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New normal after Michelin
BARELY A day after receiving two Michelin stars, Japanese restaurant Shoukouwa saw bookings going through the roof, reporting a near full house up till the end of July. The three-month-old sushi bar charges upwards of S$150 for lunch and S$380 for dinner.
The Kitchen at Bacchanalia - with one star - had 40 new reservations made in the span of two hours, while fellow one-star Candlenut Kitchen is already filling up its seats right up to the next weekend.
While not all have seen an immediate spike - The Song of India, Alma by Juan Amador and Shisen Hanten still have space this weekend - the Michelin effect is already clear. Get a star, or better still, two or more, and watch the diners waltz in. Not just from Singapore, but more importantly perhaps, from overseas, as the city's reputation as a dining destination is sealed. That is, after all, the whole point of the Michelin Guide which, after years of sprinkling its magic - controversial though it might be - from its base in Europe to Asia, is finally here after many false starts.
But should Singapore have been more careful about what it wished for? Controversy has dogged the guide since it released its Bib Gourmand list of hawkers and "good value" restaurant meals under S$45. Topping it off was the main event in a black tie ceremony at Resorts World Sentosa, where 29 restaurants received a total of 37 stars. Joel Robuchon Restaurant was the only three-star recipient, while the six two-star recipients included Les Amis Restaurant, Odette and Restaurant Andre, and one-star recipients included Candlenut, Terra, and Jaan.
Good to be a winner
Even as detractors take umbrage online about the choice of restaurants on both lists, winners are pleased but practical about their newfound status. Executive chef Ivan Brehm of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia is feeling good about his one-star win, but is cautious about taking on more reservations than he can handle. He says: "We're trying to space (reservations) out a bit, since it's picked up significantly."
He may hold the first Michelin star for Peranakan cuisine, but chef-owner of Candlenut, Malcolm Lee, is back to the daily grind. "It feels like a normal day, because I ate breakfast, went to buy supplies for the restaurant, and now we're setting up for our first service as a Michelin restaurant - It doesn't feel any different from setting up our regular service but the people coming might have higher expectations. I guess we'll find out soon," he says.
For Julien Royer of Odette as well, it's all par for the course. He says: "We're already very overwhelmed and can't keep up with the demand. So I don't see how it can get any busier than it already is."
Although he adds: "As a young chef, and especially as a French guy - because Michelin Guide is well-regarded back home in France - of course, it's a huge, huge honour. In a way it would be a dream come true. So I don't see any challenges, only positive outcomes like good international exposure."
Conflict of interest?
Unlike other countries where Michelin has operated independently, the Singapore guide is a tie-up with Robert Parker Wine Advocate (RPWA) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), with sponsors such as Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).
Critics say that this creates a conflict of interest, so it was no surprise that tongues started wagging when the integrated resort took in the biggest haul of seven stars for its four celebrity chef restaurants: three for Joel Robuchon Restaurant, two for L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and one each for Forest and Osia.
Daniel Chavez, chef-owner of the Spanish restaurant Ola Cocina del Mar points out that Singapore's other integrated resort Marina Bay Sands only had two, despite being "at the forefront of bringing in leading international restaurants". Celebrity chefs Tetsuya Wakuda and Wolfgang Puck saw their respective restaurants Waku Ghin and Cut each receive one star. He adds: "While I wouldn't say they're better than the ones at RWS, I do believe a more balanced list would have helped assuage any doubts on the matter."
Michael Ellis, Michelin's international director, says: "Sponsors have to share the same values as the group, in order to assure the complete independence of the guide. There is no link between the selection process and our partners.
"Our inspection process and awarding of stars is sacrosanct to the guide. The cornerstone of Michelin guide's success is our total independence, which guarantees the reliability of our selection, and it is our credibility that gives full weight to the presence of the Michelin guide in a particular country."
Even so, it could not stop the deluge of "kelong" theories that ranged from sympathy for chef Wakuda to surreal speculation on chef lobbying.
