Saturday, 19 December 2015

Michelin Guide Singapore - An Epic Fail Right From The Start

There's a fat white guy who's been causing a stir in Singapore in recent weeks.  However, it isn't Santa Claus.  Rather, it is Bibendum, the rubbery twin of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the big bloke with a literal spare tyre around his waist, feared universally by chefs and restaurateurs under his nom de guerre, the Michelin Man.

Unless you have been living in a cave, you would have heard Michelin's announcement that it is to release a Red Guide in Singapore in the second half of 2016.  Honestly, that news didn't surprise me, and neither should it have surprised you.  The announcement that it was being supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate (which doesn't belong to Robert Parker anymore but hey, who's counting, right?) was more surprising, and infinitely more disappointing.

Tan Hsueh Yun wrote a half-decent piece in the Straits Times which addressed some of the potential concerns about the launch.  While her points were valid, she missed the big elephant in the room: the potential for conflict of interest due to the collaboration of the STB (I don't even know what the Wine Advocate's interest is in the project).  Of course, Tan probably couldn't raise the issue because the Straits Times is basically the Government mouthpiece, but I believe that it warrants further consideration.

I have dealt with the STB on a few occasions, and they are not stupid.  It is collaborating with Michelin for a reason.  The reason is that for all of its faults, Michelin is the most iconic restaurant rating system in the world.   So great is its clout that it has spawned a breed of diner known derogatorily as Starf*ckers, allegedly gastronomique travellers and diners who fly around the world "consuming" stars the way I consume espressos.

By persuading Michelin to rank Singapore's restaurants, it shines a spotlight on Singapore dining and invites global travellers to try out Singapore eateries rated by the Guide.  But just by having its own Michelin Guide, Singapore benefits from Michelin's halo effect, with the implicit recognition that it has a gastronomic scene on par with Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, etc.  This is in especial contradistinction to Asia's 50 Best, in which Bangkok restaurants have dominated over the last couple of years.  With Singapore boasting a Michelin Guide, and Bangkok not, Singapore has implicitly staked its claim as Southeast Asia's gastronomic capital.

Michael Ellis, the international director for the Guide Michelin, has reiterated Michelin's commitment to independence.  Now, I am not suggesting that Michelin is going to prostitute itself for STB's money, but they have been in the publishing business for many years now and know on what side their bread is buttered.  A Guide that has multiple multi-starred entries will sell more than one that doesn't, and has a more pronounced benefit for Singapore's gastronomic reputation.  If the Michelin inspectors found no restaurants on the island worthy of three or even two stars, I doubt the STB collaboration would be very long-lived.

It is also telling that despite many years of gossip going back to at least 2010, Michelin had not been prepared to enter the Singapore market until now when it was able to line up its two strategic collaborators.  And what does it say, that in the same year the STB discontinued its financial commitment to hosting Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, that it finds a new pet project in Michelin?  It tells me that the STB got smart, because, let's be honest, hosting a ceremony like Asia's 50 Best isn't going to increase your tourism receipts.  Most of the attendees at the 50 Best ceremony were chefs and their hangers-on, sponsors and local freeloaders like me anyway.  Trust me, I was there for each edition.  Michelin, for reasons set out above, is a completely different proposition.

Now, to be honest, I was planning on remaining silent about Michelin's entry into Singapore.  Until I came across an article about the idiocy of the Michelin inspectors in Singapore identifying themselves to restaurateurs.

What was that?  Inspectors telling chefs that they are from Michelin?  Handing over their business cards?  Oh no problem, say people like restaurateur Loh Lik Peng (who, with a portfolio of high-end places like Andre, Pollen and Burnt Ends, is perhaps the individual who stands to gain the most from a credible Michelin presence), they do it all the time, dincha know?  And besides, that inspector will probably never visit that restaurant again.  Which, of course, means he will never visit another restaurant which belongs to that chef, or a friend of that chef (as we all know, chefs are a rather tight-knit bunch and love nothing better than to share details and tales such as this with their comrades) or which shares the same publicist, and the inspector is not photographable because he has special, arcane powers to prevent such things from happening (cameras and phones in restaurants, mon Dieu, what is this world coming to?).  Further, the inspector will not have any social media presence or any Internet history at all through which he is identifiable.  Whatever it is the Michelin boys are on, I want some because the pain of reality is sometimes best alleviated with a little delusion.

As far as I know, this is also the first time Michelin has allowed itself to have official collaborators.  For me, and many other people who care about these things, this is absolute anathema to what Michelin should represent.  Much like Caesar's wife, Michelin needs to be above suspicion to maintain its credibility in the face of its critics, and competitors such as Asia's 50 Best.  For the reasons above, the stars in Singapore will simply not have the same regard as the stars in say New York, Paris or Tokyo.  This is the tragedy for Singapore.  Of course, the Starf*ckers and their ilk, along with the legions of internet-era "foodies" who wouldn't know a summer truffle from melanosporum, won't mind, and their money is admittedly as good as mine.  And that, sadly, is really all the STB wants and expects from this: enhanced reputation for Singapore as a lifestyle hub, and increased tourism receipts from gastro-dollars.

