned to cook, I have no clue—but it most certainly wasn’t from his parents.
What my dad did appear to pick up from his parents was ingenuity and experimentation, something I gleaned from him as I watched him cook dinner each night.
The first episode of Netflix’s docuseries Street Food was a moving example of how cooking is passed down another generation, where it flourishes in uniqueness. It centers on street cook Jay Fai who recounts learning to pan fry noodles to prove to her mother that she was capable of cooking. Over many years of inventing new dishes and perfecting her craft, she became the most famous street cook in Thailand.
That short summary didn’t do Chef Fai’s story justice, so don’t read this cherry-picked summary and call it good. Throughout the documentary are beautiful images of Fai, a delicate, graceful older woman, vigorously stirring sumptuous food over a flaming charcoal fire, perfectly designed Thai dishes, and restaurants and streets teeming with voracious consumers. The images move the story forward, making what could be a two-sentence text-based summary into 30 minutes of cinematic beauty.
As I was watching, I found myself tearing up. Seeing Fai’s face as she told her story not only brought the story to life, but it brought her to life.
When we read accounts of war and death in the news, we see horrendously immense numbers that represents lives lost, but those who have memories, pictures in their minds of those who perished, feel the most. Documentaries have a similar power; they enable the viewer to be transported. Netflix transports the viewer into the living room of Fai, into the kitchen of Fai, into the daily life of Fai. This transportation provides the viewer with context wherein they can see themselves.
At one point in the docuseries, Fai receives a Michelin star. In that moment I burst into tears, feeling a great sense of happiness for Fai after seeing all that she’d been through and all the work that she’d done. I had been transported.
Though this story was only a short 30-minutes long, its impact was deep. The images connected me to Fai’s story as I remembered the street food I’d eaten in Hong Kong and the sizzling food I’ve cook in my pans at home. She achieved a dream she never even dreamed of, and that hope exists in us all.
If I ever end up in Thailand, I’m obviously going to make a reservation at Chef Fai’s restaurant where I will tell her thank you and express my admiration for her in broken Google-translated Thai.