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Bangkok’s Michelin Restaurants Are Helping Those in Need During COVID-19

By Jerry Harmer, Associated Press

Jun 16, 2020

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After a COVID-19 flight ban stranded Natalie Bin Narkprasert in Thailand, she founded COVID Thailand Aid to organize a network of volunteers, including chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants, to help those in her homeland whose incomes were most affected by the pandemic restrictions.

Photo by AP Photo/Sakchai Lali

After a COVID-19 flight ban stranded Natalie Bin Narkprasert in Thailand, she founded COVID Thailand Aid to organize a network of volunteers, including chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants, to help those in her homeland whose incomes were most affected by the pandemic restrictions.

Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in Bangkok including Bo.lan and 80/20 have volunteered with COVID Thailand Aid to provide more than 30,000 people with care packages and freshly cooked food.

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Natalie Bin Narkprasert’s business was in Paris. But she was locked down by COVID-19 restrictions and stuck in Thailand. Her heart was in Thailand, too—and it ached for her compatriots who were suffering in the pandemic. She thought of her own grandmother.

“She’s 94 years old, and then I really worried about her during COVID, like how is she going to cope and do things, so I just thought about all the people who are struggling during this time who might not even have a family or a home,” she said.

So she recruited a network of volunteers, including chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants like Bo.lan and 80/20, to help those in her homeland whose already modest incomes were shattered by the pandemic restrictions. Her group, COVID Thailand Aid, says it has reached more than 30,000 people in more than 100 locations with care packages and freshly cooked food.

Chef Chalee Kader, left, from 100 Mahaseth, and chef Saki Hoshino from 80/20 prepare chiles for pad krapow gai, a spicy minced chicken dish, while volunteering with COVID Thailand Aid.

On a recent afternoon, the 28-year-old was front and center in the Bangkok heat, helping distribute meals in a small, low-income community beside a railway line. In bright blue T-shirts, she and her volunteers pressed boxes of spicy minced chicken and rice into the hands of residents. They also gave essential items like clothing, hand sanitizers, and face masks.

Most residents are employed as maids, street vendors, or shop assistants, and many haven’t worked for around two months.

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“It means a lot to us. We are facing difficulties,” said Jintana Jantornsri, one of the community elders. “We can’t even pay rent. Many have no jobs and can’t sell anything. Everything is tough.”

Narkprasert decided to help after flight bans stopped her returning to France, where she runs property and e-commerce businesses. She started out small, buying groceries for neighborhoods in need, but now has over 450 volunteers who pull together food donations and care packages in more than 32 provinces.

Narkprasert is kept busy making appeals and fielding requests for help, then matching skills with needs, and sourcing goods, facilities, and transport. The results are impressive. Included in her network is a string of top-rated Bangkok restaurants. For this day’s mission, chefs from five eateries gathered at Bo.lan, which offered up its kitchen.

While volunteering with COVID Thailand Aid, chef Dylan Jones prepares eggs for pad krapow gai at Bo.lan, the restaurant in Bangkok he owns with his wife Duangporn Songvisava.

They prepared 300 servings of pad krapow gai, spicy minced chicken, for the railside community. Three of the restaurants involved have earned Michelin stars, though that isn’t the point, said Megan Leon, a Mexican American cook and food writer who is the project leader for the food donation drives. 

“It’s just about getting together to try to feed people and make sure people have access to good food and that will make them feel good about themselves and help families that are in need,” she said.

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Narkprasert’s business career has come to a sudden halt, and she hasn’t seen her husband for months. But she says she has no regrets. She even thinks returning to her old life may be a challenge. This is, she said, “a really hard time to go back to it just because I still have this goal of helping more people.”

She added, “I can always make money later, but I just want to keep helping people for now and then we will see how it goes.”

Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

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