Sunday, 3 March 2013

"There Will Be Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth" - Malaysia's Dismal Showing at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants

The news that Malaysia failed to score a single entry on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants has provoked much disbelief and soul-searching.  Was the scoring system broken?  Are Malaysian restaurants just not good enough?  Or is all the brouhaha simply due to the fact we can't accept that we aren't?  I was asked to expand on the points made in my earlier post and try to initiate some constructive discussion.

25 February 2013 was not a good day to be Malaysian.

It was the day when the world’s top chefs and food critics came together at Marina Bay Sands and gave a simple message to our restaurant industry: “You are simply not good enough”.  Indonesia got a restaurant onto the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 list, hell, even Vietnam and Sri Lanka got one each. 

We didn’t.

I should start by saying no, of course the list is not infallible.  We have debated endlessly the strengths and weaknesses of how the list (and its parent World’s 50 Best Restaurants) is compiled.

But at the very least, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 must serve as a reality check for Malaysia’s restaurant industry, particularly at the high-end.  Whither Cilantro, for example, by common acclaim Malaysia's best restaurant and until recently a shoo-in for the Miele Guide's Top 10 restaurants in Asia?  After all, there is no systemic bias against Malaysia; the Academy (i.e. the voting panel which determines who gets on the Best 50 lists) contains more than a handful of Malaysians and foreigners living in Malaysia, including Leisa Tyler, the regional chairperson for both the World’s and Asia’s 50 Best.  

The sad truth is that Malaysia's high-end restaurants are far from world-class, and that if the selection process does not include popular voting (which the Miele Guide's does and Asia's 50 Best Restaurants doesn't), Malaysian restaurants do not stand a very good chance of being counted among the region's heavyweights.  The next time you visit a top-end Malaysian restaurant, critically examine the dining experience as you would in Tokyo, Paris or New York.  Chances are it won't fare very well.  I was not particularly impressed by Cilantro when I visited in late 2012.  Its intelligent wine list aside, I do not rate the sum of its food and service any higher than a very good Singaporean mid-tier restaurant.

I think a comparison between Singapore (which had 10 entries in Asia’s 50 Best and four in the top 15) and Malaysia’s major food festivals is illuminating.  For 16 years, Singapore’s World Gourmet Summit has invited top international chefs (including the likes of Ferran Adrià, Alain Passard and Tetsuya Wakuda) to showcase their talents in Singapore.  Malaysia’s International Gourmet Festival on the other hand, brings together only local restaurants to put on “Festival Menus”.  I cannot quantify the very real and immense benefit to Singapore’s gourmandise of exposing its diners to food from the world’s best chefs, and giving its chefs the chance to work with, learn from and be inspired by these high achievers.  The proof lies in the fact that three of Singapore’s top 4 in Asia’s 50 Best are entirely home-grown concepts (I count André amongst this number because it is chef-owner André Chiang’s only restaurant and his backers are Singaporean), and that Singaporean Janice Wong won Asian Pastry Chef of the Year.  In cuisine terms, Singapore has turned its eyes to the world, whereas Malaysia stubbornly continues to look inward.

This insularity also pervades the quality of restaurant criticism in Malaysia.  A lot of hype about top-end Malaysian restaurants is driven by ill-informed, inexperienced opinion, with much of this found in the blogosphere.  The bulk of these people either (a) don't frequent restaurants of this calibre (including those overseas) on any regular basis and therefore do not know what they are eating or how to assess it; (b) take comps from the restaurants and are therefore unable to present independent criticism of their experience; or worse still, (c) both.  How then, are the restaurants meant to reflect on their offering when such "criticism" (which barely deserves the dignity of the title) comes only from insincere or unknowledgeable sycophants?

Wait, you argue, maybe Mozaic and Nihonbashi are one-offs, maybe they don’t reflect the real state of Indonesia’s and Sri Lanka’s restaurant scenes.  Well, I’m not sure which depresses me more, the thought that Malaysia’s restaurant industry does not boast even one visionary or high achiever of that calibre, or that our dining public will not support such a restaurant.  On any view, Malaysia is a far more prosperous nation than either of those, so what really gives?  Do we value taste too much, at the expense of all else?  Or are we too cost/value-minded to be willing to pay the price for excellence?

