Mar 03, 2014

    Where's the Asian in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants?

    ANYWHERE in the world, trying to rate restaurants relative to each other is going to be a prickly affair. So it didn't take long for feathers to be ruffled over David Thompson's topping the Asia's 50 Best Restaurant list with his Bangkok restaurant Nahm last week.

    "The No. 1 restaurant in the 50 Best Asia list belongs to a white Australian guy? I quit the org(anisation) for good reasons," tweeted Mr Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer in Britain and former British chair of the World's 50 Best Restaurant Academy of voters.

    He added in a later post: "I'm sure Nahm is lovely, and David Thompson a great chef, but the whole ranking thing does throw up peculiar results."

    What Mr Rayner probably also found peculiar is that the list's upper echelons are dominated by French cuisine, with 15 restaurants serving them, followed by 12 serving Japanese food and only seven specialising in Chinese cuisine.

    Hong Kong's top restaurant, for instance, is French restaurant Amber, Japan's top restaurant is the French-influenced Narisawa, and Singapore's leading name is Restaurant Andre, also a French restaurant.

    While Japanese chefs led the headcount, helming 12 of the restaurants listed, French chefs were the next most popular, tying with Indian chefs at seven each, followed by six Chinese chefs.

    Slightly over a quarter of listed restaurants are helmed by Western chefs.

    "Why is the Asia's 50 Best list so Western-centric?" asked Mr Andrew Tjioe of Singapore's Tung Lok group, and president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore.

    Yet, a larger handful of chefs disagreed, dismissing the need to single out Asian chefs and Asian cuisine.

    "Good food doesn't discriminate by location or culture, a chef is a chef whether he is Chinese or cooking Italian food," said Gaggan Anand of third-ranked molecular Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok.

    Furthermore, as local consultant chef Eric Teo points out, Singaporean chefs are topping culinary competitions in Europe, while Asian chefs such as David Chang and Nobu Matsuhisa have long made waves in the United States.

    "People are naïve to say that a Westerner can't cook Thai food. David has spent all his life in Thailand, and his head chef is Thai," said The Tippling Club's chef Ryan Clift. "It's irrelevant and it touches on racism."

    Thompson, when told of the tweets, laughed: "I am slightly dubious about Western cooks doing Asian food myself."

    He added that he is not on Twitter "and that it is Rayner's job to polarise, and he does it well". More seriously, however, he thinks that it could be an issue of definition.

    After all, the phenomena of food guides and food rankings can be traced back to France in the 1900s, and the very definition of a restaurant is a European notion.

    "I'm having lunch at an oyster omelette place in Bangkok as we speak, it's delicious and world-class, but I am sitting on a plastic stool and eating in the sun," said Thompson.

    Furthermore, Asian chefs tend to shy away from the spotlight traditionally, which some observers say could have skewed results in favour of restaurants with bolder marketing efforts.

    When the Michelin Guide first launched in Japan, for example, the country's top hole-in-the-wall eateries famously turned away eager inspectors, preferring their privacy.

    A few others have questioned whether it is a matter of getting more Asian voters on board.

    Because it is organised by a board full of Westerners and voted by a global pool of diners, perhaps they aren't the most familiar with the best local restaurants to eat in, said a local restaurant owner who did not want to be named.

    But regional Academy chairs pooh-pooh that. Currently, the Academy's 936 voters are divided according to 26 regions across the globe, which have 35 voters each, including the chairman, who nominates each of his voters. The spilt should be around one third chefs and restaurateurs, one third food critics and media, and one third foodies, with 30 per cent of voters changed yearly.

    Of her 35 voters in the South-east Asia (South) region last year, 23, or two thirds, were ethnically Asian, said Ms Leisa Tyler, Academy Chair of the South-east Asia South region. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of voters in the China and Korea region are Asians.