Waku Ghin - one of the consistently top-rated restaurants in Singapore which received only one star - spurred critics to defend chef Wakuda on social media. Meanwhile, rumblings that Andre Chiang of Restaurant Andre had used his star power to turn an original one-star win into two, hit fever pitch. His partner Loh Lik Peng dismissed as a bad joke that chef Chiang had got an early hint that he was about to be awarded one star, and lobbied STB to pressure Michelin into "upgrading" him. That there were no physical copies of the Guide at the gala event also caused some raised eyebrows as pundits joked about a delay caused by star shuffling.
Chef Chiang refuses to be drawn into the fray. "Michelin Guide is a world-respected international organisation with a long history, I don't think anyone can decide the result. Not Michael Ellis, not RWS, not STB and of course not myself. I don't comment on any default position question. I think if we continue this rumour, it will only damage Singapore."
As for the books, Michelin clarifies that it wants to "highlight the digital version of the Guide which went live immediately after the ceremony". The book will be launched in bookstores on July 30.
Michelin's emphasis on tastiness regardless of dining ambience has split opinion over celebrating Singapore street food and clumping one-dish hawker stalls with fine dining eateries turning out 10-course menus. In the inaugural list are two hawkers with one star each - Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Crawford Lane and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle at Chinatown Food Complex.
Mr Loh, of the Unlisted Collection group of restaurants, is one who finds it unfair to rate hawkers and restaurants using the same yardstick. "Clearly they do good food, but it's just not quite a restaurant experience. Also I am not really certain that the Guide's inspectors and judging criteria were designed for hawkers and street food."
Agreeing with him is chef Chavez, who says: "The beauty of Singapore to me is the street food here. Having said that, I'm not sure (hawkers) should be grouped with fine-dining restaurants because how can you compare an establishment that charges S$500 a head with one that charges only S$2? It's not only about the food being good, it should also take into account how much you pay."
Michelin's criteria, however, do not include pricing other than value for money. Ingredient quality, mastery of cooking and flavours, chef personality and consistency are the other key values inspectors look out for.
TungLok Group's executive chairman Andrew Tjioe, however, is all for it, referring to the Guide's evolution as a good thing. He explains: "They awarded stars to street food in Hong Kong first. While that isn't quite the same as hawker food, it was the first step. No one can deny that hawker food is a very integral part of our food culture in Singapore so I'm very happy they got it."
Edina Hong of the Emmanuel Stroobant Group points out that this might in fact be a chance for restaurants to bring the focus back on food. She explains: "Hawkers don't need to use more expensive ingredients, or spend money to renovate, so why do restaurants? The hawkers are a great way to point us back to that basic criteria - if your food is good, you deserve a star. If it's not, you don't."
The only potential "downside" she points out is that foreigners only relying on the Michelin Guide might find themselves "dressed to the nines, in a hawker centre in the middle of Singapore".
Star influence on the dining scene
Whether a restaurant has a star or not, the playing field is about to become more competitive. Unlisted's Mr Loh observes that Michelin's presence has already revived interest in the fine-dining segment, and "that means competition, which also means innovation and improvement". He adds: "I can only see the industry getting sharper for this experience and every year that the list is published there will be renewed anguish and push for stars. So that can't be bad for the diners here."
That's the hope, at least. However, Tan Ken Loon, owner of seafood restaurant The Naked Finn, believes it can swing either way. Something like the Michelin Guide will always result in divided opinions. "One camp will believe in what the Guide stands for and try to be better and earn better ratings. The other might say they don't care about the Guide because they don't think foreigners are able to judge local cuisine well. I think the key question will be which camp is more dominant."
Whichever camp wins is likely to shape the industry's progress over the next few years, believes Mr Tan. The first will "move the whole industry forward, regardless of whether the players earn Michelin stars or not". The second camp will likely cause stagnation, with its unwillingness to evolve.
That aside, there is the question of the Michelin "curse" -- with the pressure to maintain or chase stars at the expense of innovation or simple joy of cooking; landlords raising the rents of starred restaurants; or chefs raising their prices.
Ms Hong says: "Some landlords will raise the rents, though they should not," but at the same time believes "there will be others, especially hotels, who may pursue restaurants with Michelin stars and offer them a good package to entice them to relocate within the property to raise the profile of the hotel."
