Food and Drinks

Why Michelin shouldn’t make China restaurant guides and the ones locals are more likely to turn to

  • Michelin inspectors unlikely to appreciate the many styles of Chinese cuisine, say Chinese foodies and industry experts
  • Guides like the Black Pearl book are known for adopting a more Chinese perspective. Plus: Black Pearl’s 10 top rated restaurants in China.
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 7:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 7:19am

When Michelin entered the China market with the launch of its Shanghai restaurant guide in 2016, Zhong Ning was already way ahead of the curve, having set up a rating system a decade earlier to choose China’s best 50 restaurants.

It was a first for China, which Zhong established two years after she founded the only international edition of US magazine Food & Wine in the country, under the Trends Publication Group.

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Zhong’s 50 best restaurants list, which she organised every year until 2014, brought together more than 150 professionals from the Chinese culinary world every March in a Beijing hotel for a glitzy prize presentation ceremony.

Dubbed “the Oscars of the Chinese dining industry”, the event also honoured star chefs and the best 50 Chinese bars.

Zhong would gather a team of master chefs to develop a special menu for the event, with original dishes made using gourmet ingredients such as Kaluga Queen caviar and morel fungus.

“You would see those dishes offered at China’s high-end restaurants the following year,” Zhong says. “With the exception of Michelin, other rating systems for Chinese restaurants have since been launched based on our 50-best model.”

Michelin – which launched its second China guide, for Guangzhou, in 2018 – may have its work cut out to gain traction and recognition for its guides in China, given the dominance of local players in the field. (Consider, for example, how Airbnb lags far behind its Chinese equivalent, Tujia, and how Uber lost a price war with Didi Chuxing and ended up merging with it in 2016.)

Before Michelin entered China, foreigners looking for good Chinese restaurants tended to rely on US-based ratings websites TripAdvisor and Yelp.

Neither they nor Michelin have made a significant splash among local Chinese diners, however, in a pool dominated by local food review juggernaut Dazhong Dianping, which merged with Groupon equivalent Meituan (partly held by South China Morning Post owner Alibaba) in 2015 to become Meituan-Dianping.

Michelin’s uphill battle to win the hearts of deep-pocketed Chinese gourmands is certain to get even more difficult, following last year’s launch of Dianping’s inaugural Black Pearl Restaurant Guide. The guide lists 330 restaurants, selected from a Chinese perspective from more than seven million candidates, in 22 Chinese cities and five overseas destinations: Bangkok, New York, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo.

Similar to Michelin, which awards restaurants up to three stars, the Black Pearl guide confers diamonds. The top, three-diamond rating is given to restaurants deemed “must visit once in a lifetime”. Two diamonds are awarded by the judges to places that are “perfect for special occasions”, and one diamond is recommended as “great for family/friend gatherings”.

Entries are selected by an panel of food critics, academics, cooks and seasoned Dianping users, who visit the candidate restaurants incognito. It is an enhancement on Dianping’s “must-eat” restaurant list launched in 2017, which is based on comments and reviews from its more than 600 million users. Dianping’s 2018 must-eat list includes 867 restaurants in 36 Chinese cities.

Zhang Chuan, senior vice-president at Meituan-Dianping, said at the launch of the 2018 Black Pearl guide last January that unlike the must-eat list, which targets the masses and has no expert input, Black Pearl criteria includes cooking skills, restaurant standards, innovation and efforts made to pass on quality Chinese cooking traditions.

“Most [selected] restaurants are somewhere at the high end of the range. But there is a small number of eateries that are not expensive but of high quality. In the 2018 Black Pearl guide, 7 per cent of the restaurants chosen have dishes with an average price below 100 yuan (US$14.60), such as the Beijing Beixinqiao Luzhu Old Shop,” Zhang said.

Zhong Ning, who also launched China’s first family cooking magazine, Betty’s Kitchen, under the Swiss Ringier media group in 2001, and then an annual wine guide under Food & Wine in 2005, insists that Chinese restaurants should be rated by Chinese guides.

“The Michelin rating system was developed to rate French cuisine. It can show its true colours in France or other European countries. Once it leaves Europe, it loses its shine,” she says.

