The acclaimed Michelin Guide is being unleashed on an unsuspecting Singapore public on July 21st. Every restaurant in the country is either 1) preparing for queues and having to employ extra staff to cope or 2) closure. Extreme? Well, this is what has happened in other countries, so why not here?
Singapore is often described as the food capital of Asia... by the Singapore Tourism Board. Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, amongst others, would challenge that. Residents may also query that, why?
The simplest reasons why are two fundamentals that no amount of Michelin stars will overcome: 1) a lack of fresh ingredients - they have to be flown in which automatically reduces the quality and flavour of the ingredients and 2) service - there is a lack of highly trained waiting staff to cope with ever-increasing sophisticated customer demands. It's my biggest complaint about every kind of restaurant in Singapore from fine dining to cafe. I often choose restaurants to go to based on the exceptional service; such a difference it makes, I believe, to the overall dining experience.
Again, the inaugural Michelin Guide to Singapore will be published on July 21st. What I find very strange is that Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) is a partner and Joel Robuchon is providing the food. Now I love Joel Robuchon's two restaurants in Singapore and others at RWS such as Osia.
However, are we therefore going to read that Joel Robuchon and all the RWS restaurants are going to be given stars just because they are a "supporter" of the Michelin Guide? If they are, will everyone think cynically like me, that they have only been given the stars because RWS is financially supporting the launch and being a partner?
Joel Robuchon and his other diner L'Atelier in Singapore would undoubtedly both have gained stars anyway (as they have everywhere else in the world, making him the most starred chef) but, to me, no restaurant should be allowed to be a partner for the guide as that surely questions the independence of the guide itself.
How will its major rival Marina Bay Sands and its many celebrity chef restaurants fare? Will they get more or higher stars than RWS? If not, is it because RWS "supports" the guide?
Singapore is the first Southeast Asian country and only the fourth Asian territory (after Japan, Hong Kong, and Macau) to be rated by the Michelin Guide.
The inspectors have a tough job. How does local food served at a hawker centre or food court compare with fine dining? How will they judge the service and food quality compared to places like Tokyo where both are near perfect? In Hong Kong they have been criticised for pro-French and fine dining bias versus the local street culture, very similar to Singapore. The latest Hong Kong guide has at least got a street food section now.
I am one of the top TripAdvisor reviewers in Singapore and the majority of my reviews of restaurants here are not complimentary. The main reason being service or lack thereof. This applies equally from fine dining to casual dining. Sometimes the best service is in casual dining.
To maintain the independence of their opinion, the Michelin inspectors always dine out anonymously, pay for their meals, and subsequently rate their experience according to five publicly acknowledged assessment criteria:
What will this mean to restaurants? Singaporeans are famous for joining queues. It's as common as chicken rice or chilli crab here. If you see a queue, join it, no matter what it is. I always joke that when I see a queue outside a restaurant on one of the streets near my office at Capital Tower that it was started by the restaurant owner in order to get others to join it.
If there's a queue outside a restaurant it must be good, goes the local theory. It certainly works for some very famous local food laksa eateries (some of which beat Gordon Ramsay in a SingTel-sponsored food tasting battle a couple of years back).
Therefore, I can see restaurants featured being inundated with queues and waiting lists. Even more so than any other city on earth, Singaporeans love to try the hottest new thing. However, they like to try it, photograph it, review it, share it on Facebook/Instagram, etc., and then move on... Loyalty is not great, hence the amazing turnover of restaurants. 'Try it now because it could be gone tomorrow' should be a strapline here for restaurants. Will being featured in the Michelin Guide exacerbate this?
Of course if restaurants are not featured in the guide this could be disastrous too, literally. This could mean closure. Not in the guide and no stars or credits (of which there are many from Bib Grimond to notification of how great the cocktails are) and that could mean no queues, no waiting list, and no future.
It's brutal and this has happened at many other cities where the guide is published. Not featured and you don't exist. So although there are clearly many benefits to having a guide above and beyond TripAdvisor and HungryGoWhere, this one could have as many downsides as upsides. Time will tell.
There can be more serious repercussions too as Chef Jonas M Luster described in the Huffington Post:
"Beware the dangers of fame... foodies are a fickle bunch and more interested in following the quickly changing winds of media-created food trends than natural evolution of food and restaurants. With stars comes exposure. You'll be inundated by foodTV and foodMedia requests, diners will suddenly act as if they know you, and the slightest utterance will become mantra and point of contention online and on TV. Few diners understand Michelin as a "this is what we love" list of inspectors and, instead, expect it to be an authoritative guide to food they will love. Which couldn't be further from the truth."
What would I rate? My favourites which should all get stars are:
Artemis, DB Modern, Senso, Tamarind Hill, Bar Roque, Kinki, Keyaki, Nicholas, Tippling Club, Burnt Ends, Odette, Sky@57, Cut, L’Atelier, Joel Robuchon, and Osia.
There are six 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong, thirty-eight in Japan, and two in Macau. The Joel Robuchon restaurant in Macau and L’Atelier in Hong Kong both get three stars, so I would expect both to get three stars in Singapore... and not because RWS is sponsoring them!
There are thirteen 2 star, fifteen 1 star, and sixty-four Bib Gourmand in Hong Kong/Macau. There are one hundred and eighteen 2 star in Japan, four hundred and forty-three 1 star, and one hundred and thirty-five Bib Gourmand. So how many will Singapore get?
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Chris Reed has 25 years of senior marketing experience on both the client and agency side in the UK and now in Asia Pacific. He is the CEO and founder of Black Marketing.