Food. We work, love, even cross continents for it. We adore certain foods with a passion, while disliking others to the point of hatred. There are no rules when it comes to taste, and this makes reviews and “best of” lists subjective – it’s hard to pin down the intangible quality of “yummy.”
Yet, the joy of eating is universal. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Asia, a continent that takes its food so seriously that almost every conversation, regardless of language or culture, begins with the question, “have you eaten?”
While people in cities with sophisticated dining scenes like Paris or New York City, seek out restaurants for their fine food, ambience, wine list, or sheer experience, they just as frequently do so for their celebrated chefs. Renowned chefs like Jamie Oliver and his restaurant Fifteen in London, see fanatic media coverage more frequently associated with pop stars.
From North America to Europe and Australia, the pursuit of fine dining is a great passion, with the world’s best chefs at the helm. But despite Asia’s great culinary delights, where street fare from Mumbai to Taipei are remarkable cuisines in their own right, try to name a “top Asian chef” and blank stares are often drawn.
Fine dining may be relatively new to Asia, but it is clear the world is beginning to notice her culinary achievements. The Michelin Guide, the prestigious guide to international dining, now publishes and ranks restaurants in an ever-growing number of Asian cities. The most recent exercise even saw Tokyo displacing Paris as the city with the largest number of three-star restaurants. Michelin stars are awarded sparingly and a 3-star Michelin ranking is exceedingly rare. As of November 2009, there were only eighty-one 3-star restaurants in the world.
The Singapore-based Miele Guide, a voter-driven restaurant ranking system, names the best 20 restaurants in Asia every year. Whether or not one relies on restaurant guides or word of mouth, one thing’s for sure: all across the continent, cities from Hong Kong to Bangkok, even Bangalore, are witnessing a seachange in the culinary world: diners are increasingly demanding, restaurants are better than ever, and chefs are accordingly sophisticated and inventive.
There may be no homegrown Robuchons, Adrià, Blumenthals or Ducasses, but everything related to the act of eating in Asia has always thrived on its own terms. A new generation of Asian chefs trained in the methods of Western kitchens, have begun to apply the flavours and ingredients of their heritage to modern techniques. In this day and age, it’s easy to enjoy a fine meal of any major cuisine in Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong, at great value and as good as any in New York.
The list of Asian chefs who have established remarkable careers is a long one. Singapore’s Andre Chiang, Justin Quek and Ronnie Chia have had trailblazing careers dishing out refined modern European, French and Japanese fare. Malaysia’s Cheong Liew, widely revered in Malaysia and Australia, was the iconic masterchef at Adelaide’s The Grange. Antonio Escalante consistently serves up Manila’s best, while Av Khanijou’s creates superb northern Indian dishes inspired by her Indian-Thai heritage in Pattaya. Meanwhile, Takashi Kimura’s sublime Japanese-inspired French nouvelle cuisine in Kuala Lumpur is turning heads, as are Lebanese-Australian chef Greg Malouf’s contemporary Middle East dishes.
The most exciting part of Asia’s great culinary arts is when chefs either define tradition and do so exceedingly well, or when they manage to fuse their Western training and techniques with their Asian heritage to create bold and new flavours never before experienced.
From Kyoto to Bangkok, Hoi An to Hong Kong, my choices for Asia’s top chefs eschew the conventional, opting for the fine line between tradition and invention.
Read more about our top chefs:
YOSHIMI TANIGAWA - The Spirit of Kyoto
TRAN THANH DUC - Tradition and Innovation
DUANGPORN SONGVISAVA - The Modern Ancients
ALVIN LEUNG - The Demon Chef