Collaborative spirit emerges at Asia’s top restaurant awards

by

Special To The Japan Times

Just about everyone loves stars, lists and rankings, when they relate to what and where we eat — and even more so when they’re seasoned with a dash of national pride. And nowhere is this more evident than at the announcement ceremony for the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.

This year’s event — the fourth to date — was held with considerable fanfare on Feb. 29 in Bangkok, the first time it has taken place outside of Singapore. In the atmospheric setting of the former Russian Embassy, which is now a fine-dining restaurant known as The House on Sathorn, chefs, restaurateurs and luminaries from across the continent gathered for the denouement. There was enough glitter and glam on the red carpet leading into the hall to back up the organizers’ tongue-in-cheek assertion that this event has become the “true Oscars, at least of the food world in Asia.”

As the comperes introduced each restaurant on this year’s list, counting down to first place, applause and cheering greeted most of the names, but there were some blank looks as unheralded restaurants slotted in among the better-known heavyweights. This year, a total of 13 countries and territories were represented, more than ever before, as Indonesia joined the party for the first time with the inclusion of Locovore restaurant from the island of Bali.

At the business end of the list, the faces were all familiar. Bangkok’s Gaggan retained the No. 1 spot it took last year, with Tokyo’s Narisawa holding fast in second place and Singapore’s Restaurant Andre rising two notches to the bronze-medal position. Rounding out the top five were Amber (Hong Kong) and Nihonryori RyuGin (Tokyo). And, as before, the best-represented countries were Singapore with 10 ranked restaurants; Japan, also with 10; and China, with 13, including 9 in Hong Kong.

Rankings are always contentious, and the deficiencies of the 50 Best system are glaring. To take only two examples, how could a Japanese restaurant in Colombo, Sri Lanka, be included, when a host of Japan’s supreme sushi chefs and masters of traditional cuisine are ignored? And does the Hong Kong outpost of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon — the French master’s more casual chain — really outgun his high-end chateau in Tokyo that boasts three Michelin stars?

But the list is just the public part of the story, the clickbait demanded by big-name sponsors. The event’s real value becomes apparent once the government officials and mainstream media have drifted off into the sultry subtropical night. Four years in, it has blossomed into the biggest gathering of chefs and gastronauts from across the continent — and they like to party as much as they love to cook and eat.

In the enclosed garden of the colonial-era house, the wine flowed along with the industry chatter. Chefs swapped notes, catching up on the year since they saw each other last. Contingents from the various countries huddled to congratulate or commiserate. And food journalists jostled for position for interviews with visiting VIPs, such as Joan Roca, one of the three brothers who run the Catalan restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, currently at the top of the World’s 50 Best list.

The best of the after parties, though, was across town, thrown by the day’s big winner. Owner-chef Gaggan Anand was celebrating in style with his staff and anyone else who managed to find their way to his secluded and usually sedate restaurant, which was rocking hard that night. Eschewing the quirky modernist twists to his native Indian cuisine that have captivated the Asia’s 50 Best voters, his kitchen crew cut straight to the heart of the menu and served up plates of curry for the crowd of impromptu guests that soon spilled out into the restaurant’s garden and entrance driveway.

The highlight of the evening was when Yoshihiro Narisawa — on his first visit to Thailand, like so many of the Japanese contingent — sauntered into the kitchen to help turn out the naan flatbreads. It was a moment that encapsulated the chefs’ camaraderie, giving the lie to the perception that these rankings are inherently competitive. Here were the two top chefs on the continent — the young gun from India working side by side with one of his heroes — in their best party clothes, doing what they do best: cooking their hearts out.

This spirit of cooperation — of collaboration rather than confrontation between chefs and their restaurants — is widespread now in Europe and America. And it is starting to take root in Asia, despite long-ingrained differences between the region’s cultures, cuisines and generations. The 50 Best awards are playing a major role in this exciting process.


Japan retains its primacy in Bangkok

While Thailand earned bragging rights at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards when Gaggan was ranked No. 1, Japan and its cuisine continues to exert the biggest influence over the list. Ten of the ranked restaurants are actually based in the country, and five others are offshoots of Tokyo-based operations or have Japanese roots.

Three on the list were newcomers: Fukuoka’s La Maison de la Nature Goh; Kyoto’s ineffable temple of traditional multicourse cuisine, Kikunoi; and Tokyo’s Den, with its creative contemporary take on Japanese cuisine.

The restaurant making the biggest jump in the rankings this year — from 49 to 20 — was Tokyo’s Quintessence, which has long held three Michelin stars for its high-end modern French cuisine.

Meanwhile, at the very start of the awards there was one more notable Japanese winner: Florilege, from Tokyo’s Jingumae area. Owner-chef Hiroyasu Kawate beamed with delight from the stage as he accepted his “One to Watch” award.