Bangkok hotel sparks outrage with 'poverty tour' for rich bankers

Chefs boycott 'tasteless stunt' as wealthy clients fly to destitute village – then back for free 10-course dinner
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The Independent Online

A luxury hotel in Bangkok treated its top clientele to a tour of a destitute Thai village yesterday before dazzling them with a lavish feast, ignoring outrage over the event that prompted a boycott by top chefs around the world. Critics have described the event as a tasteless publicity stunt and a poverty tour for the rich. But the controversy appears to have delighted the organisers, who say the attention has cast a spotlight on what they call a novel approach to helping the needy.

The smart Lebua Hotel has grabbed headlines in the past with similar campaigns. Last year, it hosted a dinner billed as the meal of a lifetime for $25,000 (£12,500) a head. Six chefs were flown in from Europe to cook the 10-course meal, each plate paired with a rare vintage wine. Yesterday's menu boasted another 10-course spread, this time for free. The catch was that the guests – 50 bankers and executives from the US, Europe and Asia – had to spend the afternoon seeing how the other half lives.

"We wanted to open people's eyes to a part of the world that needs help," said Deepak Ohri, the hotel's chief executive, who puts its cost for the dinner and trip at £150,000. "Who better to give poor people what they need than rich businessmen?"

Early yesterday, the hotel jetted the well-heeled group to one of the poorest parts of Thailand. Their destination was Ban Tatit village, a ramshackle community of wooden shacks in the north-east that once raised hundreds of elephants but is now home to only five. A formal invitation to the four-hour visit requested "casual" dress, and a change to black tie for dinner.

Organisers hope that the plight of the 600 villagers will inspire their wealthy visitors to act charitably. All the advance buzz about the event – none of which was good – hasn't hurt, Mr Ohri said, adding that nearly £25,000 in donations had been pledged. Contributions will be managed by a foundation the hotel is creating with its own gift of three million baht (£48,000) to bring clean drinking water and other basic infrastructure to the village.

Highlights of the 10-course meal included champagne, oysters, seafood risotto, scallops with truffles, roasted rack of lamb and neck of Iberico pig. "Gross!" was the reaction of the Nation newspaper, whose editorial said the dinner cast a "disturbing spotlight on the disparity between the rich and the poor".

A similar outcry in the French media prompted three of France's top chefs to bow out of the feast last month. "You can't see people living in misery and then go back to Bangkok to eat foie gras and truffles," said Alain Solivérès, a chef from Paris and one of the three.

Twenty other top-ranked chefs in France, Germany and Japan told the hotel they feared that being associated with the event would harm their reputations. Despite the boycott, four chefs from top-rated restaurants in Europe agreed to cook the meal. Three of them will walk away with £4,000 each for the night's work: Christian Lohse from Fischers Fritz, Berlin; Henk Savelberg of the Restaurant Hotel Savelberg in the Netherlands; and Atul Kochhar of Benares, in London.

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