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A group photo of the Michelin star recipients.
COMMENTARY

Welcome to Singapore, Michelin - but. . .

Jul 25, 2016 5:50 AM

Singapore

DEAR Michelin Guide,

I don't know how to say this - you being such a revered food bible and all - but we Singaporeans don't really like you.

We haven't liked you since you said you were coming to Singapore to tell us - a nation of self-appointed food critics (when we're not complaining about other things) - where to find the best restaurants and hawker food. From the get-go, online chatter was filled with "why do we need a foreigner to tell us where to eat?" We don't even agree with Makansutra or ieatishootipost - that's why we're flush with food bloggers, magazine guides, newspaper guides, people-selling-LPG-gas guides . . . but we're all Singaporeans, so it's fine to slug it out with each other.

Unfortunately, we haven't extended you that same courtesy. Hence, you've unwittingly stepped into a hornet's nest of nationalistic foodies who would sever bilateral ties before they admit that chicken rice was invented in Malaysia. You saw the comments that followed the Bib Gourmand list. You may as well have stuck your hand into a tank of piranhas. Why were most of the winners conveniently located in town? Why didn't your guys go to the East Coast? Why isn't char kway teow on the list? Why did you exclude my favourite To-Ricos kway chap stall in Old Airport Road? But Sentosa is quite far away, I admit. When you have to dine at so many restaurants in Resorts World Sentosa, it's a real hassle to have to go all the way to Joo Chiat.

By and large, many of the restaurants in the main list were spot on. But that hasn't stopped pundits from griping about the rest of it. For example: You can't give a hawker the same one star as a fine dining restaurant (Debatable). Waku Ghin was robbed (Maybe). They were too eager to slap two stars on Shoukouwa when it had just opened. (Perhaps - back then it had good ingredients but a chef who couldn't cut straight. He's gone now.) Violet Oon's restaurants deserved a star more than Malcolm Lee's Candlenut Kitchen. (Seriously?) Singaporean chefs were overlooked (Sad, but consistency is an issue).

By the way, can I lobby for a recount of Shisen Hanten's stars? Unless they can prove the minced meat for their mapo tofu comes from only one family of pigs and cows and the Sichuan peppers they use come from a plant clever enough to grow, harvest and dry its chillies all on its own branches, I am not convinced.

The thing is, you're seeing Singaporeans at our xenophobic worst. There is an us versus "foreign people" thing going on and the vitriol behind it is unnerving - the idea that non-Singaporeans have no right to judge "our" food. That we are the best judge of "our" food and you should stick to what you know best, namely, European food. It's as wrong as it sounds because by this logic, every food writer/blogger in Singapore would be out of a job, allowed only to quibble about wok hei and QQ noodles but not qualified to rate French, Italian or other cuisine that's not "ours".

Please don't be put off by all this. All things considered, we do want to be friends. The Michelin Guide in Singapore looks really good on our city's resume, and there's no denying the pride and joy that comes from earning a star or more.

But like in any new relationship, a little openness goes a long way. It's food, not an Official Secrets Act.

We would greatly appreciate if you could engage us instead of spouting motherhood statements about ingredients, flavour and chef personalities. Or saying that shared values makes it alright to take on a sponsor which has everything to benefit from a collaboration with you.

Good intentions and star-worthy restaurants aside, it is still a conflict of interest. Just as no guide can survive on tyre income and a selfless dedication to rewarding the best food in the world, no business entity enters into a one-way partnership.

So yes, transparency. A little of that would be nice. Nobody's asking for a breakdown of the identity and educational background of each inspector. But how about a little insight into the selection process? The trade seminar you held was a good start. You need more of that. The more Singaporeans understand what you're all about, the less suspicious and fault-finding we will be. The last thing you want to do is hide behind a veil of secrecy - which is something The World's 50 Best Restaurants has done to their own detriment.

Of course, we know there's no such thing as pure objectivity. Everybody brings their biases to the table, with no exception. There is only less or more, but never zero. And if Michelin is going to be here for the long term, there's a lot for you to learn about the Singaporean diner - how vocal we are - how partisan we are and how we hate being told what to eat by anyone who did not grow up with roti prata and Milo Dinosaurs. Once you get to know Singaporeans a little better, maybe we can all be friends and start liking each other a lot more.

And so Michelin, welcome to Singapore. Don't worry, you'll get used to it.