March 9, 2013

Fine dining (or lack of) in Asian cities

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Two years ago, I had decided and announced that I wouldn’t comment on the Rubberman’s annual award of macarons to eateries in Hong Kong.  I have also grown tired of discussing why the annual World's 50/100 Best list by Restaurant Magazine/San Pellegrino is ludicrous and Euro-centric.  So when the first Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants from the same people came out a few weeks ago, I barely took an interest and mostly watched the internet traffic flew by.  I’ve been busy at work, and already spending more than enough of my spare time filling this space with material.

Then yesterday something caught my attention on Facebook.  Fellow blogger Tom posted a screen shot of a comment he had received in response to something he wrote, and the comment was simply appalling, to say the least.  No, it was idiotic, ridiculous, and pure, unadulterated RACISM.  My blood was boiling within a matter of seconds upon reading this person’s comments.  I got so worked up that I asked Tom for the link to the full article, which appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s blog, so I could read his work in its entirety and also all the responses that came along. 

While there may be a couple of points I may take issues with, I largely agree with Tom’s point of view.  No, I am not Korean, nor am I an expert on Korean food or culture.  However, I have travelled enough to Korea on business, count many Koreans (both in and outside Korea) as friends, and have even had cooking lessons on Korean cuisine – enough to have more than a glimpse into that culture.  And since I am the Arrogant Prick, yes, I do think I’m qualified to give an opinion.

There are always going to be people who bitch and moan about “how come there are no restaurant from [insert city] on the list?!”  Well, as with any other “definitive” list, this one is inherently flawed.  The people on the voting panel – and there are many – have historically been Euro-centric.  The restaurants from Asia that have shown up on the World’s 50/100 Best list in the past have traditionally been serving non-Asian cuisine, or Asian cuisine which have had influences from the West, with modern techniques and/or use non-traditional ingredients.  And let’s not forget that this list is about fine dining – and therefore non-food criteria such as service, ambiance, wine lists can come into play. 

In many Asian cities where one can find excellent local food, there is a dearth of restaurants which fall into the “fine dining” category – especially when we’re talking about cuisines that are not indigenous.  In a recent text message I sent, I called my hometown of Taipei “a culinary wasteland.”  Of course that’s a harsh statement, but it is absolutely true when one looks at anything other than cheap, local fare or Japanese fare.  Other than Japanese cuisine and a handful of French restaurants, “fine dining” doesn’t exist in Taipei.  I cannot even find a handful of Chinese restaurants - regardless of their regional specialty, be it Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese… - that I would consider to be fine dining by my standards.  I doubt many (if any) of the voting panel has ever been to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Taipei.  No surprise that Taipei is missing from the party.

Similarly, cities such as Beijing and Seoul…etc. are noticeably absent.  The cities that make the list are Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai – the most cosmopolitan and “worldly” in Asia.  They are very much exposed to cultures other than their own, many through their relatively large expat communities.  There is a community of diners who are sophisticated, well-travelled, well-versed in non-native cuisines, and perhaps most important of all – willing to pay top dollar for fine dining.  Without this last crucial element, what you have would be cities like Taipei and Seoul, for example, where the local street food culture dominates and everything gravitates towards the "cheap and cheerful" lower end.  I can't tell you how many people have told me that they "love the food in Taiwan", but how many  of those have actually had good experiences with fine dining in Taipei?  Probably none.

Some of the comments on Tom's piece bring up the issue of alcohol in the Korean dining culture, which I found interesting and completely agree with.  From what I can see, the alcohol part of the Korean dining culture is a lot about drinking cheap alcohol to get drunk, and not about truly appreciating the taste of the alcohol.  I have always referred to soju as "industrial rubbing alcohol", and consider it something vastly inferior to sake or wine.  Years ago when I asked my Korean colleague why they drink poktanju (폭탄주) or tornados, the reply was that it was about get drunk cheaply and quickly - it was about efficiency.  When you have that mentality, then the lack of fine dining options in Korea is no longer a surprise… as fine wine and fine dining do go hand-in-hand.

The most interesting comment - which brought my blood to a boil - was the one from "Hyun-so Han".  I'm lifting that part and highlighting it here:

No one loves his country and compatriots like the Korean do because Korea is the purest race. Therefore, the Korean chef cooks with a passion that international chefs lack, inevitably. There is no question that the same pure-nationalist passion applies to the Korean soju maker as well. This, then, is clear evidence that no cuisine is superior to the Korean, and all Koreans readily agree. So the saying goes, Korea number one.
Why then do foreigners disagree, as evinced by this heinous article? Except for the evil Japanese, who are naturally envious, there is a simple explanation. When a Korean cook sees that his customer is waegook (foreigner, naturally impure), he immediately loses his love and passion for cooking. Thus, the waegook never comes to savor the best cuisine of the world.
WOW!!!  I see this "nationalistic" attitude sometimes among Mainland Chinese and other Asians, and have always found it ludicrous and deluded.  Honestly, this guy is simply racist.  I jokingly commented that this guy deserves the "Adolf Hitler Humanitarian Award of the Year", but when you're talking about the "purity" of the Korean race, the "evil" Japanese… what else am I supposed to think?!
Instead of complaining about how other people don't really appreciate or overlook the cuisine or restaurants in your city, how about trying to make sure that the standards of the cuisine is actually "world class" in the first place?  That was one of the points I tried to make when I spoke at TEDxVictoriaHarbour last year.  Too often people in Asia take pride in their local food, when others tell them how great it is, when in fact their cuisine lacks depth.  They are good at the "cheap and cheerful" but little else.  They don't strive to be creative, innovative or take things to the next level - elements which are required for achieving truly world class cooking.
So yes, the list of Asia's Best 50 Restaurants is flawed, but it doesn't mean it is without merit, or that we can't all learn something from it, or engage in some introspection and reflect upon what it says about the dining scene in our Asian cities.


