The awards result, thoughtfully chewed by one industry steward.
THE great and the good of Asia’s restaurant industry (and me) gathered at the Capella Singapore last Monday night for the announcement of the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014.
You may have already seen the list since its release, so I thought I would come up with my own list of the biggest winners and losers on the night, as well as coming up with a couple of predictions for the near future.
Malaysia – Two years running, not a single entry on the list. I thought the embarrassment of last year’s result might galvanise the more patriotic Malaysian members of the voting jury to support the local candidates, but I was clearly wrong.
I know this dead horse is well and truly flogged to mince, but it seems our restaurants are still doing what they do and our dining public is still swallowing it hook, line and sinker. A few local restaurateurs went on the record after last year’s announcement as saying they couldn’t get good ingredients at the prices diners were willing to pay.
Well, Cilantro’s degustation menu now costs US$120 nett (RM340++), and there is a place in Ipoh (yes, Ipoh!) that serves a degustation dinner for over US$100 nett (RM294++).
There are quite a few places on the 2014 list where you can eat an excellent dinner for under US$100, such as Singapore's Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck at No.40. Imperial Treasure has to pay extortionate Orchard Road rents at the upmarket Paragon mall, so is cost really the issue here?
Last year, I wrote an article about Malaysia’s failure to get on the 2013 list, which, like much of writing that passes for political rhetoric in Malaysia these days, was designed to inflame public opinion. In response, I received a comment on my blog from a young chef named Darren Chin, who is currently building his own restaurant at Empire Damansara.
Until recently, Darren was a student at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and, in between stints at some top restaurants in Europe, created the Delifrance “World’s Best Sandwich 2013”. Without mincing words, he said he is aiming to make Asia’s 50 Best in the future, and asked me “to have faith and belief that one day a restaurant representing Malaysia will be listed soon”.
Now I don’t know Darren and I have not tasted his food. I am therefore not suggesting that he is Malaysia’s Great White Hope. But he certainly sounds like a capable young man, and I like that he is aiming very high and is prepared to run the risk of falling flat on his face.
OK, he has put a target on his back by announcing his ambitions so publicly, but no risk, no reward, right? Frankly, if more of our young people thought like Darren, it might be to the good of this country (and its F&B industry).
Pastry chefs – For the second year running, Janice Wong of Singapore’s 2am:dessertbar was named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef.
Janice is, by all accounts, a very nice and talented person, but I can’t help wondering if other top pastry talent is being obscured by the fact that a lot of them work in large hotels or other people’s restaurants. In those models, the pastry chef generally has to toe the line, creating everyday favourites for the buffet or melding his/her creations to the restaurant’s model and branding.
There is, therefore, little scope for them to showcase what they are truly capable of. Further, hotel chefs often do not have much chance to establish their identity as individuals with the voters and dining public.
Having said all this, I don’t want to take anything away from Janice’s achievements. She is one of the few who has carte blanche to do what she wants to do. Instead of knocking out macarons and mille-crêpes by the bucketload (which I am sure she would do very well), she has taken the opportunity to wander down the road less travelled by creating unique, texturally and visually appealing sweets in the postmodern mould. More power to her, I say.
Casino restaurants – I’m not sure what Monsieur Robuchon thought when he read the 2013 list and saw that his two casual Ateliers in Hong Kong and Singapore had surpassed his Asian flagship Robuchon au Dome in Macau (probably, “What a stupid list this is!”, but let that pass).
Well, Au Dome was down two spots this year, and L’Atelier Singapore fell off the list from a very respectable No.24 last year. Osteria Mozza at Marina Bay Sands also disappeared from the list, having bolted in at No.35 in 2013.
With the notable exception of Waku Ghin, Singapore casinos, err, I mean Integrated Resorts, no longer have any representation on the list. Having boasted an original high-powered, high-cost line-up that included Santi Santamaria, Mario Batali, Kunio Tokuoka, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Justin Quek, Guy Savoy and Robuchon (who also has a formal Joël Robuchon Restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa), that has to be a disappointing result.
Australia – Admittedly, tapping the cellphone of Indonesian President SBY’s wife during her official visit to Australia didn’t exactly scream “Asian solidarity”, but I would love to see the Land Down Under included in the catchment area for Asia’s 50 Best 2015.
Australia already has regular representation in the World’s Best 50 list through Attica (No.21) and Quay (No.48), and it would be intriguing to see how they stack up against Asia’s best. Come on, football has taken the plunge by allowing Australia into the Asian Football Confederation; do the Asia’s 50 Best organisers have the “balls” to do the same?
Taiwan – Along with the Vatican and 21 developing nations in Africa, Oceania, South America and the Caribbean, the organisers of Asia’s 50 Best have decided to recognise Taiwan as a nation in its own right. This move will undoubtedly have diplomatic repercussions for the Asia’s 50 Best organisers.
I attended a Chef Forum the day before the announcement, as part of the build-up to the big event. While we are being contrarian, I must admit that I really, really enjoyed bo.lan (No.28) chef/owner Bo Songvisava’s public denigration of environmentally-insensitive people drinking bottled water and racking up foodmiles.
That message was clearly NOT brought to you by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
Bangkok – Yes, Bangkok, not Thailand. Bangkok has six restaurants in Asia’s 50 Best, and two of the top three. Given the troubles that have racked the City of Angels in the last few months, this will be little consolation to Bangkok’s patient citizens, but it is amazing recognition for Bangkok’s bustling food scene, as well as the scholarship of Nahm (No.1) owner David Thompson and the avant-garde genius of Gaggan Anand (No.3).
With the backing of dynamic philanthropist Mark Weingard and his super-luxurious Iniala Beach House (which hosts the restaurant), one thing the Aziamendi crew are certainly not lacking in is ambition. And you know what, they might actually achieve them before too long.
André Chiang – The chiselled, towering Chiang may have seen his eponymous restaurant slide down a spot to No.6 this year, but he has cemented his place as Singapore’s best restaurant, fending off long-established veterans Iggy’s and Les Amis. He also won the coveted Chef’s Choice award, which is voted for by a panel of elite chefs in Asia.
That said, Waku Ghin (which in my humble opinion is far, far better than the original Tetsuya’s in Sydney) is nipping at his heels at No.7, up four spots from 2013. André will need to stay on his game to avoid a changing of the guard next year.
Asia – There is a heck of a lot of good food out there, whether on or off the list. Asia’s 50 Best obviously highlights only a small cross-section of what is available, but it is helping to shine the world’s gastronomic spotlight on Asia and Asia’s cuisines. That can only be a good thing.
Julian Teoh is a freelance food and wine writer who is proud to call himself a Malaysian. He is a member of the voting panel for Asia’s/World’s 50 Best Restaurants and blogs at julianteoh.blogspot.com.