Michelin as kingmaker for global experience

By Lim Jialiang

I agree that hawker food is woefully unrepresented. However, that’s not really a concern for me because Michelin is less about recognition of our food culture, but the global positioning that it brings to Singapore, and also how this can be used to court higher-value tourists. I am sure that the chefs worked incredibly hard, but when you put it in this light then it makes sense to nominate a few token hawker stores (with stars or bibs) that can stand the tourist scrutiny (like Katong Laksa).

It is interesting to see Michelin play out in this case because of how much conflict of interest there is in this case. This was sponsored by Singapore Tourism Board (STB), and even includes private sponsors like Resort World Sentosa (RWS). So there were a lot of stars awarded to places like RWS, which of course raises the spectre of how the sponsorship is gaming the event. Again, I’d rather put this to even higher-arching purpose of STB, which is again that they are deciding not just what restaurants are good, but which restaurants are actually deserving of representing the hyper-global image Singapore is begging to present. It’s less about authenticity than it is about the presentation of legitimacy. So someone sticking to very local techniques, or the kuehs that we so very love plays second fiddle to Robuchon.

As I am typing this, I realise that Michelin is too big to ignore as a food guide globally. The question that remains is how should we respond to somewhat elitist representations of our food culture. Tan Hseuh Yun seems to have a convenient answer: write more about it yourself. Of course, it is arrogant to say that especially when you consider how not everyone is her, that not everyone has the power to make opinions like her. I respect her as a food critic, but this irks me to a huge degree. It also reminds me of the bent of “constructive criticism”, that complaints about something is invalid simply because you label people as just whining or complaining.

This raises the spectre of what kind of dining experience that you want to have. Now we join cities like Tokyo. As a lot of people know when they ask me about Tokyo, if you have the cash to spend, you can eat extremely well here. But if you’re looking for more eclectic and affordable food options, look outside of Tokyo, or even office districts like Shimbashi during lunch. I’ve always maintained that sushi in Tokyo is good if you spend hundreds of dollars there, but there are equivalent experiences in places like Niigata and Kanazawa that have excellent sushi as well, not to mention seas that are relatively pristine and are off the radar of most tourists.

This is the same for Singapore – there were a huge amount of choices for food that was concentrated around the central area. Surely not a coincidence, as I’ve said. I for one am glad that the Michelin guide here is so ruthlessly pandering to a tourist experience: because this just means that the people who belong here will be able to suss out the real deal.

Note: I feel the need to declare a conflict of interest: I was asked for samples for my brand Demochoco from the Michelin Singapore guide website for an upcoming review, which is run separately from the guide.

Lim is a Singaporean who runs an artisanal chocolate company, Demochoco