News analysis

Use buzz to fire up Singapore's food scene and raise standards

Michelin is counting on your outrage.

The gastronomic guide, which launched its Singapore edition on Thursday night, is counting on you to ask why four restaurants at Resorts World Sentosa, which hosted the ceremony, were given stars.

It is counting on you to wonder why a sushi restaurant, Shoukouwa at One Fullerton, which opened barely four months ago, was awarded two stars.

It is counting on you to puzzle over how a restaurant with tablecloths, a wine list and refined food gets the same star rating as a self-service hawker stall.

It is counting on you to ask why so many restaurants on the list are backed by celebrity chefs, and why young Singapore ones who are doing interesting things in food have been overlooked.

It is counting on you to ask: Where's Willin? Where's Violet? Willin Low from Wild Rocket and Violet Oon from National Kitchen both serve food that is close to the hearts of Singaporeans but in very different ways. Mr Low brands his food as modern Singaporean cuisine and Ms Oon strives for authenticity in her Singapore dishes at a time when shortcuts are easily forgiven.

It is counting on you to question why the Michelin inspectors did not eat more widely and include more casual restaurants in the guide.

It is counting on chest-beating and hair-tearing to generate buzz. Buzz drives eyeballs to its website, buzz sells guides, buzz keeps the guide relevant.

The famous red book, a sort of go-to guide for people who love to eat, is published in more than 24 territories across three continents. It could not have survived for 116 years if the French tyre company that puts it out had not been uncannily canny.

Michelin showed its ingenuity from the start.

The guide, listing hotels and restaurants around France, was meant to encourage people to buy more cars and, therefore, more tyres.

When its three-star rating system began in 1931, chefs started to take it very seriously. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 on rumours that his restaurant, La Cote d'Or, could lose one of its three stars.

It brought into sharp relief the high stakes involved in the chasing of stars and, in a perverse way, burnished the reputation of Michelin as the final arbiter of what makes a restaurant worth visiting.

But in an age of TripAdvisor and Yelp, where diners can praise or trash restaurants, Michelin has had to find ways of extending its longevity.

Hence the expansion into Asia. It started with Tokyo in 2007, and Hong Kong and Macau in 2009. Singapore is the first South-east Asian country to have a guide and those for Shanghai and Seoul are to follow. Michelin is said to be eyeing Bangkok too.

Nothing whips up buzz like controversy.

There was an uproar when Tokyo received more stars than Paris in its inaugural guide. Buzz. There is also the yearly outrage when puzzling choices turn up in the Hong Kong and Macau guide. Guaranteed buzz every year.

Singapore should be as canny as Michelin and use the guide in as mercenary a way as possible to add lustre to the food scene here and to improve its standards.

Young Singapore chefs are under-represented on the list. Jason Tan of Corner House and Malcolm Lee of Candlenut fly the flag high but there are many more talented chefs who can and should make it to the list.

Chefs who have told me, "My restaurant isn't the kind of restaurant Michelin likes", need to eat their words. If two hawker stalls, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle can each get one star, why not you? The choice of restaurants by Michelin inspectors is nothing if not, well, eclectic.

Chefs who are labouring in celebrity chef-driven restaurants: Have you thought of striking out on your own? With the Michelin Guide now set to be a fixture here, there has never been a better time to make a splash on the dining scene and see where your talent takes you.

If the "Michelin effect" happens, then perhaps my bugbears about the food scene will fade away.

Publicists will have to get better, preferably overnight, so that they can put the restaurants they represent on the radar of Michelin inspectors. Badly written, barely grammatical press releases will, hopefully, be a thing of the past.

Service, always spotty in Singapore, must get better too, since the inspectors do not just look at the food. A good meal must never again be ruined by bad service.

The Michelin Guide offers plenty of opportunities but Singapore will have to know how to make the most of them.

With any luck, we might become a nation of more discerning eaters. If you disagree with Michelin's choices, find better ones and write about them in blogs, shout out about them on social media and tell everyone you know.

Save the outrage and the sneers. Stop rolling your eyes. It is time to get to work.

www.facebook.com/tanhsuehyun

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Use buzz to fire up food scene and raise standards'. Print Edition | Subscribe