Her lukewarm view of Michelin in China is echoed by Chinese foodies and industry experts, who doubt Michelin inspectors can appreciate the diversified and sophisticated styles of Chinese cuisine.

It took a lot of time, effort and money to produce. The best food guides need impartiality, so we don’t want to earn money from the guide
Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan-Dianping, on the Black Pearl guide

Hongkonger Man Chui, who formerly owned a Taiwanese restaurant in Beijing, says he had a bad experience following Michelin’s recommendations for China.

That was at Madam Goose, which serves Cantonese cuisine in Shanghai’s Minhang district and was rated one star by Michelin for three consecutive years.

“I visited it and the food was not good at all,” Man says.

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Michelin’s guides have come under increasing scrutiny throughout Asia. Its new Thailand edition was heavily backed by the country’s tourism authority. In 2017, the Korea Tourism Organisation was panned for handing more than 2 billion won (US$1.8 million) to support a Seoul guide. In Singapore, tourism officials have admitted to facilitating “various business development discussions between Michelin and potential sponsors and partners” in the city.

In Hong Kong, funding for the most recent guide was boosted by contributions from a slew of corporate sponsors, including Evian and Nespresso.

Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan-Dianping, has gone on record saying that the goal of launching the Black Pearl list was to produce a food guide with no commercial sponsorship, as part of its responsibility to promote the “soft power” of Chinese food culture.

“It took a lot of time, effort and money to produce. The best food guides need impartiality, so we don’t want to earn money from the guide,” Wang said.

Zhong pulled the plug on her best 50 restaurants guide in 2014, after publishing it for eight years. She then began developing a food app called Flavours, with video and articles on dining trends, and interviews with movers and shakers in the Chinese dining scene.

Flavours then began a small annual list of best restaurants in December 2017, awarding up to three stars to those on the list. The most important criteria for selection are food safety and hygiene, she says.

The introduction of the list was timely, following a scandal that year when hotpot chain Haidilao’s Beijing outlets were found to be infested with rats and staff were seen handling food unhygienically with their bare hands.

“The most important factor in deciding whether Chinese restaurants can measure up to international standards is the level of hygiene and food safety,” Zhong says. “So, in a big departure from the usual ratings guides, 60 per cent of our assessment criteria concerns food safety and hygiene.

“The remaining criteria focus on the quality of the cooking and service. Our list of criteria has several hundred items. We employ people to visit the restaurants incognito and rate them according to the list. An assessment panel made up of independent outsiders makes the final picks.”

Like Meituan-Dianping, which offers a host of other dining-related services such as food delivery, Flavours has branched out, getting into food research and development. It has set up four centres: in Chengdu, Kunming, Dandong and the Japanese capital, Tokyo.

“We set up the Tokyo centre in December to promote Chinese dining culture in Japan and introduce good Japanese dining elements to China,” Zhong says. “The Chengdu centre specialises in developing Sichuan food, which we think will be the most influential type of Chinese cuisine. The Kunming one was established in collaboration with a local hotel group to promote food and tourism in Yunnan. Dandong has very good seafood from the Yalu River [bordering North Korea]. Our centre there helps local seafood traders expand their sales outlets.”

Zhong adds that the Flavours team also goes on overseas excursions.

“In 2016, we took a team of chefs to study white truffles and visit a ham-producing factory run by Eli Prosciutti in Italy. The Chinese restaurateurs on the trip bought some white truffles from auctions for their restaurants. The Chinese chefs have academic exchanges with the local chefs to learn how the Italians run kitchens and prepare food. Chinese kitchens need to be revolutionised by making them cleaner and more modern. I want to increase foreign influence on Chinese restaurants.”

Restaurants awarded three diamonds in the 2018 Black Pearl guide

1. Da Dong Roast Duck, Beijing

2. Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, Shanghai

3. Sushi Naramoto, Shanghai

4. Fu 1015, Shanghai

5. Jade River, White Swan hotel, Guangzhou

6. Jin Sha, Four Seasons hotel, Hangzhou

7. Yu Zhilan, Chengdu

8. Howard’s Gourmet, Hong Kong

9. 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong

10. Lung King Heen, Hong Kong