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Is Singapore still on track to become the dining capital of Asia?

A stunning debut and impressive climbs mixed with a few tumbles by popular favourites - after the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list was unveiled - leave food for thought for Singapore chefs and industry watchers.

First, there are the bragging rights: Singapore is now home to three out of Asia’s top 10 restaurants and nearly one-fifth of the region’s best, according to the 2017 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List released Tuesday (Feb 22).

Inching up one spot to second position is Restaurant Andre by celebrated Taiwanese celebrity chef, Andre Chiang, who also took home the Best Restaurant in Singapore award. Odette made its maiden appearance on the list in 9th place and also clinched a Highest New Entry Award for having the highest debut by a restaurant in the awards’ five-year history.

Tailing just behind in 10th place is Burnt Ends, a barbecue-centric restaurant helmed by Australian chef David Pynt and co-owned by Chiang, which climbed up four positions from last year, and took home the peer-voted Chef’s Choice Award. In addition, Tippling Club also bettered itself by five positions to finish in 17th place.

 

But there were also some slips: more than half of the other Singapore restaurants on the list fell from their 2016 rankings – some tumbling by as many as 23 spots. Les Amis went from 12th last year to 16th place this year, Waku Ghin from 6th to 20th, Corner House from 17th to 23rd, Jaan from 29th to 42nd, and Shinji By Kanesaka from 21th to 44th place.

Iggy’s and Wild Rocket – 36th and 38th respectively on last year’s list – both did not register onto 2017’s round up. This brings the total number of Singapore restaurants on the list down to nine from last year’s 10, tying it with that of China, Japan and Thailand.

“Singapore restaurants did really well this year. Although people wonder if Singapore is really a culinary destination, this year’s results says everything. I think we made Singapore proud,” says Chiang, whose Restaurant Andre pipped last year’s second-placed restaurant, Amber in Hong Kong, to finish just below third-time winner Gaggan in a suspense-fraught finish at the awards ceremony held in Bangkok’s W Hotel on Tuesday evening.

“We’ve been only open for 16 months, so it’s a fantastic achievement for the team to be recognised so quickly. We take it as a reward and as motivation to push even higher and to deliver more every day,” says Odette’s Julien Royer. Though a new entrant to the 2017 ranks, he previously led Jaan to clinch 11th place on the 2015 list before leaving to set up Odette later that year.

Singapore’s overall performance is “a mark that it has arrived as a culinary destination,” adds Royer, who has been cooking in Singapore for seven years. “It sounds like a paradox because we have no produce and import 95 per cent of the food we consume, but the logistics, the location and the people is what makes it so diverse, so rich and such a unique place to cook in the world.”

The unhalting growth of the restaurant industry, fuelled by increased competition thanks to awards such as the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the launch of a Singapore edition of the Michelin Guide last year helps to keep standards high in Singapore, he adds: “Everyone is striving for quality, and everyone has to do better to survive in this aggressive and competitive city.”

“We got a good head start as the first host country of the Asia’s 50 Best Awards and with the Michelin Guide, but it’s difficult for restaurants to succeed in Singapore because of the high cost structure. At the same time, our regional neighbours from Malaysia to Manila are really upping their game,” observes restaurant consultant Raymond Lim.

In Thailand, for instance, the Royal Project, an agriculture programme founded by the late Thai King to support the livelihood of hill tribes the northern provinces, now provides the country’s top chefs with premium local produce that was otherwise being imported. The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, has just announced it will be boosting its budget allocation in support of food festivals, piloting a brand new food truck scheme, on top of waiving license fees for restaurants and hawkers for one year in an effort to boost tourism.

“To maintain Singapore’s poll lead, we have to pay more attention to our local chefs, because foreign chefs can always uproot to move elsewhere, where there is cheaper labour and a lower cost of running businesses,” Lim adds. “The Korean restaurants on the list are run by Korean chefs, and same for the Japanese, so I am disappointed that we don’t see enough of people like Han Liguang, Willin Low and Malcolm Lee on the list. Our local boys are rooted here and we have to give them the tail width for them to shine.”