Tom said...

Which is why I love The Chairman so as it tries to move a bit forward on Chinese food. I need to find the 'new' Chairman for my next visit to Hong Kong. I'll shout before I come in case you are around.

I often think a lot of people who make the stupid comments haven't been to cities like London, NY or Tokyo. Or actually anywhere in Europe. Europe has bot good cheap food and good high level food.

Still... in the end... the comment made my day. Hilarious. As to the racism, I think racism generally in Asia is at an astounding level. Each of the three major economic powers (Japan, Korea and China) has a deluded Nazi-esque belief in racial purity. They all tolerate white people, revile black people and treat other SE Asians as slaves.

Peech said...

Tom, your last comment isn't far from the truth...

Unknown said...

Tolerate white people, treat SE Asians pretty badly, yes. Revile black people? That's total nonsense. A young black man faces more racism on a daily basis in places like Los Angeles or Oakland, where "revile" might be more appropriate. In East Asia at least, a more typical reaction to seeing a large black man suddenly appear in an elevator is confusion or shock. Asia has never had the same troubled relationship with black people that the Western world has so I believe there might be a gigantic case of projection here. Maybe Tom thinks weird looks and gawking constitutes "racism", a common mistake among Westerners in Asia.

scubagolfer said...

Touché, kudos(& a sigh...)

Unknown said...

Tom thinks when black people apply for jobs in companies I have worked in they laugh and throw the CV in the bin. Or parents refuse to have their children taught English by black people. Or say they will never talk to their daughter again if they go ahead with their intention to marry a black person. So yes, revile black people. They also gawk. But they also go out of their way to discriminate against in a way that remains shocking.

Michelle Chin said...

Racism is everywhere. It's the matter of how much. Not either or. But it's not the problem here, hey.

The problem is the mindset about food — or what does Asia think about food.

There is fine dining in Asia. No doubt about that. Each time one googles up "fine dining" in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan or Seoul, fine dining options are there. But the problem is, do those fine dining establishments hire local chefs or are those chefs imported from some European country? Do they use local ingredients or everything is from overseas?

How "local" the restaurant is, in my opinion, is one of the barriers for making it into the list because, most restauranters and diners have this idea that fine dining = Euro-centric cuisine.

Another problem would be the customers themselves. You are right about the "cheap and efficiency" bit. Most of us Asians like it cheap and efficient because if you're dining out with a lot of people, what can be a better way than to settle down in the local "mamak" "coffee shop", a "shabu-shabu" or "all you can eat" restaurant right?

A lot of friends I know (unless they are foodies like you) won't pay extra for extra service and fine food. They see no point in it and they think the whole concept of "fine dining" is ridiculous. I don't blame them because if you grow up eating fast food or if your parents don't really emphasize much on good food, or if your economical situation isn't really on the good side, it's hard to cultivate this habit of appreciating "slow" or "fine" food. Unlike some of Western counterparts where the words organic, localities and slow food carry some sort of significance... these concepts are yet to catch up in our countries. Most are contented to get their bellies filled. Again, cheap and efficient, yeah.

Plus, I know most Asians think that dressing up nicely to have a nice meal in a nice fancy restaurant, where cancellation policies are strict, where you can't really burp loudly and leave bones everywhere, where you have to dine quietly and not talk really loudly (cf. to dining at a coffee shop)

So, customers' idiosyncrasies create low demand towards fine dining establishments, which create less competition within the pre-existing fine dining establishments, and this results to lack of competitiveness and the need to innovate their dining styles/ options.

And there's this issue with the alcohol too.

Some customers and restauranteurs have this preconception that local Asian cuisines won't work well with wine.

For restauranteurs, wine and spirits is a source of profit — often overpriced. But you can't really serve the hard stuff like whiskey and brandy in a fine dining establishment (these are the stuff most Asians consider expensive). This leaves you with stuff like champagne, reds and whites, and you have to hire a good sommelier to figure out which dishes to pair with which. Even though it works, customers who grew up thinking that wine = Western dishes, would find it ridiculous to have Asian dishes with wine, unless they are fine with it, then it's alright.

This itself is a barrier towards creating fine dining options that brings out the local flavors of the certain country...

Having said all of this, I do think that there is a problem with the list. They defined fine dining too narrowly. I personally feel that a kaiseki house in Japan or restaurants that serve traditional palace cuisines in Seoul, or those places that serve delicate Chinese food, can be categorized as "fine" too. So, this is my final point: the judges are unaware of the existence of these places.

So overall, there are many reasons to why restaurants from this part of the world don't make it into the top 50/100 list. I pulled this off my head so feel free to respond! I am happy to learn more!

cheguevara9 said...

Lol you're making this much noise for a painfully obvious sarcastic comment? Mr. Know-it-all has fallen for it big time.


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