We’re in a meeting room in Resorts World Sentosa not far from where it all began, three years ago. Then, the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore unveil had the food-crazy islanders abuzz over having their food scene stratified by one of the world’s most recognised platforms. Crucially, two humble hawkers clinched what most chefs the world over aspire to: the vaunted Michelin star.
At the centre of it all: Michael Ellis, international director of the Guide and the orchestrating brain behind the eyes and ears (or more precisely, the tongues and noses) that are the brand’s anonymous inspectors. The excitement surrounding each iteration of the Guide is something Ellis is familiar with by now, having helmed the team for seven years and having launched a number of inaugural editions in new cities. Come September 14 – a day after unveiling the 2019 Washington D.C. guide – Ellis will leave the role and brand behind, and assume a key position with Dubai-based luxury hospitality giant, Jumeirah Group. The Peak caught him for a tete-a-tete one night before the launch of the last Singapore guide under his watch.
With less than a day to go, can you share any pre-reveal announcements about (2018’s) list?
Well, I will say this. This guide is especially exciting. The breadth and depth of good food you find in Singapore – and also the rock bottom prices – it’s like nowhere else in the world!
We’re really focusing now on hawker food and centres and stalls. There’s just so many of them out there and so much fantastic food to have for just a few Singapore dollars! You can have the most amazing experiences. You just can’t find that anywhere else… and this is considering Hong Kong, Bangkok, even Seoul and Shanghai. None of them, I don’t think, have the depth and breadth and quality that Singapore has. That’s something very exciting that Singaporeans should be proud of – and you are, and rightly so. And so we’re going to continue to shine the light on that this year.
Well, does (2018’s) list in any way represent a watershed year for the Singapore food scene?
It continues to show how dynamic Singapore is. It’s still a highly competitive market, and it’s tough to be in business in Singapore. The financial equation here is such that (thriving) not an easy thing. Whether there’s fine dining or hawker food, the gamut is there, and the audience is there, and they’re arguably the world’s most passionate food lovers! They can get into shouting matches (over favourite haunts), and that’s because there’s great food all over the place. And that’s exciting to have in such a small territory!
So, in retrospect, what will you miss most about the job?
Being on stage with the chefs and seeing the tears of joy we often bring them – you can sometimes feel their hearts pounding through their jacket. (It’s) just the general excitement and awe and pride from being recognised, radiating from the chefs – and that’s true all around the world. How the Guide shines the unique light on their establishments and recognises them as being world class chefs, I think that’s something really unique to Michelin. And it’s such an honour for us to give that recognition.
And did your stint as a commis chef (once upon a time) add to that experience?
Certainly! If you work in the kitchen, you’ll see it’s physically demanding, hot, and (it’s) long hours for not-necessarily-good pay. You do it for passion – it’s all about passion. And it shows through (my interactions) with the chefs. When you’ve walked in their shoes, it does give you some street credibility.
What about the worst part (of the job)?
Effusive joy falters as Ellis considers the curveball.
Well, it would be: To take stars away.
We have to do it, it’s part of the job. It’s no fun. I’ve seen many chefs… well.
It’s a difficult decision to make. But it’s a decision we make after a period a time, after many meals. You may have an accident once, an accident twice, but after the third or fourth time… we must realise it’s no accident. No, we don’t (necessarily) make phone calls; sometimes we do, it depends on the scenario. But they do contact us afterwards. There are chefs who want to listen to us, who look to us and want to take (it) as positive criticism. We can help them… and often they manage to get their star back.
The message that we pass to any and all restaurants and chefs: Objective number one is to fill your restaurant with happy customers who want to come back. If you do that well, Michelin will find you. You don’t have to cook for the Michelin Guide – that’s barking up the wrong tree! Restaurants are businesses – you have to pay the suppliers and staff – make sure you run a thriving business (first and foremost).
Often chefs tend to be part artist as well, and like to express themselves. But they can forget that they have to sell their art to the public. And if the public doesn’t want to buy their art, that’s another problem!
Do you think the up-front funding from governments or government agencies / tourism boards and sponsors is a necessary compromise to bring the Michelin level of inspection to a country?
Well, I have to say, that’s not something that I’m responsible for, and that’s apart from what I do (for the Guide).
I will say this. Look at any big activity: Formula One, yacht races, tennis matches… Rolex sponsors tennis matches, but do they decide who wins the matches? No. Newspapers take advertising from real estate companies selling apartments – but does that influence the editorial line from the newspaper? No.
You know, that’s just part of life, and we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for 118 years, and our reputation and our values are based on our independence, and that’s non-negotiable, and the second we abandon that, that’s the end of the Michelin Guide.
Is it then an unfortunate (situation) that less-developed countries have less funds to put together to bring the Guide in?
Well, I think the number one thing (to consider) before we go to any country is – there’s got to be a thriving gastronomic scene. You’ve got to have restaurants, you know. Tourism is a huge economic motor in the world, and it creates a huge amount of jobs, a huge ecosystem; you’ve got the hotels, the restaurants, the taxis, the shopping, and the nightlife. There’s very few major cities in the world that don’t have a tourist or convention board.
They want to bring in conventions, everybody wants to have well-heeled, high-spending tourists who come to eat, and those tend to be the gastro-tourists, who plan (the day, shopping and visit itinerary) around where they eat, and you see that more and more in the world. And that’s a good trend.
… ultimately we’re there for our readers, as we have been there 118 years ago, where we sent our readers to the best places to find (the best) dining.
Do you yourself get involved operationally in the tastings?
Oh sure, everywhere I go. Because of my position, I’m not anonymous, so therefore I don’t (observe) the deontology of the guide. One of the great pleasures in this job is to taste the local cuisine wherever I am in the world.
Right, but you mean – it doesn’t factor into the actual inspections (assessment).
Oh, no. The only thing I can do in a restaurant is to see if I an (anonymous) inspector comes back and says “See if I you can find what I had”, and I’ll be able to tell if (what I experienced) was just because it was me. Although, that’s hard to do. A chef can’t just, all of a sudden, cook at a one-, two- or three-star level just because we’re at the restaurant. What they can do is pay attention to get the (best cuts) of the fish or meat. Sometimes I eat cold (food), and you can tell that they’ve fussed too much over it in the kitchen. *laughs* That’s not necessarily a good thing.
You must have a pretty decent exercise regime then, to stay in shape.
Oh certainly. I run at least 5km everyday (in the evenings), and try to swim and lift weights. Otherwise I’d fall apart. *laughs*
And how old are you again? (Ellis looks to be his late 40s.)
Any other good habits?
I don’t eat processed food. As long as you’re eating good products that are cooked, and stay away from overly rich products.
Parting words for your readers and the industry?
We’re in our 118th year, and I see ourselves going for another 118 *laughs*. My time at the Guide was the most incredible, exciting and professional experience I ever had. I’d like to think I’m leaving the guide in at least as good a shape as I found it. It is bittersweet indeed but I’m happy to pass on a vibrant Guide to my successor (unannounced as of press time).
All our inspectors around the world have never been more motivated – twice a year I get together with all the heads of the countries, and everyone’s really positive. There’s more and more demand for the unique Michelin light to be shone on each country’s and city’s gastronomy. We think that we continue to play that role of being an international arbiter of what we think is good food.
Stay tuned to The Peak Singapore’s Facebook and this website for live updates and chef reactions from tonight’s Awards Ceremony. Results estimated to stream in beginning 7p.m