The Oscars of the Asian food world were held in Macau this year, bringing together a gaggle of chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers at the Wynn on a late evening in March.
The heavily sponsored event is called Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and aside from the Michelin Guide, is the most visible restaurant ranking ceremony in the East.
For veterans of the four-year-old event, there were a lot of regulars and familiar faces. Gaggan Anand, whose contemporary Bangkok eatery has been named Asia’s top restaurant for four years in a row, was there. Of course there was Andre Chiang, who made the list in 2017 with his now-shuttered Singapore restaurant and made it once more this year with his Taipei establishment Raw.
And there was Richard Ekkebus of Hong Kong, whose formidable restaurant Amber has been on the list since the list was birthed in 2013. Amber, a contemporary French restaurant, was crowned “The Best Restaurant in China”—a title that has held for three years in a row.
But how does that happen? How it is that the best restaurant in the most populous country in the world doesn’t represent the food of said country? And that for the last three years, the top restaurant, in a country of 1.4 billion Chinese people, has been French?
The Asia list was created to represent Asia
Ironically, the Asia list spun out of the World’s 50 Best, because the franchise’s editors felt that the global list wasn’t sufficiently representative of the region.
William Drew, the editor for the Asia’s 50 Best list, said: “We had been running the World's 50 Best Restaurants for just over 10 years. We didn't think there was a pan-Asian list out there that really did a great job. We thought we could add value in the region and celebrate the diversity and richness of the culinary scene across Asia.”
When I asked him why Amber has topped the list for three years, Drew admitted that there’s a general lack of access and knowledge about the mainland Chinese dining scene.
“There are fewer people traveling from outside of mainland China into the cities there to sample their restaurants,” he said.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that the decision to vote in Amber was made by a collective of people who live in Asia.
We are looking for the best restaurant in China, not the best ‘Chinese restaurant’ in China, nor best Chinese chef in China!
Asia’s 50 Best is determined by a democratic vote comprised of 318 anonymous regional voters from six regions around the Asia. The voters are a relatively even mix of chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, and well-traveled gourmets. The voting process is independently adjudicated by Deloitte and the editors of the list simply publish the results.
Raw’s Chiang wrote in an email to Goldthread: “There’s totally nothing wrong with [Amber’s win]. The answer is very simple. We are looking for the best restaurant in China, not the best ‘Chinese restaurant’ in China, nor best Chinese chef in China!”
What does ‘best’ even mean?
Charmaine Mok, the editorial director of Hong Kong Tatler’s food section, said the issue with lists in general is the subjectivity of taste.
“I've been to Amber a lot of times and I do think that it is a really good restaurant,” she said.
“But I don't agree with the accolade that it is the best restaurant in China. It's a silly marketing thing in the sense that it's really targeted to get people talking.”
She said most of the top restaurants on these type of lists all have spectacular marketing strategies and teams behind them. Voters can be very susceptible to this hype.
“I still think that everyone is still influenced by what is already on the list, and compare the caliber and type of restaurants that are on the list already,” Mok said. “People limit themselves because they think, ‘Okay, if my mom-and-pop shop is never going to crack the list, why vote for them?’”
People don’t associate Chinese food with fine dining
“I think there's also that other narrative about the value people put towards a classic French restaurant versus Asian food,” Mok noted.
She said there are simply different standards that have been applied to Chinese and Western food.
China definitely has no shortage of haute cuisine. Dragon Well Manor in Hangzhou doles out perfectly executed Zhejiang-style dishes with a focus on sweet river ingredients and fresh vegetables. Yu Zhi Lan in Chengdu offers 25 courses of finely crafted Sichuan bites. Think sea cucumber soup and a sole dumpling in delectable chili sauce.
The problem is that the definition of fine-dining has been shaped almost exclusively by the Western world.
For Chinese chefs, consistency and sticking to tradition is often the hallmark for success.
Innovation, Mok said, is a criterion that’s often emphasized when making these broad lists. But that’s not something that’s necessarily prioritized by Chinese restaurateurs. In fact, for Chinese chefs, consistency and sticking to tradition is often the hallmark for success.
“Chinese chefs can be so technically brilliant. They’re great at staying consistent,” she said.
But it’s that cultural difference and reluctance to innovate that often shorts Chinese chefs of the prize.
Representation, Mok said, is important. And she believes that it’s just a matter of time before Chinese food is more visible, in the way Japanese food was thrown into international recognition with their economic boom post World War II.
“Chinese food is eventually going to be big,” Mok said. “People will finally start to notice Chinese ingredients, Chinese techniques, and craftsmanship.”