And on that rather mixed note, this will be my final post for 2015.  My heartfelt gratitude and season's greetings to all of you who have followed my blog over the past 12 months, and a particular thanks to all who have commented and engaged with my posts.  I look forward to sharing more stories with you next year.  Until then, may you eat and drink well, nay supremely, and always in the company of loved ones, and may your tyres always remain resilient.

P.S. (15 July 2016):  A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.  Caesar's wife is now whoring herself out in public, flirting openly with soldiers of the Tenth Legion, citizens, freedmen, basically anyone.

What am I going on about?  You know, "Michelin" Singapore is taking on sponsors.  And not just any sponsors, but Resorts World Sentosa.  You know, the same Resorts World Sentosa which owns two Joel Robuchon restaurants, and which are candidates for recognition in the Guide?

If you ever had any doubt about conflicts of interest, and that the local "Michelin" Guide lacks credibility, you shouldn't now.  The owners of the license for "Michelin" Singapore appear determined to wring it for every last sponsor cent it is worth by taking on sponsors without regard to what this does to the Michelin brand.  Oddly, the Michelin enterprise worldwide seem to be enjoying the joke too, because the inaugural list of Singapore Bib Gourmands (announced yesterday) doesn't even make it onto Michelin's worldwide site.

Sit back and enjoy the spectacle, because the Singaporean blogosphere is going to be ripping itself up in a frenzy come 21 July about who got the stars and who deserved them, etc.  Me?  I'll just sit back with a beer or two and watch reruns of the X-Files.

P.P.S. And to my Anonymous friend below, I see Michelin has taken on Evian and Badoit as sponsors.  Maybe we should start unverified rumours that only restaurants that stock Evian and Badoit will get stars?  ;)

9 comments:

  1. Michelin in Asia, Japan included, is mostly a farce. http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/the-great-tokyo-michelin-sham pretty much sums it up.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I don't agree with the sentiments expressed in that article. However, one man's view of a nation's cuisine is one thing, the credibility of a food guide which has entered into collaborations which create a potential conflict of interest is quite another.

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  3. Julian, I hear you. I suppose that when Michelin embarked on this slippery slope in Japan (read Asia) in 08, recent developments aren't all that shocking.

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  4. Thanks Anonymous.

    Like I said, whether Michelin is qualified or not to judge a nation's cuisine is one issue. As far as I am concerned, Michelin has the right to do what it wants, as it is exercising its right to free speech and contributing to the discourse of gastronomy.

    We also never previously had any reason to doubt the independence of their judgments. Michelin had better acquit itself well in its inaugural edition because a lot of people are watching for slip-ups. Because it has placed itself in an unfortunate position of conflict-of-interest, any slip-ups could easily be misinterpreted, both to the detriment of Michelin and Singapore.

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  5. Oh Julian, aren't you a voter on the Asia's 50 Best panel? Or to be more precise, a voter who goes around identifying yourself to restaurants, when there are explicit guidelines from the 50 Best organisers not to?

    In the interest of the independence of opinion that you are extolling in this post, you should have perhaps declared that upfront. Admittedly, any form of restaurant rankings - or any rankings for that matter - is bound to be controversial, Michelin or otherwise. The 50 Best is overtly linked to commercial sponsors such as San Pellegrino and the Singapore Tourism Board too. (The unverified rumour goes that San Pel, the 50 Best's title sponsor, used to only select among restaurants that serve their brand of water.) Let's not be idealistic here, awards are an expensive affair to produce, and it's not shocking that they should serve to further a company's business interests. The Michelin guide was started to encourage people to drive and discover restaurants, and in so doing, buy their tyres. Do you think the song and dance is organised purely to further stroke the already inflated egos of chefs?

    Why not discuss the merits/demerits/"unfortunate position of conflict-of-interest" in the Asia 50, which I presume you are already aware of, first before you point fingers at Michelin based on blind conjecture?

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  6. Hello Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I haven't discussed the pros / cons of the 50 Best system because frankly, it had already been done to death by literally hundreds of news outlets and blogs before this blog started in 2012. I already alluded to this fact in my previous posts on 50 Best, and I made it quite clear in those posts that I believed the 50 Best system was flawed. If you read a recent article in the New Yorker, the 50 Best pro-con debate is still running today, and the content of those articles is, as you would expect after all these years, predictable.

    Secondly, I welcome the controversy of award systems and rankings, as they all contribute to the discourse of gastronomy. And of course they are driven by commercial interests; my concern is that the impartiality of the guides is being compromised by these interests. And in Michelin's case, this is the first time they have been allied to interests outside of their own. Knowing Michelin's hitherto track record of incredible independence and cult-like secrecy, what are we to make of this?

    Thirdly, I resigned from the 50 Best Panel well before I wrote this article and no, I did not identify myself to restaurants.

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  7. Ah how I love comments from Anonymous posters ;)
    An interesting article Julian and I, of course, share your scepticism about the scope for independence when collaborations like this are clearly designed with one outcome in mind. The more I read and write about this industry the more jaded I'm becoming :(

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  8. Thanks but no thanks. Your opinion doesn't matter. You're just a small fish in a big sea. Treat it as your personal journal. I scroll down after reading your first two paragraphs... Michelin or not, I still hunt for the best food

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    1. Yet here you still are, still commenting, and with all the faux bravado of an anonymous peanut...

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