Are there really just 5 world-class restaurants in Asia?

For the past few years, I have considered it a mixed honour to be one of the (few) jury members that help Restaurant magazine determine its annual list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I have honestly felt a great sense of pride to have been asked for my votes each year, as well as a great sense of responsibility. But every year, when the results are announced, I feel somewhat let down. I won’t bore readers with my detailed analysis of why Restaurant magazine’s jury system is flawed and biased to favour restaurants in the Western hemisphere (for that, you can read a previous post, archived here). I just want to express my continued dismay at the results of this very important and respected survey.

The 2008 results have just been announced. If you want to see the list, please click over here. In addition to profiling the world’s top 50, Restaurant magazine also lists the next 50 (i.e. those ranked between 51 – 100). This year, only 5 restaurants in Asia made the top 100; all are ranked in the bottom half of the list. Bukhara, in India, at #55, continues to hold its place as Asia’s top-ranked restaurant. Iggy’s, in Singapore, is in second place, at #77. The next three Asian restaurants are all situated in Hong Kong. Pierre Gagnaire, Robuchon a Galera (technically in Macau), and Zuma are ranked at #88, #98, and #99 respectively.

Each year, when these results are announced, I have the same reaction. While it is always cool to scan the top 10 or 20 restaurants and pat myself on the back for having visited several of them, the thing that irks me is the question, “Surely, Asia has more than just 5 world-class restaurants?” Glaringly missing (as usual) are restaurants in Japan.

I am actually in Fukuoka right now. Over the past few years, S and I have been coming to Japan almost every year just to eat. Over the past week while travelling across this country, I have been indulging in great food. At super-high-end ryokans, small zen-like kappo spaces and swish restaurants, I have eaten meals that are undoubtedly as good if not better than the meals I have had in Paris’ or New York’s best eating establishments. The Michelin Guide to Tokyo, despite all its flaws, did a great thing when it awarded more stars to restaurants in Tokyo than in both London and Paris combined. This move loudly declared what all foodies already knew — that the food and the restaurants in Asia are as good as any in the West. The only problem is that not enough Westerners have eaten at these places (or have even heard of them) … and the media in the Eastern hemisphere just isn’t as good at promoting these establishments as their counterparts in the West.

For several years, S and I have grappled with this problem. Yes, things like how Asia’s restaurant industry is perceived really does keep the two of us awake at night. And of course, I’ve complained about what I have believed to be an imbalance to anyone and everyone who would listen. But over the past year, we decided that it was time to either put up or shut up — to quite literally put my money where my mouth was. So, we started working on what we could do to correct this imbalance.

The result, which you all will probably hear quite a bit about over the next year (and hopefully for a long time to come) is The Miele Guide. The Miele Guide, which we are publishing with the huge (and long-term) support of the ultra-high end kitchen and domestic appliance manufacturer Miele, will be the first truly independent and (hopefully) authoritative restaurant guide to Asia.

To put this guide together, we will be going through 4 rounds of evaluation. In our first round, an invited panel of 90 of Asiaโ€™s most influential restaurant critics have helped us create a shortlist of what they believe are Asiaโ€™s best restaurants. It was very important for us to work with respected local food writers and critics in each country. That means people like Susan Jung, food editor of The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong; Wong Ah Yoke, the main food reviewer for The Straits Times in Singapore; Rashmi Uday Singh, one of India’s most famous food journalists; and well-known food writers Yuya Tomosato and Jun Yokokawa in Japan.

In Mid-May, our second round begins. At that time, we want you, the public to cast your votes online. You will also have the option of nominating restaurants that you feel are missing from our shortlist. Concurrently, a selected jury of respected foodies and food and wine professionals across Asia will be invited to place their own votes.

In our final round, The Miele Guide’s editorial team, joined by contributing editors stationed across Asia, will dine anonymously at the top ranked restaurants to verify the combined results of Rounds 2 and 3. One of the things that we felt was very important was to commit to never accepting any free meals from any restaurants that are under evaluation. We have also commited to never accepting any kind of advertising or sponsorship from the industry.

From these four rounds, we will then decide and announce the top 20 restaurants in Asia, plus the best restaurants in each respective country. Please note that while Miele is our naming sponsor, they will not exert any influence over the selection and judging process that determines which restaurants appear in The Miele Guide.

We hope to launch The Miele Guide through most major bookstores internationally at the end of October this year. Of course, any survey will run into criticism. One restaurateur-friend, when I explained what we were doing, whistled loudly and then said, “Wow, you’re going to create some enemies. Especially with that top 20 ranking.”

And while we understand that the final results might stir up some controversy, we’re ready for it. Most importantly, if it gets the world talking about the restaurants in this part of the world, if it gets people passionately debating the merits of Asia’s top ranked restaurants to the point where their names become as recognizable as El Bulli, Fat Duck and French Laundry, then we have done our job. After all, our goal is not to antagonize specific restaurateurs or put others down. Our goal is to create a standard of evaluation and a standard of recognition that can really help promote Asia’s best restaurants to the world.

P.S. (updated 24-04-08) My web development chief has just informed me she has created banners for The Miele Guide. They are available in 3 sizes. We’d appreciate all the help we can get in spreading the word, so if you would like to host a banner for The Miele Guide, we’d be thrilled and very grateful. Please find them here at The password is “thenewstandard”. Thanks!

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!