(PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - At the Wynn Hotel in Macau, where chefs and restaurateurs have gathered with food journalists and bloggers from the world over, the air is full of whispers, with sly winks and nudges all around.
At one table, journalists are arguing why Gaggan, the exuberant chef of the eponymous restaurant in Bangkok, cannot get voted as Asia’s Top Restaurant again.
There are conspiracy theories on why Restaurant Andre really closed - and speculation on whether or not the judges of the awards will include him on the list even as he has just closed his signature restaurant in Singapore.
By the time this article comes out, the winners of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants will have been announced, the list released and the same journalists will fly home ready to transcribe fresh interviews with the significant winners.
The dissection and discussion will continue in print, online and in social media.
And there will be the usual accusations that the list is biased, commercialised, a big publicity stunt and, most important, that it is of very little value to the vast majority of the population.
I actually agree with the last part to some extent. It is like when golfers get together and start nattering on about handicaps and swings and the most difficult 18th they have played, my eyes roll backwards in their sockets and I tune out.
Ditto with analyses of the stock market, insider’s tips, Formula One racing and so on.
It is like being in high school and discovering, to your horror, that you have managed to join the lunch table of the Dungeons & Dragons crowd.
Similarly, to most people, the inside story of the politics surrounding the 50 Best Restaurants list is of little or no interest at all.
However, I would argue that while the minutiae surrounding the actual inclusion of a particular restaurant does not really concern the average reader, the list is, in fact, of great importance.
This year, for instance, the big news from the Philippines is already out: Jordy Navarra’s Toyo Eatery has won The One To Watch - not an inclusion on the list, but an enormous honour nonetheless. It is the springboard to the higher ranks in a year or two, if Toyo plays its cards right.
Margarita Fores remains in the pantheon as Best Female Chef of 2016 and she collaborated with the winners of 2014 and 2015 for a “six hands” lunch that was widely acclaimed.
Food tourism has become a big deal.
I remember when I started writing about travel, back in the days I was travelling more often than not, and writing that this mad-rush visit to the cathedrals, temples or ruins, was overrated, and that one could learn much more about a city by sitting down in a restaurant, eating the local cuisine and watching the locals go about their business.
These days, I find myself in the awkward position of having to reverse my stance and insist that people make an effort to go to museums, the Colosseum, the palace - even if doing so means you will miss the lunch booking in the two-Michelin-starred restaurant you made four months in advance.
Culinary tourists who fly in and go from one celebrity restaurant to the other make me nervous. They insist that the cuisine must be local, the ingredient locally sourced the menu reflective of the culture of the country or city.
It sounds as though they are looking for the knowledge of a civilisation or of a people to be served up to them on a plate - or maybe 10 plates, as part of a degustation menu.
This is not the role food should play, this is not a burden that restaurants should assume.
Restaurants are great bastions of civilisation, but they should not take the place of the civilisation itself.
Food studies session
In the Wynn Hotel ballroom, where the plenary session and discussion took place the day before the awards ceremony, the air was thick with talk about identity, the indigenous, what “native” meant, going back to one’s roots, what philosophical approach a chef should take to sourcing and cooking ingredients - topics that seemed to have been plucked out of an undergraduate Food Studies elective and put in a big hall with gilded ceilings and chandeliers.
I believe chefs should be engaged in cooking not just delicious, but also meaningful and important food, and that they should go about creating - their restaurants, menus, concepts - in a mindful, thoughtful way.
But I do not believe that they should be made to answer those questions, which is the job of food writers and scholars.
In the worst-case scenario, what could happen is analogous to what transpired when creative writing was put under the aegis of university degree programs. Writers became critics, and began writing to please critics rather than express themselves.
The list - while controversial, ephemeral or flawed like any human endeavour - is a continuing statement that food matters and that it is something more than what we eat to feed ourselves.
Well-heeled “completists” will manage about half of the list. Most of us would be lucky to get to go to more than a handful of the restaurants on the Asia’s Top 50 list, more so the World’s 50 Best list.
For every naysayer who says that all this hype is out of proportion and it is only food, it is not because it is about people. It is about the farmer who grows speciality mushrooms, about people like myself who sit by a keyboard and type out opinions about what we just ate.
But most of all, it is about the cooks - who peel, scrape, boil and reduce, broil, bake and torch and ferment and plate and serve and clear, and who think, night after night, how to make people eat better.
All of us, including the much-feared judges of the list, are there to celebrate the act of creation that they and so many others do - often to so little reward.