Mr Tjioe agrees. "I think it would be silly for a landlord to raise rent for a Michelin-starred tenant because they can just run away and open shop elsewhere. They should actually take good care of them instead."
As a chef who has trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, including three-starred The Fat Duck, Ivan Brehm of Bacchanalia hopes the Guide will in fact perform its role as a Guide, especially for those who are new to a particular style of cuisine or Singapore as a country.
"Dining in Singapore from a Western sense at the level we're playing at is somewhat new, and a lot of times I think restaurants and guests are confused with regard to what 'good' or 'quality' is. They spend a lot of time trying to be popular and sometimes neglect the quality of an actual dish leaving the kitchen. Hopefully, Michelin will give restaurants an added incentive to focus on day-to-day operations," he says.
He has heard stories about Hong Kong "when Michelin came and particular restaurants were priced out of the market because landlords didn't want them to stay. I hope landlords see potential benefits in lasting partnerships with restaurants who are rewarded, instead of trying to make a quick buck".
Stars versus no-stars
Of course, the launch of the Michelin Guide here is not all a bed of roses. Some restaurant owners are concerned that the lack of a star might affect their business in both the short- and long-term.
For instance, neo-Sin restaurant Labyrinth's chef-owner Han Li Guang worries about the negative implications involving tourist receipts in a restaurant like his, which is located at the Esplanade Theatre. "As a chef I'm fine by it, but as an owner, I see a potential constraint in our exposure because of the emphasis people place on hunting down Michelin-starred restaurants," he says.
However, he adds that "since Michelin only awarded 29 out of Singapore's 8,000 eating establishments, it's not so bad since it's quite controlled".
Mr Tan of The Naked Finn is a little more hopeful, as he believes that restaurants without stars will probably go on as usual, while those who did receive stars might see a spike in their business.
"I feel the whole star thing works very much for tourism, so if people come to Singapore and want to know where to eat, it's easier for them. But restaurants that don't traditionally rely on tourism won't feel a direct impact. So not getting a star doesn't mean a restaurant will die - there are too many variables in our industry anyway," he says.
Inspectors in our midst
Once chefs in Singapore got wind that Michelin inspectors were doing their rounds, the game of "spot the inspector" was hotter than the Pokemon GO craze currently sweeping the world. Sightings were reported to other chefs, surreptitiously taken photos passed around and nuggets of information dug out and disseminated regardless of reliability.
While most inspectors did a fairly good job of remaining anonymous, there were some giveaway moves. One chef with working experience in Michelin-starred restaurants notes that napkin-dropping is a popular manoeuvre. "We had a gentleman sitting on table two, and he dropped his napkin probably four times throughout the meal. We noticed it almost immediately every time, to the point where it became somewhat of a game for the staff. Everyone was just waiting for him to drop his napkin again."
Also, scribbling notes and asking copious questions about ingredients doesn't mean that the guest is a food critic or blogger. "Normal diners don't ask so many questions," observed another chef. Dining alone is another clue. Malcolm Lee of Candlenut noticed a woman diner with unusual eating habits. "With curry and rice, most people just put it in their mouths and enjoy the mixture of flavours by adding different dishes for the taste. This lady, however, tasted each dish separately and appeared to be prying it apart for a better look too."
Unfortunately, he couldn't make any major changes even if he would have liked to because with Peranakan cooking, most of the preparation - like rempah - is done in advance. "The most we could've done is offer them a whiter plate," he laughs.
Michelin - good or bad?
There will no doubt be people who think Waku Ghin was robbed of a star, and who will question whether Japanese chefs really cook Chinese food better than Chinese restaurants which have been in Singapore for years. Controversy and Guides go hand in hand but there is no denying that the Michelin Guide has brought fresh excitement into the dining scene. And having a star or not is not the be-all and end-all.
As Bacchanalia's chef Brehm sums up: "You win one star, hurray. You lose one, all hell breaks loose. Ultimately, you need to remind yourself what it was that got you in this business in the first place. Will some people suffer from the pressure (of stars), absolutely. I've seen it. But I will continue to remind myself every day that the goal is to give people good food."