Do Michelin stars really matter in Singapore’s fine-dining scene?

Do Michelin stars really matter in Singapore’s fine-dining scene?

With Joel Robuchon’s restaurants closing on Jun 30 and the Michelin Guide coming out on Jul 25, CNA Lifestyle talks to some industry insiders about the importance of these infamous stars.

With 10 days to go, the countdown to the closure of Joel Robuchon’s restaurants has begun.

Once service ends on Jun 30, the lauded French chef’s namesake restaurant and sister outlet L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at Resorts World Sentosa will bid adieu, along with their three and two Michelin stars, respectively.

Restaurant Joel Robuchon
Restaurant Joel Robuchon located in Sentosa is the only Singapore restaurant to have been awarded three Michelin stars. (Photo: Restaurant Joel Robuchon's website)

This comes at the heels of the shuttering of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andre, which closed earlier this year after chef-owner Andre Chiang decided to return to Taiwan.

These two huge exits have collectively caused quite a stir, not least because of their literally stellar status (“No more three-starred restaurant in Singapore? What now?”).

And with this year’s Michelin Guide set to come out on Jul 25, we wondered: Are those stars really that big a deal for our local fine-dining scene?

REACHING FOR THE STARS

It’s been a mixed bag of responses from the people CNA Lifestyle interviewed. While reaching for that star isn’t an end goal for a restaurant like Odette – which has two – having one helps a lot.

“Awards like Michelin have always been a great means of growing international recognition for a restaurant,” said Wee Teng Wen, managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group that includes Odette.

The Michelin Guide also has an impact on the places it’s at. While Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore already have longstanding reputations as food havens, one can’t deny the additional buzz that surrounded these places once the Guides came in – a kind of extra atas sheen, if you will.

But others have pointed out that the Michelin star doesn’t mean that much anymore.

“The shine of the Michelin star is no longer what it used to be. Especially outside of France,” said a restaurateur, who doesn’t want to be named.

Michelin Guide Singapore 2017 - 3-star chefs
Three-star recipients at the launch of the Michelin Guide Singapore 2017. (Photo: Howard Law)
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He pointed out that many in Asia have been left “dumbfounded” by many of the Michelin Guide’s decisions in the region.

“Japanese chefs were offended that foreigners, who have no sense of their culture and cuisine, suddenly became their judges. The Hong Kong stars, in particular, have been criticised by many.

“In Singapore, specific hawkers have been recognised and others who are equally good if not better are completely left out,” he shared candidly.

“The guide also seems to favour certain chefs who can do no wrong, and those they seem to have a prior relationship with.”

STAR BRIGHT OR STAR LITE?

Having that star also puts a strain on businesses. Another chef-restaurateur, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, pointed out the dangers of landlords imposing higher rents in these starred institutions.

He added: “Restaurants are known to renovate, change entire menus, hire sommeliers and pay former inspectors a lot of money to learn how to earn a star.”

And then, of course, there’s the effect on us, the diners. “Once the stars are awarded, restaurants are known to increase their prices. It is only natural that restaurants will milk the star for what it is worth,” he said.

While the unnamed restaurateur said he recognises how the stars pull in the crowd for the lucky ones, it does come at a cost on a bigger scale. “Entire cities of restaurants and chefs are brought to their knees by an organisation that doesn’t even cook. That makes this organisation very powerful.”

Anthony Bourdain World Street Food Congress
Anthony Bourdain speaking at the 2017 World Street Food Congress in Manila. (Photo: Facebook/K F Seetoh)

It’s a sentiment that’s not new – the Michelin Guide has its critics that include the likes of Marco Pierre White (who, at 33, became the world's youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars) and the late Anthony Bourdain.

The former has once been quoted as saying “the people giving out those stars have less knowledge than the individual behind the stove”.

Meanwhile, the much-missed Bourdain considered Michelin's "principal enterprise" as "keeping itself in business and maintaining relevance, assuring another 10 years of chefs kissing its a**.”

CAN WE JUST SIT DOWN AND EAT?

And yet, despite such criticisms from these big guns, not a lot of industry folk in Singapore are actually willing to talk about such things openly, as was the case for this story. It would seem the Michelin Guide and its stars continue to have quite an impact here, as in many other countries.

While the debate on the importance of Michelin stars continues, some food experts maintain a more even-handed perspective of things – that at the end of the day, it really is just about the food.

Local chef-owner of Wild Rocket group Willin Low doesn’t think a country’s fine-dining industry’s status should be dependent on any guide or list.

Wilin Low
Wild Rocket chef and founder of Mod-Sin cusine Willin Low (left) will be helming STREAT with Michelin-starred Candlenut chef Malcolm Lee to collaborate on a pop-up restaurant. (Photo: Natasha Razak)

“If the country has a vibrant fine-dining scene, its status will naturally be recognised,” he opined, before adding: “It’s also a matter of market demands. If the market needs a certain kind of restaurant scene, it will be met by market forces.”

Singapore hawker food champion and Makansutra founder KF Seetoh agrees with Low.

“No stars does not mean no hope. We were and are still fine without Michelin-starred restaurants,” he said, adding that Singaporeans are “blind” when it comes to good food.

“They won't recognise signboards nor notice the chefs. It's all about the food, the pleasure and the price,” he said. “Reviews on and offline never tell you the restaurant is good because they have stars. It’s good because it just is.”

Source: CNA/gl(mm)

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