The 10-course feast is being touted as a "once-in-a-lifetime inspirational dinner." On April 5, Bangkok's five-star Lebua hotel will treat 50 favored guests to a repast prepared by a glittering array of Michelin-starred chefs. To thank the guests for their loyalty to the hotel, Lebua plans to spend $300,000 for the meal. Accustomed though they may be to showy p.r. stunts, social activists are nonetheless up in arms over this particular act of epic extravagance. The reason? The banquet comes with a pre-dinner commitment to what the Lebua's p.r. mavens have dubbed "emotional tourism." Hours before digging into truffles and foie gras, the 50 diners will fly by private jet to a village in central Thailand to see how impoverished Thais manage to get by without regular infusions of Brittany lobster and Bresse chicken.
Originally, three Michelin-starred chefs Alan Soliveres, Michel Trama and Jean-Michel Lorain were to have catered the dinner, for a fee of $8,000 each. But the trio pulled out last month after European media assailed the hotel group for not committing any of its own money to helping the indigent Thai villagers. Lebua responded by saying it hopes the rural visit will spur some of the assembled guests to donate cash of their own. And the hotel assures potential diners that it has found Michelin-starred replacement chefs although it will not release their names, presumably for fear that they, too, might be pressured by negative publicity into withdrawing from the event.
Lebua certainly knows all about hosting lavish feasts. Last year, the hotel organized an event it modestly titled "The Epicurean Masters of the World," a Michelin-starred extravaganza at a cost per head of 1 million baht (around $28,000). Despite the hefty check, the dinner event was fully booked and it received its share of official criticism, coming at a moment when Thailand's then-ruling military junta was unveiling an economic policy based, in part, on scaling back ostentatious shows of wealth. The dinner also mystified many ordinary Thais, who are used to dining on some of the world's tastiest street food for no more than a dollar a plate.
But there's at least one Thai gourmet who may wish he'd stayed away from street food and stuck with pricier fare. Thailand's recently elected Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, boasts a famous palate; before he assumed the P.M. post, Samak hosted his own TV cooking show. But during a trip to neighboring Laos earlier this week, Samak sampled a chili-paste-and-fermented-fish concoction at a local market, and found to his considerable discomfort that the dish disagreed with him. On April 1 and, no, this was no April Fool's joke local newspapers put coverage of the Prime Minister's diarrhea on the front page. Hospitalized for food poisoning, Samak had to pull out of several cabinet meetings. The Prime Minister's fate, though, may be the retribution wished by many social activists, stung by the notion of $300,000 being spent on a single meal, on those who partake in the Lebua's "once-in-a-lifetime inspirational dinner."