Service in Malaysian restaurants also remains a perennial problem.  With our natural sense of hospitality, we could so easily turn this into a strength, much in the way the Thais have.  We already have the advantage of having a largely English-fluent population, which the Thais don't have.  But if we don’t get people with passion, intelligence and ability to enter the industry, what chance do we really have?  Pay them more, train them more, for God's sake, let people see service as a viable career path, maybe even a stepping stone to a more lucrative posting overseas (which it is).

Until we, the dining public, learn to demand better, the rest of the gastronomic world will continue on its course to waters fair, while Malaysia will simply be left bobbing somewhere in the ocean of mediocrity.  We, and restaurateurs in Malaysia, should not allow this to happen.  

And therein lies the true value of lists such as Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.  It allows us, pleads with us, as diners, industry people, etc. to look at what others are doing, as well as at oneself and see where one is falling short.  With some of the world's fastest-growing economies, Asia in all its wondrous facets is leaping ahead in bounds.  Asia's 50 Best Restaurants shows that its restaurant scene is developing at a similar rate.  It also shows that Malaysia is being left out of the party.

I welcome any views in the comments.  I hope we can engage in productive discussion which will be of some benefit to all stakeholders, whether from the industry or the public.

Julian Teoh is a proud Malaysian and a voter in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy (Southeast Asia South Division).  


  1. Malaysia always has a service issue. Perfection isn't part of the culture, so there is an inherent challenge to any want-to-be gourmet aspirations. Secondly, it is hard to teach this as good food is cheap food, so no one is willing to spend their own dosh on a quasi-gourmet experience, just so that the restaurant can improve themselves to be top notch.

  2. You are right about the insularity of Malaysia's food scene. Perhaps what differentiates Singapore or Tokyo is the amount of vlow-through business travel which enable an exchange of culinary ideas and experiences - both for the diners, but more importantly, the chefs, cooks, and service staff. One can see why a chef would stop over in Singapore briefly for the World Gourmet Summit, perhaps enroute to Europe or Australia.... but a stopover in Malaysia is out of the question! And so, it becomes isolated. HOWEVER, one must wonder why Sri Lanka or Indonesia can avoid such a curse!

  3. Emily McPherson11 March 2013 at 22:30

    We need to take note of the cusines which are offered by these restaurants. I feel this may be the source of the poor performance. The restaurants which faired highly in other developing Asian countries as a general rule have cuisines local to their regions. For example, Don's in Hanoi has great Vietnamese fare, Mozaic has an Indonesian offering, Dum Pukht in India has the cuisine of its namesake etc. The echelons of European fine dining excellence are left for the developed Asian cities of Singapore, HK, Shanghai, etc. And there lies our problem.

    Malaysia needs to be good at MALAYSIAN fine dining, if it has any hope. But, Malaysian food itself has a huge range and is hard to classify, and therefore harder to embrace than other cuisines. A simple example - ask someone on the street about what Indian, Thai or Vietnamese food is like, and most will have a classical answer. Malaysia proves a quagmire. It isn't spectacularly familiar with most people, even on the food scene. Beef Rendang might be the word which comes up, if anything.... but it's hardly worth a fine dining experience!

    Yes, there are some distinctive local cooking styles (Nonya comes to mind, or the indigenous foods from Borneo) but it needs someone to champion them. And yes, there are some great Malaysia chefs (think of Poh of Poh's Kitchen, or Adrian Ling of Pamplemousse) but they are not in Malaysia.

    If some homegrown talent returned, this is the best chance Malaysia has. I hope it does, because the food is worth sharing with the world.

    1. Emily,

      Sorry for my late response.

      I don't believe it is accurate to say that Mozaic has an Indonesian offering. The influence is definitely there, but the cuisine is based on French / European technique.

      Promoting Malaysian cuisine is of course worthwhile, but again, we need to acknowledge that much of the world's foodie focus is on restaurants and chef-driven enterprises, and it is on delivering the entire package that Malaysia falls short.

      There is no doubt that Malaysia has given rise to some great chefs. Many have left for greater professional and financial reward and indeed, there are many very talented Malaysian chefs plying their craft in Singapore and doing very well indeed. But regardless of whether they are cooking Malaysian cuisine, their talents would be a very welcome boost for the local industry.

      This applies equally to the service sector. There are many very talented expatriate Malaysians on the other side of the pass, whose professionalism would grace any of the world's great tables. Sommelier Rajesh Gopal, whom I last saw at db Bistro and was recently named Southeast Asia's best sommelier, is a prime example of this breed.

