Michelin's Chinese dilemma

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-13 10:46
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When and if the Michelin Guide braves an entry into Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, it will probably create a great divide among the gourmet mafia.

The young and impressionable, the newly rich eager to follow benchmarks in designer fashion will treat the Guide as their eat-out Bible. True connoisseurs of the Eight Major Cuisines, however, are more likely to be scrutinizing the credentials of the Michelin inspectors more than their recommendations.

In a country that has four thousand years of culinary heritage, the Little Red Book from a tire manufacturer may find it hard to make an impact beyond a superficial circle of foreigners and novices.

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Even in Hong Kong, where the Guide made its first foray into a mainly Chinese culinary enclave, the Michelin Guide is both riled and revered, with some lauding its newly crowned stellar chefs and an equal number scoffing at its choices.

Much of the local prejudice stems from the perception that the Guide has largely European influences on which it has built its influence, starting from the humble beginnings when it was merely as a reference for those who traveled and needed to find a good repast on the road.

In Hong Kong, I imagine the Michelin inspectors were either being chauffeured around, or were slumming on the trains with no close or intimate knowledge of the original products the company is known for.

Chinese lives revolve around a good meal, and we are so proud of our food that there is a well-known saying that goes: "An emperor lives for his subjects, his subjects live for their food."

Hardly surprising then that food is a sacred cow, and woe betide the foreigner who dares encroach this holy ground.

News reports in 2008 cited surprised restaurateurs who were the first ones in Hong Kong presented with Michelin credentials by very European inspectors at the end of a meal.

However, by the third edition published in September last year, the Michelin Guide was discovering the true attractions of Hong Kong, including its most famous roast goose restaurant with its signature century eggs with their melting centers.

They also featured a dim sum restaurant that was hardly more than a roadside stall and also bravely bucked the trend by awarding three stars to a restaurant known for its signature sharks fin soup. (The Guide later capitulated by saying it was the cooking of other dishes they were recognizing, not the sharks fin soup. Hmm.)

It augurs well for the Guide that it is starting to recognize the wide spectrum that Chinese cuisine commands, a subject so broad that it may take several lifetimes to master, and certainly several generations of Michelin inspectors to even scratch the surface.

Another factor the Guide has to contend with is the workings of the traditional Chinese kitchen. The Chinese celebrity chef was an unknown species up until very recently. The well-run kitchen operates like a piece of amply lubricated machinery with every section chef a master at his own station, whether it be an elaborate garnish of vegetable and fruit carving or the making of a delicate glaze that shines like liquid crystal. There are experts who just cut, slice, sliver and shave meat and vegetables and there are specialist who do nothing but plate.

All the chefs we interviewed for our story credited their kitchen support network, and rightly so.

But the times they are a-changing.

There will be the rise of the maverick chefs who forego the long kitchen apprenticeships and depend on talent and creativity to make an impact, incorporating Western kitchen science with the very Chinese concepts of "color, fragrance and taste".

To many, there is yet another element - that of presentation. Because, as the marketing boys say - it's all in the packaging.

Even the old guards are allowing themselves to enjoy the advantages of the new order. As Chef Chan Yan Tak of the three-starred Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons admit, working within a top class hotel gives him the logistics support that brings the freshest ingredients from all over the world to his kitchen counter, a fact that no doubt light his meteoric rise to the Michelin galaxy.

Hong Kong is a baby step into China, an easy entry because it is a small and manageable territory. The real challenge will come when the Michelin inspectors work to hunt down the best restaurants in every alley and every hutong when they are confident enough to go into the mainland.

For as every Chinese knows, the best cooking has nothing to do with the size or dcor of the restaurant, nor the fame of its chef.