Asian restaurants join elite club
Best Restaurant award judge Gillian Rhys explains how Asia is finally getting the recognitionit deserves
Asia's best restaurant will be announced on Monday evening, and the winner will be thrust into the international spotlight with bragging rights to the title for the next year. It will be the first time this award has been bestowed by the creators of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
The World's 50 Best Restaurants list began in 2002 when journalists at British industry magazine Restaurant came up with the idea. They knew it knew would ruffle a few feathers, and create a bit of a stir in the media. But they couldn't have predicted how huge their creation would become.
By 2007, sponsors were on board, and the list had evolved into an awards ceremony in London. It garnered international publicity when the likes of The French Laundry in the US, El Bulli in Spain, The Fat Duck in Britain, and Noma in Denmark topped the list. Proclaiming one restaurant as the best in the world was certainly controversial, and there was much discussion about the merits of those who had made the list at all. Equally controversial were those restaurants (and their chefs) which were excluded.
For several years the list came under considerable criticism, not least because a disproportionate number of the placings was in Britain. This was mainly because the judges were based there - we were all industry acquaintances of the magazine staff. Judges knew then that if they voted for a restaurant in, say, Hong Kong, the chances of it appearing on the list were very slim, since no one else would be voting for it.
So an effort was made to become more international and professional. Now there are 27 food expert "academy chairs" based around the world, and each has a panel of about 30 judges in their region.
For the inaugural Asian list, which will be announced at a ceremony in Singapore, the academy panels covering Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, India and Japan will be voting.
So why launch a dedicated Asian list? "We felt that Asia's restaurant scene was under-represented on a global stage," says Restaurant magazine editor William Drew. "We knew the quality of restaurants in Asia, and we believed that many of them ranked among the best in the world."
Grant Thatcher, the academy chair of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, adds: "These awards are all set to place Asia's amazing culinary scene under the spotlight where it belongs."
There was a scant showing of Asian ventures on the 2012 top 50 list: one restaurant in Hong Kong (Amber), one in Thailand, two in Singapore and two in Japan. All of them appear in the second 25 places of the list.
So it's no wonder that restaurateurs in the region welcome the launch. "I think it's great for Asia," says Alvin Leung, chef proprietor at Bo Innovation. "It will give recognition to Asian restaurants that otherwise would not have made the international 100 list let alone the top 50."
"It is one of the best things that can happen to the restaurant industry in Asia," says Ignatius Chan, owner of Iggy's in Singapore which has been a long-standing inclusion on the World's 50 Best list and is the highest Asian entry at number 26. "Asia has a very diverse culture and heritage, and it has a long history of civilisation and food culture. The list will propel the best restaurants in Asia to the world and it will better profile all the great cuisine we have."
Tetsuya Wakuda, the Japanese chef behind Waku Ghin in Singapore which is placed 39th on the international list, agrees. "It is great to see further recognition of an area which has given, and continues to give, so much culinary inspiration to the rest of the world."
It will be interesting to see if the new list is dominated by restaurants serving Asian cuisine, or by Western restaurants, namely classical French restaurants based in Asia. The Miele Guide Asia's Finest Restaurants 2013, which launched last month, named six French restaurants and one Italian (Hong Kong's 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo) in its top 10.
"Asia's 50 Best Restaurants is designed as a showcase for the best restaurants, chefs and cooking in Asia, regardless of their style or origin," says Drew. "It is a showcase for the best food in Asia, rather than Asian food."
Alvin Leung thinks the list should be based on the merits of the individual restaurant, regardless of what type of cuisine it serves. He says, "I have been told you get better Italian in Tokyo than in Italy, so I don't think that Asian food will have priority on the list."
But others are hoping for a good showing of Asian cuisine. Richard Ekkebus, executive chef at French restaurant Amber, is one of them. "I am certain there are many Asian restaurants cooking Asian food that could be part of this list. I'm very excited about this and the fact that David Thompson's Nahm entered the World's 50 last year is a great sign," he says.
Thompson agrees. "There are some great restaurants throughout Asia, many of which do not get the recognition they so deserve. Hopefully, Asian cuisine will be better represented. In fact, I would be surprised if it isn't. Certainly, on my part, there is an expectation that an Asian cuisine restaurant will be number one," he says.
All of the chefs contacted for this article cited Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan as the countries they expect to see heavily represented at the awards.
As Iggy's is the highest-placed Asian restaurant in the World list, many think it will gain top billing on the Asian list. But Chan is modest about his chances. "I certainly do not see that as automatically making us number one on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list," he says.
"There are a rising number of new and exciting restaurants, and many talented professionals have chosen Asia as their base."
Chan's money is on a Japanese restaurant: "Japan is a great agricultural nation filled with passionate food lovers. Its major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto have the highest concentration of exceptional restaurants in the world."
Ekkebus agrees: "I am not very good at making predictions, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of Japan's restaurants leads the list."
Coming top is obviously useful, but just being on the list helps business. Restaurateurs have reported increased bookings when they have been included on the international list.
"I did notice that bookings did not slip as most Bangkok restaurants tend to do as the weather heats up and then begins to rain," says Thompson. One thing is certain, not everyone will agree with the awards. Stand by for some fireworks on Monday night.