  4. "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

    Actually no, there wasn't. Malaysia's food scene is primarily about serving a small (ie. not Japan) local (ie. not tourists in Vietnam or Sri Lanka) population which isn't particularly top-heavy with bankers or other corporate-account types (ie. not HK or SG).

    The very best of its cooks are craft-driven locavores working at an artisanal scale and producing food which is congruent with their climate and culture - just go back to your last Ipoh article to confirm this. If this is being "left behind", please, just show me where to get off the bandwagon.

    Our problem isn't that we won't to pay USD 50 for a plate for food whose main ingredient has been snipped out of a vacuum pack and flashed onto the grill after being delivered by a long global supply chain (wherever does all that wagyu, lobster and foie gras consumed in high-end Asia outside Japan come from ?)

    It is that we won't pay more than USD 2 for a superb plate of noodles which cannot possibly be fried in any greater quantity in each wok than it already is, or more than USD 3 for sparklingly fresh chubby grilled squid, or more than USD 10 for a carefully-sourced beautifully-handled steamed fresh-water fish. The frying skills, the fish, and not to mention the hands that caught, carried, washed and prepped, are under-priced commodities in Malaysia, and the economic problem is resolving itself, as these things normally do, through diminished supply.

    Malaysia's absence on a silly list of 'best' restaurants ? Sigh. Someone else can worry about it.

    nb. I have to say it is a very silly list. Japanese restaurants in India and Sri Lanka ahead of Ishikawa ??

  5. Anonymous,

    There is no doubt that Malaysia has a wonderful eating-out culture. My argument is that it does not have a well-developed restaurant culture. Yes, our default conception of restaurant culture does have an Occidental bias, but that is equally due to the fact that not many nations in SE Asia have a homegrown restaurant, as opposed to an eating-out, culture.

    But craft-driven locavores are not restricted to hawker stalls and "dai chow" joints. So many other "best restaurants" fall within that genre; we could look to Noma and Arpege for examples of this, but need go no further than Nahm in Bangkok or Dum Pukht in New Delhi, or the various restaurants in South America looking to exploit their native bounty. In their cooking, there is nothing at all pretentious or alien to the local culture, and maybe less still coming out of a vacuum bag.

    It is interesting that you have picked out USD50 (RM156)as a benchmark. Many well-travelled Malaysians complain about having to pay RM70 (USD22) for a main course in KL. Why is this, when these same people are increasingly affluent and indulging their appetites in Japan, Hong Kong and France? Could a likely cause be that they do not perceive that they are getting value even at that lower price point, so perhaps their expectations as to the quality of the food, service or accoutrements has not been met?

    That Malaysia does not have a well-developed restaurant culture is no cause for alarm. But there are a lot of people who believe that Malaysian restaurant dining is world-class, and that Malaysia deserved a spot on the list. My reference to the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" was based on conversations with Malaysians who belong to that group.

    As I acknowledged, the merits or otherwise of the list have been well-trawled through so I would rather not turn the debate in that direction.

  6. That's a great distinction to make between an 'eating out' culture and a 'restaurant culture.'

    For a dining culture to truly shine, there needs to be people with the ability to pay and, while there are a few in Malaysia, most of the middle class can't afford, or don't value, such fine dining on a regular basis. At this moment, I'm of the opinion that it's simple supply and demand...?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Yum List.

      I think you are right that supply-and-demand plays a very big part in this, but a small hypothetical naturally follows: if a restaurant is doing a roaring trade (i.e. demand exceeds supply), does it seek to push the envelope and aspire to a Michelin / Miele / 50 Best rating, and risk losing some of its existent clientele? This is a huge business risk for any restaurant, and is one many ascending Michelin-starred restaurants face.

      And can an international clientele then take its place? Many top restaurants such as Tetsuya's (North Americans), Taillevent (ditto) or Andre (lots of French, Indons and HKers when I went) boast big overseas clienteles, but this may be partly due to their locations. I'm not sure that KL is well-placed for this because not many gastro-tourists going to KL are thinking "fine dining". Most of them are thinking casual and street foods, which Malaysia does extremely well.

  7. To be in lists such as Asia's 50 Best Restaurants or as a voter in World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy (Southeast Asia South Division). It is all in the hands of the people. Unless the judgement are really fair, which I had doubts in it, when especially when such awards always look for sponsors from the F&B industry, I can say that a rich big boys can be listed as the top if they were able to provide money to support such awards.

    All the acclaimed best restaurants can be skeptical, with the comparison of countries’ economies, accessibility, services, food preparation, and so forth.

