Around this time last year, I was at the Wynn Palace Macau waiting with anticipation for the announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2018—the 50 lucky restaurants soon to be hailed as the best in the region, at least for the next 12 months.
This week, I’m set to fly to Macau once again for the 2019 round of what is commonly regarded as the “Oscars” of the restaurant world. An offshoot of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (which is happening this June 25 in Singapore, by the way), Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants has become much cause for celebration and debate over its relevance, influence, even validity. Who decides the ranking? What are the criteria? And why wasn’t any Philippine restaurant on last year’s list?
For the uninitiated but interested, here’s a quick rundown of what Asia’s only restaurant ranking is all about.
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How did it start?
Launched in 2013, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, is modeled after the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Founded and run by UK-based William Reed Business Media, this global ranking was launched in 2002, and soon became a much-recognized alternative to other older rating systems (aka, the Michelin Guide). The World’s 50 Best is acknowledged with anointing the 21st century “gods” of the culinary world, Ferran Adrià of elBulli in Spain and René Redzepi of Noma in Denmark.
With the launch of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants as well as Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013, Asian and Latin American restaurants entered the global culinary stage with a bang, subsequently placing high in the world rankings as well. In 2018, Asia’s No. 1 restaurant, Gaggan, ranked No. 5 in the world, with Central and Maido, Latin America’s No. 2 and No. 1 restaurants respectively, following at No. 6 and No. 7.
How does it work?
Unlike the Michelin Guide, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants doesn’t employ secret inspectors who follow strict standards to assess restaurants. Instead, the organizers set up an Academy composed of 318 food experts—chefs, restaurateurs, food journalists, and well-traveled gourmets—coming from six voting regions (the Philippines belongs to the Southeast Asian region), each headed by a chairperson. These “judges” secretly vote online, ranking their top 10 restaurant picks, with up to 6 from their home country and at least 4 from other countries in Asia. Instead of providing a set criteria, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants leaves it up to the voters to determine for themselves what constitutes “the best” in any given year. While admitting that such a list can “never be definitive,” its website asserts, “it is an honourable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat across Asia.”
In a way, this system allows for more forward thinking, innovative restaurants—precisely the kind of places that industry insiders and hard core food connoisseurs tend to seek out—to be included on the list, as opposed to more traditional or popular spots that tend to rank high on web-based public surveys like TripAdvisor or Yelp.
What other awards are given?
Aside from the unveiling of the top 50, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants also bestows special awards to deserving individuals and restaurants. Last year, Manila’s own Toyo Eatery won the Miele One To Watch award, identified as a rising star with potential to break into the top 50. The Philippines’ own Margarita Forés was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016.
Ahead of the 2019 award ceremony, the organizers have already announced Chef Seiji Yamamoto of Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo as winner of the American Express Icon Award, Garima Arora of Gaa in Bangkok as elit Vodka Asia’s Best Female Chef, and JL Studio in Taiwan as this year’s Miele One To Watch. During the ceremony, other awards anticipated to be given are The Art of Hospitality, Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, Chef’s Choice, and the Sustainable Restaurant Award.
How fair and objective is the ranking?
As with any ratings system, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants has its share of drawbacks. While the list of Academy members is kept confidential, and they are dissuaded from identifying themselves as such, there is always the danger of members using this clout to their advantage. For one, they are not restricted from accepting invitations or complimentary meals from restaurants. And even if they don’t make themselves known as voters, it doesn’t take much for restaurants to second guess their credentials. The list depends on an honor system of sorts for Academy members to follow at their discretion. The only rules are: they must have dined at the restaurants they vote for in the last 18 months, and they are not allowed to vote for restaurants they own or have a financial stake in. The organizers have to trust that the judges exhibit discernment and integrity in their voting.
Why isn’t the Philippines on the list?
That’s one question I get asked a lot—where are the Philippine restaurants? While Antonio’s and Gallery Vask (recently re-conceptualized as Gallery by Chele and Studio Lab) appeared on the list in previous years, no Philippine restaurant made it in 2018. Instead, restaurants from Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore dominate, taking 36 out of the 50 slots on last year’s list. In truth, it comes as no surprise that these four countries consistently come out on top. After all, much of what gets included in the list depends on where the voters decide to travel to eat. What will compel them to fly to Manila to check out the dining scene here? Just one potential list-worthy restaurant on their radar may not be worth the effort of visiting Manila, but perhaps a handful of hopefuls may get them to book that flight. Case in point are Taiwan and Korea. Both landed 3 restaurants each on last year’s list, generating enough buzz for voters to consider visiting and revisiting these countries.
Also, it’s quite common practice for tourism agencies or other relevant organizations to invite journalists and food personalities to visit their countries, all expenses paid. While these campaigns may not necessarily directly target Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, what they do is boost the profiles of their countries’ dining scene, and by extension, a better shot at the list.
And so that’s the challenge that all restaurants are faced with—how to get on the radar of the 300+ Academy members casting their votes. Those that gain enough buzz—whether through networking-savvy chefs, visible social media presence, or the efforts of publicity and marketing campaigns—can be rewarded with inclusion into the culinary world’s most exclusive club, with prestige and financial rewards to follow.
On March 26, 2019, starting at 6 pm, at the Wynn Palace Macau, 50 of the best restaurants in Asia will be announced. I’ll be there to acknowledge the winners, and crossing my fingers, to cheer on a Philippine restaurant to make it this year.
Watch the livestream of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants on Facebook. To learn more, visit https://www.theworlds50best.com/asia/en/
Photos courtesy of Wynn Palace Macau and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants
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