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Food and Drinks

How Singapore can claim its fine-dining crown by hosting World’s 50 Best Restaurants

  • The city state has been chosen to host the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2019
  • It’s the first time the awards will be hosted in Asia
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 12:32pm

Many Asian cities could lay claim to the region’s culinary crown, be it Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo. So the announcement, last month, that Singapore has been chosen to host the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019 went down well in the city state. It will be the first time the prestigious event has been hosted in Asia.

The line-up of the World’s 50 Best is decided by a panel of 1,000 food and beverage industry experts from around the globe, which in 2019 will, for the first time, have an equal split of women and men.

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William Drew, group editor of World’s 50 Best Restaurants, says the decision to host the event in Singapore was based on several factors, including location, history, and events infrastructure – and, just as importantly, its thriving and diverse dining scene.

“Food lovers from across the world will be very happy to come to Singapore, whether for the first time or returning,” he says.

Drew says Singapore was the undisputed choice to host the gastronomic event, despite other cities in the region, such as Tokyo and Bangkok, also having popular restaurants among the World’s 50 Best.

The cuisine served up at Singapore’s most celebrated restaurants range from artisanal contemporary French fare at Odette (No 28 on the list) and Western Australia-sourced meats at Burnt Ends (No 61 on the extended 100 Best list) to a twist on savoury and spicy Peranakan – Straits Chinese – classics at Candlenut (yet to make the list).

“What also sets Singapore apart is that it has the benefits of a food-obsessed resident population, among which a large portion are expats, with deep pockets [as compared to] the travellers who usually throng top-end restaurants in Bangkok and Tokyo,” says Harnoor Channi-Tiwary, food and travel writer, and a panellist for Singapore’s Top Restaurants 2018.

There are hopes that Singapore’s culinary heritage – a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western influences – will gain even greater exposure and acclaim as a result of hosting the awards.

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That’s the outcome Evelyn Chen, regional chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and a food writer for The New York Times and CNN Travel, expects.

“I think that it will help to propel more great restaurants onto the international dining radar. It helps with gastro-tourism and it serves to attract more great-name chefs to visit the city for chef-related events,” she says.

Chan Kwai-sum, a private investor and part-time food reviewer, also thinks it will attract more world-class chefs, gourmands and influencers to Singapore, and open their eyes to the rest of Asia.

“The next wave of gastronomy will see the emergence of Asian chefs, including the likes of Vicky Cheng of VEA in Hong Kong, Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery in Manila, chef Ton of Ledu in Bangkok and LG Han of Labyrinth in Singapore,” Chan says.

None of these restaurants are on Asia’s 50 Best or the World’s 50 Best lists.

Playing host to the World’s 50 Best is bound to encourage the Singaporean government, as it seeks a stamp of approval for its culinary heritage. In August, Singapore announced it would apply to have its traditional hawker culture included on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

However, not everyone agrees that such a high-profile event will help develop Singapore as a culinary hotspot.

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Lara Dunston, a travel and food writer, and Asia editor of the Truth, Love and Clean Cutlery restaurant guide, says local gourmets should take the lead in supporting innovative, home-grown chefs – especially those who use local organic, sustainable produce, who may struggle to survive.

“Everything from high overheads to labour and licenses – things that have nothing to do with awards – are factors that have more impact on whether a restaurant succeeds. And it’s in those small restaurants helmed by young creative chefs where the most exciting culinary ideas are born,” Dunston argues.

“Chefs who are making efforts to reduce waste, recycle and be more eco-friendly – in a city where so many restaurants are flying in Wagyu beef, foie gras and French ducks every day – should also be rewarded.”

There are benchmarks of dining excellence that awards often overlook, she adds.

“Diners are fickle. I’d love to see more chefs like Malcolm Lee of Candlenut and Han Li Guang of Labyrinth being supported, and those chefs in turn inspiring and supporting a newer generation of young chefs,” Dunston says. “And where are all the Singaporean women chefs? That’s also a problem with the World’s 50 Best. It’s so male-dominated.”

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Odette and Candlenut are loved by food critics and industry influencers because they are renowned for their eclectic blends of cuisine.

For Pav Khialani, founder of Australian-inspired bar and cafe The Hangar, a lack of traditional Asian fare on the World’s 50 Best list is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it’s an indication of Singapore’s modernity.

“Singaporean classics are delicious, and I love a plate of Hokkien mee [fried noodles with shrimp and squid], but we shouldn’t just look at the past. Especially when it comes to award-worthy restaurants, I think it’s a lot easier to do better when you’re not trying to affiliate yourself to a ‘national’ cuisine, because that’s when you can break free of tradition and rules, and really be creative,” Khialani says.

Emmanuel Stroobant, chef at Emmanuel Stroobant Group, suggests the addition of more categories to the 50 Best list, including a separate ranking for outstanding vegan or vegetarian restaurants, for example.

“I’ve noticed that more people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan when they dine at Saint Pierre [one of the group’s restaurants]. Even non-vegetarians are willing to order the vegetarian menu if it’s done well,” he says.

“These innovations are a far cry from the mock meat and other bland vegetarian products that have traditionally been available,” he says, referring to such dishes as his organic avocado millefeuille. “Restaurants that showcase this innovation should also be featured in Asia’s Best list.”

Ivan Brehm, chef and owner of one-Michelin-starred Nouri, thinks fusion cuisine deserves to have its own category, rather than be regarded as a novelty.

“With Singapore being the intersection of cuisines from across the globe, I’m hooked on ‘crossroads cooking’ – a term that celebrates the similarities between cuisines and cultures. It would be fabulous to have a list of the best ‘crossroads restaurants’”, says the alumnus of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and former head chef of Bacchanalia.

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Kirk Westaway, Michelin-starred chef at Jaan, thinks Singapore is moving in the right direction to become the next unmissable dining capital, but chefs need to tell the story behind the food.

Westaway, who fuses British, French and Singaporean flavours, says: “Beyond filling your stomach, it also centres on the experience. It’s important to understand how fine-dining dishes [in Asia] come to life, the stories behind the cuisines and the passion behind the people who create them.”

The 50 Best’s Drew concedes that no restaurant ranking has a “perfect” system, but argues the 50 Best provides a snapshot of global opinion, and is respected and followed by diners across the world.

“Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants has also been a hugely positive force in the industry, encouraging greater collaboration, discovery and mutual celebration and respect,” he says.

Writer Dunston thinks there’s scope to raise awareness by conveying the origins of Asian cuisines. Many people from farther afield don’t appreciate that Asian cuisines vary widely across the region, she says.

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Food and beverage consultant and entrepreneur Imran Mohammad agrees. “Just as French or Italian cuisine have well-known lore … the origins, methods, and appreciation of Asian cuisine, and the unique ingredients, cooks, flavours and methods that make them, need to be celebrated and their stories told,” he says. “Like how a French wine’s tale is told by a sommelier, a hearty bowl of Asian noodles and broth can take on a life with great storytelling.”

Collectively, as lovers and creators of Asian cuisine, he says: “We need to be bold to create and recreate. An example being the world’s first Chilli Crab Challenge that we created with Ban Leong Wah Hoe Seafood Restaurant, which commanded international attention and put the Singaporean dish on the world map.”