    If you are looking forward the positioning, ask the eaters or restaurateurs, instead of the possibility of bias judges then.
    Malaysia, a multicultural and multiracial country, is always famous with our local food. If we ask other countries to cook Malaysia food to be listed in a Malaysia’s food list, I have doubts they can do better. If to be listed as Asia’s 50 best restaurants, why don’t just focus in Asia food instead of European or western food then?

    No one 100% says that Cilantro is the best in town; and did you or other judges really had already explore every restaurants in Malaysia, or even in Asia, to be disagree Malaysia food is that terrible to be listed then?

    Comparison of Singapore’s World Gourmet Summit and Malaysia’s International Gourmet Festival, this got to be the matter of network of the chefs, not because the international chefs impress purely Singapore to be involved in such events. Want to know which country performs better? Might as well survey how many Singaporean chefs and how many Malaysian chefs are being known as international instead. Plus, there are non-Malaysian chefs are proud to represent Malaysia, there must be a reason behind.

    "criticism" is meant for individuals to improve to become better if one person takes it positively, but when a personal attack "criticism" defined as just for the pleasure of someone being delighted when the opposition to replies back to the critics.

    “Or are we too cost/value-minded to be willing to pay the price for excellence?” sorry, maybe not in mass, but there are Malaysian or people staying at Malaysia really pays for the value, environment, and excellence; maybe you have not met them yet. By the way, we do have places for the international celebrities to be amazed to dine in in places that you have not been.

    There are places where Service in Malaysia are doing pretty good. Well like the comments above, not everyone is perfect, mind me, not even Singapore’s services are perfect. Check this out:

    overall, if most of us think that Malaysian's mind-set is moving towards the ‘whether the food is worth for value’ or not, Malaysian is tend to be trained with the exposure of getting the experiences and knowledge what is classified as fine dining, cheers.

    1. Anonymous,

      You bring up a lot of issues, so I will address them point by point just to make sure I am not missing out on anything. I think, however, that you are confusing a lot of the issues.

      Fairness - Asia's (and the World's) 50 Best is openly sponsored by San Pellegrino and associated industry suppliers (Cacao Barry, etc.). It does not accept any sponsorship from restaurants. I do not earn a cent from anyone associated with the awards, although I wish I did. I understand that it is common in Malaysia for restaurant awards to be bought by sponsorship. 50 Best is not one such.

      "Ask the eaters / restaurateurs" - The bulk of the 900-odd voting panel are chefs and restaurateurs scattered across the globe, including those who run some of the world's finest eating establishments (although they are not permitted to vote for their own restaurants). I would rather not ask the eaters. If we threw the doors open to a popular vote, the results wouldn't be any different from Zagat's. Then we might as well get all the rubbish teenage bloggers casting a vote as well, and where would that leave us?

      Asian Food - The awards are trying to find Asia's best restaurants, not the restaurants serving the best Asian cuisine. The difference is significant.

      No one is saying that these awards prove that Malaysian food sucks. No one is saying that they can cook Malaysian cuisine better than Malaysians, which is what your argument seems to be implying. For me, the awards are an indicator that Malaysian restaurant culture / standards are not where a lot of people think they are. I am a proud Malaysian and I love my local food - you only need to read my recent odes to Ipoh food to know that those are foods which really sing to my soul and who I am. Of course there are world-class eating places in Malaysia serving amazing food. But outside of the food, are they comparable with the region's and the world's best in providing an all-round restaurant experience?

      Cilantro - By common consensus, Cilantro is indisputably a top-tier Malaysian restaurant, even if it is not THE best. You sound like you know a lot about the Malaysian dining scene. Could you please recommend some other top-tier restaurants which you believe would merit a place in the 50 Best?

      WGS v MIGF - I'm not certain what point you are trying to make here. WGS has managed to build a reputation over the years as a world-class event. It is now its own attraction and many talented chefs want to get involved in it. MIGF tried something similar in 2007 when it invited Arnaud Lallement, Anton Mosimann, etc. as part of the build-up. I don't know what happened after that; maybe the GFC intervened but the international chefs programme was dropped. I think that was a big loss to young Malaysian chefs and the dining public.

      Criticism - I never advocated personal attacks through restaurant reviewing. If you read any of my writing, I take pains to justify my critiques because I want them to be constructive. I generally do not write negative reviews unless I think someone is genuinely taking the piss.

