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 Awards with his Bangkok restaurant Nahm earlier this 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 Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the Observer in the United Kingdom and former UK 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. This year's Best Female Chef in Asia is Lan Shu of French restaurant Le Mout in Taiwan, while last year's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award winner was French chef Paul Pairet, who serves modern French food in Shanghai.

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?" asks Andrew Tjioe of Singapore's Tung Lok group and president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore. "If Asian restaurants aren't coming up strong in Asia-focused rankings, then what chance do we have when it comes to the World's Best list or other global rankings?

Like him, a few local chefs expressed surprise over the sparse inclusion of Chinese restaurants, given China's long culinary tradition and its clout in the region.

Best restaurants in Asia or best Asian restaurants?

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," says Gaggan Anand of third-ranked molecular Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok.

Local consultant chef Eric Teo adds: "The awards are titled Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, not Asia's 50 Best Chefs, so let's keep the chefs behind the scenes and judge based on the food."

Furthermore, as Mr 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 US.

"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," says The Tippling Club's Ryan Clift. "It's irrelevant and it touches on racism."

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

A Western concept

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," says Mr Thompson. Without any fixed criteria for the type of restaurant that diners can vote for ("as long as it has three walls and a phone number", World's 50 Best Awards spokesperson William Drew said in a previous interview), it is already more flexible than something like the Michelin Guide might be, Mr Thompson believes.

Taciturn Asian chefs

Furthermore, Asian chefs traditionally tend to shy away from the spotlight, which some observers say could have skewed results in favour of restaurants with bolder marketing efforts, which tend to be Western. "In my time, we were all quite reserved. We didn't talk about ourselves much, we just wanted to quickly send the food out," says Mr Teo.

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.

"The 50 Best is a media-driven list. Somebody in that restaurant has to be very vocal, only then will you get attention from voters," says Singapore's Mr Tjioe. "And not everyone is as outspoken as chefs like Bo (Duangporn Songvisava from Thailand's Bo.lan) or Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation)."

"Chefs in Asia do care for publicity," Ms Songvisava disagrees. "But it may not be their first priority. Asian chefs prefer to spend their money on food and ingredients than on marketing fees."

And rightly so, says Ivan Li of Family Li Imperial Cuisine, winner of this year's Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award, pointing out that chefs in mainland China don't really care for media recognition, as the media in China reciprocate with the same nonchalance. "Being a chef is not as glamourous as it is made out to be in Western media," he says.

"A decade ago in Asia, if someone told his parents he was going to be a chef rather than a banker, the whole family would think he's crazy. Before, it was not a career choice, it's just something that you did," says Boris Yu, World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy Chair for the China and Korea region.

Still, David Thompson thinks media hype shouldn't matter.

"We are not talking about PR awards, but a list voted by industry people who can cut through the gloss and froth and vote for restaurants, not just based on a press release. There are restaurants on this list that I've not even heard of," says Mr Thompson.

A representative voice

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, which you can only know if you've grown up in a country or lived there a long time," says a local restaurant owner who did not want to be named.

But regional Academy chairs pooh-pooh that suggestion. Currently, the Academy's 936 voters are divided according to 26 regions across the globe, which have 35 voters each, including the chairperson, 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, and 30 per cent of voters are changed yearly.

Of her 35 voters in the South-east Asia (South) region last year, 23, or two-thirds, were ethnically Asian, says Leisa Tyler, Academy Chair of the Southeast Asia South region, while 80 per cent of Mr Yu's China and Korea region are Asians - a statistic that he denies any relevance.

"Invariably it's the expatriates rather than the locals who are looking harder for the hole-in-the-wall eateries in each new country they move to," he elaborates. In a similar vein, having more Asians on the list doesn't mean you will get more Asian restaurants, with more Asians travelling widely, "and having fond memories of dining in Paris or London or anywhere in the world".

"I will choose and vote for restaurants that are good, regardless of the nationality of the food and chefs. That's the best way to raise the bar of quality around the world. If I choose with certain agenda, such as by promoting Asian restaurants, I disrespect the system and it's unfair to other restaurants," says a Thai voter, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Can't please everyone

At the end of the day, it seems, the list should just be taken for what it is - a compass to what is happening in the Asian dining scene right now - according to Ms Tyler. "It shows that while European or Western cuisines are still very much du jour for fine dining, Asian cuisines are slowly clawing their way up there."

While there are some merits, such as the growth of young, indigenous chefs and restaurants and a motivation for other Asian chefs to strive for recognition, Thailand's Ian Kittichai points out, it will never be squabble-free.

"Every restaurant guide is bound to elicit a 'What about...' reaction. What about Malaysia? Why are there no restaurants from Vietnam? You can't please everyone," says Tippling's Mr Clift.

Or, as Mr Rayner himself more snidely sums up the controversy he sparked off in his final tweet on the matter: "50 Best is doing the thing it's always been good at: inspiring debate about restaurants like they matter."


Get The Business Times for more stories.