JAN­ICE LE­UNG HAYES pon­ders if Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants and other like-minded awards have cre­ated a new old-boys’ club

#Legend - - EAT -

AS I LOOKED over to the stage af­ter this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants awards cer­e­mony, see­ing ev­ery­one rush­ing to take self­ies with one another, I couldn’t help but won­der if we were all just there to scratch each other’s backs. By “we”, I mean the panel whose votes de­ter­mine Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants, a by-in­vi­ta­tion group of roughly equal parts chefs and restau­ra­teurs, food writ­ers and jet-set­ting gour­mands.

Out­siders re­gard the World’s 50 Best Restau­rants (and its spin-offs, Asia’s 50

Best Restau­rants and Latin Amer­ica’s 50 Best Restau­rants) as a rank­ing based on the qual­ity of din­ing; cyn­ics have long called it a pop­u­lar­ity con­test. What it is, re­ally, is a zeit­geist of high food cul­ture – a mood ring re­flect­ing the colours of the top end of the in­dus­try, gen­er­ated by those in and close to it. These parts of the in­dus­try – chefs and restau­ra­teurs, food me­dia, and gour­mands – are meant to rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests, but with 50 Best, the lines are read­ily blurred.

Through chef col­lab­o­ra­tions and the now-ubiq­ui­tous four-, six- and 12-hands din­ners across the globe, top chefs ap­pear to have formed some­thing of a fra­ter­nity. Flock­ing to them are their fans, fel­low 50

Best vot­ers, with whom they are likely to have formed friend­ships over time. Make no mis­take – I’m in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise. These murky eth­i­cal wa­ters are ones that we, as food writ­ers, must wade through daily.

Food me­dia has mor­phed from the recipes and restau­rant cri­tiques of the 1990s to be­ing about the wider so­cio-po­lit­i­cal is­sues of to­day, from iden­tity to en­vi­ron­ment. This re­quires mas­ter­ful sto­ry­telling, not just by jour­nal­ists, but also by the public re­la­tions teams sur­round­ing the world’s best chefs. To­day, for bet­ter or worse, food it­self is not enough. Din­ers are choos­ing restau­rants based on a glo­be­trot­ting diner’s or chef’s In­sta­gram posts, and well-crafted sto­ries pitched to and writ­ten by jour­nal­ists, which are picked up by a hand­ful of in­flu­encers and din­ing en­thu­si­asts. And guess what? They all fol­low each other on so­cial me­dia. In­creas­ingly, vot­ers are go­ing to the same restau­rants, plan­ning the same bucket list-wor­thy, #FOMO-in­duc­ing eat­ing trips.

This year, Bangkok, a city of just over eight mil­lion and a per­pet­u­ally pop­u­lar tourist haunt, had a whop­ping eight restau­rants on the Asia’s 50 Best list, in­clud­ing the num­berone restau­rant, Gag­gan. Main­land China, on the other hand, a coun­try with more than

1.3 bil­lion in­hab­i­tants and no short­age of cre­ative chefs, but with a sig­nif­i­cant lan­guage and in­for­ma­tion bar­rier for English-speak­ing me­dia, had two measly en­tries, with only one of those serv­ing Chi­nese cui­sine. The echo cham­ber is hard to ig­nore.

Chef and restau­ra­teur David Lai, whose Hong Kong restau­rant Neigh­bor­hood placed 32nd on Asia’s 50 Best this year, ex­plains how his restau­rant is an ex­cep­tion to the now well­known for­mula: “We don’t re­ally fit the typ­i­cal 50 Best pro­file, with pro­fes­sional mar­ket­ing, four-hands events and trendy food.”

How­ever, even the most jaded among us can’t deny the lists’ pos­i­tive ef­fects on the food and bev­er­age in­dus­try. For once, chefs are (or can as­pire to be) recog­nised for their in­cred­i­ble skill, creativ­ity and ef­fort – in few other in­dus­tries are 15-hour days con­sid­ered nor­mal. “When I found out we were on the list, I was most ex­cited for our team and all the hard work they’ve put in over the past two years,” says Daniel Calvert, the chef be­hind Belon in Hong Kong, another Asia’s 50 Best new­comer.

It’s easy to ac­cuse the vot­ers of be­ing an old boys’ club, but un­like the Miche­lin Guide, 50 Best vot­ers are more likely to seek out rel­a­tively in­de­pen­dent and novel restau­rants, giv­ing chefs who don’t fit the clas­sic pro­file favoured by Miche­lin a chance to shine.

The up­side of be­ing on the lists is very real. Awards en­cour­age a more vi­brant restau­rant ecosys­tem in which more tal­ent can be re­tained, higher-qual­ity sup­pli­ers can be sourced and fur­ther in­vest­ment can be sought. The vis­i­bil­ity at­tracts new cus­tomers and keeps old ones com­ing back – it cer­tainly doesn’t hurt the busi­ness end (which is, of course, the most im­por­tant end). Calvert says, “Be­tween the awards an­nounce­ment and when I woke up in the morn­ing, we were booked out for the next three weeks.”

The lists give a once un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in­dus­try the at­ten­tion it de­serves, but as the me­dia, com­mu­ni­ca­tors be­tween the in­dus­try and the public, we must re­mem­ber our duty to the av­er­age diner and avoid fall­ing into the echo cham­ber, how­ever plush that red car­pet may seem.

Clockwise from above: Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants stage, pre-cer­e­mony; pi­geon pithivier at Belon; chefs David Calvert from Belon and David Lai from Neigh­bor­hood

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