      My point was if that if you have inexperienced reviewers who do not know what they are eating and what they should expect, how can they bring their critical faculties to bear at all? The simple answer is that they can't.

      Perfection - I never argued that Singapore was perfect. Far from it. But at its high-end restaurants, service faults are few and far between. In Malaysia, I almost expect them. Sure there may be systemic or structural reasons why this is the case, but I can only assess what I experience and vote on that basis.

      While there are few points of agreement between us, I thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

  8. Dear julien,
    First of all i would like to thank you deeply for your blog post dated 3rd march 2013, i always thaught i was the only one thinking the same...Why are Malaysian restaurants not listed on the culinary map of the world??? After reading your post i finally relized i was not alone.
    I am a chef and have cooked and runned professional kitchens for 14years. It has been a year since my return from a 2 year sebattical in france, working along side some of the best chefs in the world, as well as interned in some of the top restaurants around paris.
    I returned back to malaysia, armed with a new knowledge and skill set. I thaught i was ready to change everything. Trully, "25th february 2013 was not a good day to be malaysian" though i was not there to witness what took place in marina bay sands. I fully agree that we are good enough.
    But the question is, what do we do about it...
    Let me dissect the situation of the restaurant industry in malaysia.
    1. It starts from the culinary schools, how we educate, teach our fellow young malaysians, is how they would perform in a professional kitchen. Evedently, during a job interview, most of them cant poach a egg perfectly, nor cut vegetables perfectly in a perfect uniform state.
    2. Gastronomy and "fine dining"per se is segemented by class, unfortunately only the rich can afford to dine.
    2.1 it is a long educational process on how we educate customers in current food trends, and hopefully they would be light minded to accept the thaught and effort put onto the plate.
    3. Is the miele guide, Timeout KL best restaurants justified? Are they infallible? Then why, not 1 malaysian restaurant is listed in Asia's 50 best restaurants list. Its domestic gastro propaganda.
    4. Service....ahhhh service! We are overly dependent on foreign labour, period. There is no nessasity for me to elobrate, because when you pay peanuts, you get people whom are not qualified.
    5. Supply chain...we as chefs want to celebrate "excellence du terroir" which means, what our land has to offer, take for example the royal project in thailand, where the king fully supports home grown agriculture for local domestic consumption which in results to long term sustainability. However because of high inflation rates, corruption and increased price hikes. It is really hard to convince artisanal farmers and growers.
    What do we do about the situation. Well...
    My restaurant is scheduled to open in mid april 2014, located in damansara empire. It is based on a chefs table concept with a daily changing ala carte depending on what is seasonal. My end goal is to change things in the malaysian restaurant scene, by celebrating local agriculture, building a institution for fresh grads to harness their skills, to provide excellence in cuisine, patisserrie and hospitality. And most importantly make it affordable for everyone to enjoy a par excellence dining expierience. And i am hopefull it will finally earn a place in the guide, and just maybe earning a michelin star. But this process takes time and it all comes down to self belief and perserverance.
    If you have the time, please follow me on my facebook page for updates on my upcoming restaurant, it would be a honour cooking for you one day. Lastly, please have faith and belief that one day a restaurant representing malaysia will be listed in the guide soon.

  9. Hello Darren,

    Thank you for your detailed comment. Clearly, you have thought a lot about what the issues are, and hopefully also what you can do to solve them when it comes to opening your restaurant. I also hope you can implement those steps successfully in the face of the structural problems which you have identified.

    I am not going to take issue with the self-promotion at the end of your comment, because frankly, I like your ambition and I certainly think that Malaysia would benefit greatly if we had a lot more people aiming high such as yourself.

    You have put a lot of pressure on yourself by proclaiming your ambitions so openly, but I wish you the very best in achieving them. So please do let me know when you have hit your stride at the restaurant; I would definitely be interested to see what you are coming up with, and what you will be doing differently to set yourself apart in the market.

  10. Hi Julian,

    Before reading your entry, I have spoken to a few relevant people in Singapore and Malaysia about the exclusion of Malaysia's restaurants in the list and they have the same comment like yours. Overpriced menus and bad services are quite common in Malaysia due to inflation (including high rentals), lack of quality ingredients and employment of foreign workers. I do agree that some of the restaurants in Malaysia offer good food but are they good enough to make it to the list, I'm sure you knows better than me.

    I hope one day there will be a restaurant from Malaysia makes it to the list and I hope that one day will come soon.