The ‘Michelin curse’ and other lessons to learn from Hong Kong

Michelin unveils an an English-language gourmet lifestyle web portal. ― Picture courtesy of Michelin Guide Singapore/TODAY
Michelin unveils an an English-language gourmet lifestyle web portal. ― Picture courtesy of Michelin Guide Singapore/TODAY

SINGAPORE, July 28 — Make no mistake, the first edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore, where stars were given out to restaurants and hawker stalls on July 21, is a tourism initiative as much as it is about the spiel of decorating Singapore’s much-vaunted food heritage.

While international director of Michelin Guides Michael Ellis waxed lyrical about Singapore being “a true gastronomic capital” and possessing “one of the most dynamic (food scenes), not only in Asia but in the entire world” at the event last week, Singapore Tourism Board (STB)’s chief executive Lionel Yeo stated that the Michelin Guide is a project STB has been working on for some time.

Yeo added: “It is still very special to have the recognition from Michelin” and that “the branding will be amazing”. By the way, STB is one of the sponsors of the Michelin Guide Singapore.

It is clear that the sheen of the Michelin stars would be a boost for gastrotourism. Much like how any attraction stamped as a Unesco World Heritage Site has become a convenient way to label it as a must-see for travellers, a Michelin-starred restaurant or F&B outlet is the culinary equivalent.

All well and good, right? Tourists come, queue at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles and splurge at Andre; kerching kerching — our tourism revenue goes up. Everyone is happy.

Not so fast. Having a Michelin Guide Edition is both a boon and a bane. Just look at our nearest friendly rival Hong Kong — which we are often compared with — to see how the city’s F&B scene has evolved after the Michelin Guide arrived there eight years ago. Let us count the ways we can learn from Hong Kong:

1. Can we avoid the ‘Michelin curse’, please?

News reports from Hong Kong recently highlighted the “Michelin curse” of the spike in rent. Most foodies would know of the famed Kai Kai Dessert in Jordan, which dishes out the likes of sesame paste and papaya white fungus soups.

It received a nod in the newly introduced street food section of the latest Michelin Guide Hong Kong last November. It also got slapped with a 120 per cent rent hike by its landlord, forcing its owners to move.

Thankfully, a regular customer offered them a unit around the corner at a reasonable rate. Not every stall has such a happy ending.

The South China Morning Post reported in May that Cheung Hing Kee, a stall specialising in Shanghainese pan-fried buns, which also received the street food recognition from Michelin, closed its stall in Tseun Wan and reopened at a much smaller space in Tsim Sha Tsui after its rent got bumped up by 30 per cent.

2. It’s okay to start small and get flak

When the Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau was launched in 2008, the city experienced the same chest-beating angst and outcry which we saw in Singapore last week.

The New York Times noted in 2008 that the local press griped about “how foreigners could possibly understand Hong Kong food, why Hong Kong did not do as well as Tokyo, why the chosen were all ‘expensive’ high-end restaurants”. Sounds familiar?

In fact, there were 27 stars given out in Hong Kong and Macau in the first year, two less than Singapore’s inaugural haul of 29.

Although, it must be pointed out that a Cantonese restaurant, Lung King Heen at Four Seasons Hotel helmed by executive chef Chan Yan Tak, did get three stars — making it the world’s first Chinese restaurant to have received that honour. We haven’t gotten there — yet.

3. Milk the Michelin

Three words: Tim Ho Wan. In 2010, the then-dinky dim sum joint in Mong Kok made waves when it was anointed with one Michelin star. It earned the tag of “the world’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant”, which it has proudly claimed as its own.

Global coverage followed; snaking lines were seen and Tim Ho Wan opened more outlets across the city. By 2013, it expanded overseas to Singapore (remember the buzz about the first outlet at Plaza Singapura?), and its empire now includes branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Taipei, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

It is opening in Bangkok, South Korea and ahem, New York’s East Village next. Well, guess who can boast the cheapest Michelin-starred eatery now? Singapore can.

Already, hawker chef Chan Hon Meng of Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles told TODAY last week that he is considering opening another outlet with air-conditioning in a year’s time. You never know, perhaps Hill Street Tai Hwa’s bak chor mee might just be in Paris one day.

Similarly, Malcom Lee’s Candlenut is now the first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant in the world.

He has been snagged prior to his star by hotelier Christina Ong of the Como hotel group in an astute coup for the upcoming Como Dempsey cluster.

Ong’s Bangkok property Como Metropolitan partly made its name with David Thompson’s Nahm — the first Thai restaurant to get a Michelin star — located in-house. A recipe for success, surely.

4. Never lose what makes Singapore unique

Hardcore foodies and Hong Kong fans head to the city not because of its restaurants with Michelin stars.

They go straight for local faves such as Australian Dairy Company — with its creamy, lovely scrambled eggs and utterly smooth milk pudding — as well as Kau Kee Beef Brisket Noodles.

They go for original delicious food inventions that Hongkongers do so well — Little Bao, Oddies Foodies and Urban Bakery’s salted egg yolk croissants come to mind.

They go for fun F&B experiences in new, exciting neighbourhoods — check out Kennedy Town and the currently up-and-coming Shek Tong Shui farther up.

Singapore’s homegrown food scene is just as rousing. Young, inventive chefs here such as Bjorn Shen and Han Liguang are putting out good stuff.

There are cool eateries drawing a following in unlikely neighbourhoods — Creatures at Dunlop Street and Kite at Craig Street are two.

We have great concepts and awesome hawkers across the island from Timbre+ on one end to nasi lemak in Changi Village.

These are the places where travellers should be visiting.

There really is no need to dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant, which can be found in every other big city, is there? — TODAY

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