April 19, 2016

Firestorm in a wonton noodle bowl

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So... there's been some furor in the local Hong Kong media over the last few days, and a group of people - restauranteurs, the press, pundits, netizens... have gotten their panties in a bunch.  All over remarks by a local tycoon, gourmand, and restauranteur.

A little background is in order... but first of all, lemme declare that I haven't seen the movie Ten Years (十年), which recently won the Best Film Award (最佳電影) at the Hong Kong Film Awards (香港電影金像獎).  Therefore I have no idea if it is a good movie, and can offer no judgement on whether or not it truly deserved the award.

As I understand it, the movie is seen as localist and anti-China by large segments of the population.  The political sensitivities at present are such that the movie has been banned in China.  In fact, mainland Chinese media have exercised self-censorship to the point that not only did they choose to forfeit broadcasting the awards ceremony for the Hong Kong Film Awards this year, but when reporting on the winners of the awards, they left out any mention of the Best Film Award altogether.

A number of film industries insiders have come out to criticize this choice of the Best Film Award, and among them is Uncle Peter - who runs a prominent production company in town.  Given his political leanings, many of us weren't surprised by his first round of comments, which were to the effect that he didn't think Ten Years deserved to win the award.

A couple of days ago, though, Uncle Peter decided again to touch on the subject.  This time, he said something to the effect that "If I told you that a wonton noodle shop was the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong, would you buy it? (如果我話畀你聽,有一間雲吞麵舖係全香港最好嘅餐廳,你會唔會服氣呀?)"

An uproar ensued immediately.  Tons of people - foodies and restauranteurs especially - immediately criticized Uncle Peter for his remarks.  There are few things more iconic in Cantonese cuisine than wonton noodles, and the public rose to defend the virtues and worthiness of the humble wonton noodle.  The China-bashing media were only too happy to take things out of context and lead the public to jump to the conclusions to suit their own interests. The argument became, as is typical in Hong Kong nowadays, extremely politically charged and has gotten completely out of hand, with many netizens completely missing the point thanks to their inherent bias...

So lemme take a step back and try to comment from a relatively neutral point of view - leaving aside all the political aspects.

First of all, even though it sounds like Uncle Peter was dissing people whose craft and livelihood are wonton- and noodle-making, I don't think that's his argument at all.  Now, how do I know this is the case when I don't even know him personally?  Well, I know this because he's a food snob.  And as it happens, yours truly is also well-known as a food snob.  And we food snobs speak the same language.

No one here is saying that making wonton noodles is not an honorable profession.  In fact, kneading the egg noodles with bamboo (竹昇麵) is a dying art that some are desperately trying to preserve.  We all have our favorite wonton noodle shops, and I regularly get my fix at a few of them.  Some of these places have even gotten themselves a macaron from the Rubberman.

But the crux of the argument is this:  no matter how good the artisan's work is in making these wonton noodles, and even if you single out the very best wonton noodle specialists in town - be it Mak's Noodles (麥奀記), Ho Hung Kee (何洪記), or another famous establishment - the reality is that the place simply cannot be "the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong".

Now, I believe that Uncle Peter is eminently qualified to make this judgement.  Besides being well-known as a gourmand, he also owns a restaurant group which boasts the inclusion of one Michelin 3-star, one Michelin 2-star, and three Michelin 1-star restaurants.  So... more than most people in this town, he would know a thing or two about what makes "the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong".

As a food snob who eats at high-end restaurants often, I would wholeheartedly agree with Uncle Peter.  There is no way in hell I would consider any wonton noodle shop in Hong Kong to be the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong.  In fact I put forth a similar argument 5 years ago while commenting on the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau for a TV program  - that establishments serving simple fare, while they may be very good at what they do, do not merit Michelin stars at all.  The same way ramen stalls, hotdog stands, and dumpling shops do not deserve any stars - regardless of how delicious their food is.

Of course, you can ask the question: "Who the fuck do you think you are?!  Why are you qualified to pass judgement on what is and what is not the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong?!"

Well, that's a fair point.  So don't take it from me.  Take it from those who are seen as the authoritative voices on the subject.  Let's see what the Michelin people have to say, shall we?  When looking at the 2016 Guide for Hong Kong and Macau, where are wonton noodle restaurants ranked?  Well... they are generally not given stars but rather are listed in the Bib Gourmand section.  While there is one establishment known for their wonton noodles, among other things, which was awarded a star (the aforementioned Ho Hung Kee)... there are no such establishments among the recipients of the coveted 3-stars.  Since there are 6 restaurants with 3-stars in Hong Kong, clearly the Michelin people do not consider any wonton noodle shops to be "the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong".

Let's look at another point of view - the people who put together the World's 50 Best Restaurants and Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.  When the list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants was revealed recently, 9 restaurants from Hong Kong made it to the list.  Were any of them wonton noodle shops?  Sadly, no.  So... from the standpoint of the people who cast the votes behind this list, clearly no wonton noodle shop was considered "the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong", either.

Turning to a more "local" opinion, let's look at Hong Kong Tatler and their Top 20 Restaurants of 2016 which, incidentally, include some entries from Macau as well.  Any of those places wonton noodle shops?  Nope.

I can't deny the possibility that for any number of people, they may very well consider a particular wonton noodle shop to be the best restaurant or their favorite restaurant in all of Hong Kong.  But it is clear that those whose opinions are highly regarded on such matters do not see this as the case.

And why are people arguing about Uncle Peter's opinion about what the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong is?!  After all, opinions are like assholes, and Uncle Peter is entitled to one... just like I am entitled to mine.  And in my not-so-humble opinion, Uncle Peter's opinion on this matter carries a helluva lot more weight than most of the people in this town.

So if you tell me that the best restaurant in all of Hong Kong is a wonton noodle shop, my reply to you will be "我唔服啊!"

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