But the sole Singaporean chef on the list, Jason Tan, who helms modern French fine dining restaurant, Corner House, differs: “We were hoping that we can maintain more or less the same ranking, and we are really happy to be on the list for a second year.”

“Whether the restaurant’s head chef is Singaporean or not is not something that matters – after all, my kitchen team is made up of Malaysians, Singaporeans and more. As long as we are all representing Singapore and helping to put the country on the map, it’s already a great honour,” says Tan.

For Royer, the awards have an additional uptick: it helps him to fill his team with more aspiring local chefs. “To be very honest, as soon as you run a restaurant that has received awards, you start receiving more resumes. And in Singapore, everyone knows that there’s a lot of difficulty recruiting Singaporeans in the hospitality industry.”

Another point of contention for some industry watchers is the lack of new Singapore entries to a list clad with predictable frontrunners but Evelyn Chen, a local food writer and regional academy chair for World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, observes: “It’s often a chicken-and-egg situation. When foodies come to Singapore, they want to try restaurants that are already on the list.”

Modern Singaporean Restaurant Labyrinth, Chen points out, was selected for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s Discovery Series this year, which features restaurants that have been shortlisted and voted for by global list’s over 1,000 panellists but that have not made the top 50. In the past, Singapore restaurants such as Corner House and Wild Rocket featured on the series before making the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, she adds. “There’s a chance that as more people know about and visit these restaurants, they may make the list. But it’s a slower process. Unlike many countries on the list, Singapore is only 50 years old – our cuisine is not as established, it’s fairly young.”

And with the recent awarding of a Michelin star to two hawker stalls in Singapore, others have expressed hope for more types of restaurants in Singapore, beyond just fine dining outposts, to be represented among the selections.

“As long as the food is good, any restaurant can stand a chance,” says Chen. “Burnt Ends is testament to that. It’s not fine dining, there’s no formality, no reservations, and little service in that you are being served by the chef over the counter, and yet it made the list and did well.”

Other awards handed out this year include a Lifetime Achievement award to China-based Italian chef Umberto Bombana, the Asia’s Best Female Chef award to Hong Kong’s May Chow, the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef award to Kazutoshi Narita of Esquisse in Tokyo, the One to Watch award to Toc Toc in Seoul, the Highest Climber Award to Locavore in Bali and the inaugural Art of Hospitality in Asia award to Japan’s Den.

The list is created from the votes of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, a group of over 300 leaders in the restaurant industry across Asia, such as food writers and critics, chefs, restaurateurs and diners. Members list their choices in order of preference, based on their best restaurant experiences of the previous 18 months and there is no pre-determined check-list of criteria.

“A list like this is always going to be contentious, seeing how it is limited by the number of entries and opinions,” observes veteran food editor Don Mendoza, who was surprised by the exclusion of stalwarts such as Wild Rocket, Iggy’s and Joel Robuchon, Singapore’s sole three-Michelin-starred restaurant. “Unless the number of Singapore restaurants to make the list is significant, it really doesn’t say much about our vibrant and uniquely diverse dining landscape, or the talent it has embraced and nurtured in a relatively short time.”

At the end of the day, awards are at best an indicator of an industry and a restaurant’s growth, and not the final goal, say many of the chefs.

“Getting these awards is not just a one time thing, it’s an everyday effort. We’ve work hard for the past seven years to stay on the list, and to keep moving up slowly year after year. Last year, we create 186 dishes over 365 days just for Restaurant Andre. So every day brings a new challenge for us,” muses Chiang.

“These awards is significant, but what matters the most is that the restaurant is fully booked everyday for lunch and dinner and that our guests leave the restaurant with a smile, this is our daily priority,” says Royer.