Sunday, 5 October 2014

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 - Big Changes on the Way

Now approaching its third year, the rules for the annual Asia's 50 Best Restaurants have undergone major changes. I believe that all in all, these changes are positive, but I question their timing and motivation.

In short, Asia's 50 Best will be split off from the World's 50 Best. What this means in practice is:

1. There are now two separate pools of voters in Asia, one for the World's 50 Best and one for Asia's 50 Best.  The Asia's 50 Best voters are all resident in Asia.

2. Any votes cast by World's 50 Best voters (even those resident in Asia) for Asian restaurants will count only towards the World's 50 Best, but will not count towards Asia's 50 Best.

3. Voters previously cast four votes in their demarcated "region".  Now, Asia's 50 Best voters can cast up to four votes for restaurants in their country of residence, and the remaining three for restaurants in other Asian countries.

4.  The number of voters will be increased, so the influence of each individual voter (along with his/her particular biases and eccentricities) will be diminished.

I believe these are positive changes for various reasons. In fact, when Asia's 50 Best was first being conceptualised, I suggested to the organisers that it should be kept wholly separate from the World's 50 Best. After all, the concept of restaurant dining, and even more so that of restaurant criticism, is historically a Western bourgeois one. In many parts of Asia (with perhaps the most notable exception of Japan and its long tradition of kaiseki-ryoori), until the last few decades, the best local cooking was often to be found in private households.  According to David Thompson, until recently, there was, a social prejudice in Thailand against eating out in restaurants.  How then, could the voters fairly compare apples and oranges?

Secondly, because of the Western roots of restaurant criticism, the professional critics on the voting panel, whether consciously or otherwise, have a predominantly Occidental mindset where staff knowledge and correctness of service is as important as the food.  Most Asian gourmets do not care that the coarseness of the restaurant waitstaff was outdone only by the coarseness of the worn carpet, but only that the food should transcend divinity.  Separation of Asian restaurants may help to create a distinctly Asian paradigm of what matters in a restaurant experience, as opposed to just pandering to an Anglo-Franco worldview.

Thirdly, the new rules also eliminate a selection bias, which I believe ended up skewing the results of the annual poll. Imagine you are a food critic in Europe and a voter in the World's 50 Best. You decide to take a week's vacation in Southeast Asia. You've heard about Nahm, Andre, Gaggan who topped the 2013 list. You fly out to Thailand and Singapore, eat at those places and are duly impressed, fly home and cast your votes for them. Not a mention for the local eateries which you, as a foreigner, would never have heard of without a local connection. This reinforces the spiral which perpetuates the dominance of the list toppers.

A second aspect of selection bias is in favour of the global cities / air travel hubs regarded as "must-dos" in the itinerary of the globetrotting food critic.  In Asia, these cities would today include (in no particular order) Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and maybe Kyoto. My hypothetical Euro food critic would be far more likely to visit these cities than any other in Asia, meaning the restaurants in those cities would be the likely beneficiaries of a disproportionate number of votes from outside their home regions.  After all, why should my hypothetical Euro food critic waste his time visiting a city with no restaurants on the list?  The lesser the influence of these limited, result-distorting trips on Asia's 50 Best, the better.

This bias is compounded by the main systemic weakness of the World's 50 Best.  Perhaps due in no little part to the jaded palates of the critics and chefs who make up the voting panel, it has ended up being a poll of the World's 50 Hottest and Trendiest Restaurants, or the 50 Restaurants Most Likely to Elicit Some Sort of Visceral Reaction.  If you want to be part of the hot trend, you have to visit the popular restaurant NOW: today's Iggy Azalea (not Iggy's) will very likely end up being tomorrow's Jennifer Lopez.

My last point will sound almost xenophobic, but what the hey. This is an Asian list. What do I care what some food critic in France, Brazil, Russia thinks about Asian cuisine, when the depth of Asian cuisine in these countries is, to put it mildly, indifferent? What do I know about their exposure to and knowledge of Asian cuisine?  Read Andy Hayler's reviews, for example. The man is a veritable walking encyclopaedia of European gastronomy, and I was a huge admirer of his work covering the Michelin-starred beat in Europe. His critiques of Japanese restaurants, on the other hand, are uncharacteristically laconic and replete with mistakes, of which his typos are the least egregious.

But I question why the organisers decided to introduce these major changes now. I suspect that in part, it was because Asia's 50 Best threw a massive spotlight on Asian restaurants, at the expense of other regions without their own regional awards.  Look at how Asian restaurants performed in the World's 50 Best in 2013 and 2014 (the first World's 50 Best list compiled after the inaugural Asia's 50 Best list was introduced):

2013:  7 restaurants in the Top 50 with one in the Top 20 (Narisawa at No. 20) and a further two ranked in the Top 35, 9 restaurants ranked 51-100

2014: 7 restaurants in the Top 50 including three in the Top 17 and a further three ranked in the Top 37, 10 restaurants ranked 51-10.

While the total number of restaurants in the Top 50 and Top 100 have not changed much, the top Asian restaurants managed to improve their positions significantly.  Bearing in mind it takes a lot more votes to make headway towards the top of the list, the top six restaurants have clearly benefited from being the top names in Asia's 50 Best.

The other disadvantage of the changes is that with two different voter bases, the relative positioning of Asian restaurants will not be the same on both lists.  Restaurant A could trump Restaurant B on Asia's 50 Best, whereas B could beat A on the World's 50 Best.  While diversity of opinion is positive, sending out mixed messages from the same stable and brand (if not the same voting panel) is less so.

But what's done is done, and all we can do now is await the results that will be announced in February next year.  I'm hardly staking out a revolutionary position in predicting that there will be massive changes in Asia's 50 Best 2015. It might not even be too much of a forlorn hope to witness a decline in the cult of the marketing genius that is the celebrity chef, and a rise in fortunes for those eateries that value substance and authenticity over nitro-bollocks and flashing light shows.

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