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Blog // Thoughts
December 3, 2008

Hong Kong’s Michelin Stars

Let the controversy begin. Michelin are finally releasing their Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau’s restaurants and there is sure to be a storm of protest about the awards given, the restaurants not recognised and the comments and reviews. Hong Kong has done very poorly compared to Tokyo – 31 stars compared to 227. […]

Let the controversy begin. Michelin are finally releasing their Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau’s restaurants and there is sure to be a storm of protest about the awards given, the restaurants not recognised and the comments and reviews. Hong Kong has done very poorly compared to Tokyo – 31 stars compared to 227. Also Tokyo matches Paris with 9 restaurants winning the 3 star award, compared to one for Hong Kong and one for Macau.

Frankly, I’m not surprised. Hong Kong has great food and a rich food culture, there’s no question about that. But standards of service and consistency of food preparation are wildly variable, even in the so-called, best restaurants and it is remarkably easy to pay good money for bad food (and dour service). There’s also a lot of very expensive joints that do little more than reheat and dish out can and bag food.

It was good to see three personal favourites do very well. Lung King Heen one the city’s only three star. Although I find the service in the restaurant a little cold and stiff, the food is inspirational. We’ve enjoyed L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon since it opened and I’m personally very glad to see them recognised as one of the outstanding western restaurants in the city with a two star award. Robuchon’s vision merges traditional French ideas, with a Spanish influence and a modern sensibility – it’s quite honestly the kind of food I could eat everyday. Caprice also managed to gain two stars and deserve recognition for their innovative food and excellent wine-list.

Of course, not everyone is impressed. Today’s SCMP reports that a number of local food critics are scornful of the Guide. Chua Lam is quoted as saying the guide is “…just a joke… like a dialogue between idiots.” Walter Kei said “It only picked restaurants from a tourist’s point of view.” A common refrain was that the reviewers must not have understood Chinese food.

Now is not the time to unpack the whole issue of postcolonial history, but it’s hard not to see some lingering resentment and possibly even racism in some critics of the guide. Whilst Michelin does have a French bias, it is a very international publication. It’s reviews are not populist, but based on a set of criteria that include not only taste, but service, consistency, creativity and flair. It’s more than fair to criticise the Guide for being elitist – a restaurant must invest an awful lot of money and employ a lot of staff to stand a chance of winning three stars. But, the cultural criticisms may well say more about the way the critics do not understand the guide, or perhaps over-estimate their own culture to the point of being blind to commentary.

I’m glad the Guide has arrived, I’m glad it has handed out only a few stars and I’m glad that it has created a controversy. Despite the quality and potential of the Hong Kong restaurant scene things really are in need of a shake up. If the guide does that and both food lovers and restauranteurs respond, then it will be a great service to the city.

Thank You Michelin.

Chester 16 years ago

I don’t see what is wrong with questioning the criteria of Michelin guide. After all, they don’t disclose their reviewing criteria. If you don’t have transparency in conducting your review, then of course there will be suggestions of eurocentric bias.
There is also another issue of food culture. Most of the michelin-star restuarants are located in hotels, but Hong Kongers in general do not eat in hotels except for special occasion. The local prefer to eat in a relaxed and easy-going setting, not the pretentious and stuffy atmosphere in a Michelin-star restaurant. In Chinese culture, who you eat with (family, friends) is just as important as what food you eat. That is why shared food. That is something the Michelin guide does not address.
Yes, some of the local restaurants in Hong Kong are not exactly up to standards, but the wild variety and colour of the Hong Kong food scene is what make this place so special. If all the local eatery becomes dour snobs thanks to Michelin, that would be a sad day for Hong Kong.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Chester – thanks for your comment. You’ve spoken directly to the most interesting criticisms of the guide and perhaps some where people might be misunderstanding it. I agree with a lot of what you have said and your point about how many of the starred restaurants are in hotels is a very important one. As for where people like to eat – well I like Lung King Heen, but it’s not my first choice for a family dinner, I’ll give you that.

But, much of your criticisms would be equally valid in other countries and a not Chinese-culture specific. After all, how many people in France, at every meal, opt for more “relaxed and easy-going” establishments that the ones Michelin prizes? Can we say that Michelin doesn’t understand French culture?

It is completely valid to criticise the Michelin project in the sense that it only reflects part the dining world. I don’t agree that the starred restaurants in Hong Kong (at least the ones I’ve visited) are “dour” and “pretentious” but I can see how others might. To be honest, I think the most dour and pretentious places I’ve visited in this city are not starred at all and it was nice to see a few of the more high profile ones in that category fail to make the grade. Sometimes an excessive formality overtakes restaurants that are not really confident or sure of what they are doing.

The criticism that fails, in my view is the one that starts with the premise that they don’t “understand our culture.” After all, Tokyo seems to have no problem gaining stars. The guide is only viable in Hong Kong because there are so many upmarket restaurants in the city and their market is not solely tourists and “foreigners.” It’s in this market that guide has a service to offer us, because in this market the people of Hong Kong are not that well served. If people don’t identify with this market, then why get worked up about the guide’s evaluations of it. Seems to me that people getting worked up about how restaurants they don’t like are perceived is a misplaced kind of pride.

That’s the context I’m trying to address with my blogpost and something I’ll return to, once I’ve had the chance to review the guide in full.

Tim Reynolds 16 years ago

Nice post. Thank you for the info. Keep it up.

Chester 16 years ago

I agree that Lung King Heen is pretty darn good, and I won’t mind eating there on occasion, but again the point is that the guide focuses almost exclusively on hotels. The typical dai pai dong may not have all the bells and whistles of a hotel restaurant, but can it be argued that the food there is somehow inferior to Michelin starred Chinese restaurant? Or about eating congee with yau zhar kway in the morning with your friends? The local food culture, food scene and atomsphere is something the guide does not capture very well, if the guide is suppose geared not just to “foreigners”.

Mark Lepine 16 years ago

Excellent post thank you.

I think Chester’s comments sum up exactly what the Michelin guide is all about – consitency. It is, I think, saying that we could all go to Bo Innovation or Lung King Heen and have a similar experience which, if you like that sort of thing (and can afford it), is an excellent one.

I would never be able to have an experience that Chester has eating congee in his local shop with his pals (I am a gweilo with limited Cantonese), nor perhaps would he enjoy a pre-match pint in one of the pubs surrounding West Ham’s ground as much as I would. Horses for courses.

There are loads of guides out there that tell us the best restaurant for a particular occasion and Michelin is just another one, but because of its longevity and consistency is more revered. I welcome it to HK.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

I’ve heard this line about the guide being focussed “almost exclusively on hotels” and it got me wondering. So, I grabbed a pencil and the back of an envelope and jotted down some stats; here’s what I found.

Of all the restaurants featured in the guide, only a third are in hotels. Of those that won stars, the split was 50:50 between those based in hotels and those based elsewhere.

Of the 24 restaurants that won the Bib Gourmand award (good quality and good value) only 2 were in hotels.

Chester 16 years ago

The thing with consistency is homogenizing. If you go to somewhere else, you should expect to try something new and different, I suppose Michelin is fine if you expect to cater to a similiar/identical food experience in Paris and Hong Kong. It’s safe and reliable to know what you expect to eat even in an “exotic” location. However, you would be missing out on a what makes a certain place unique. It’s like going on a holiday to Kenya and only staying in the top-end hotel without venturing out to see the country. Technically you are in another country, but you are really locked into the same old thing back home.
Any another thing, why should local food scene be limited to locals and
never be experienced by, pardon the term, “gweilos”? Isn’t it the job of food guide to introduce local food scene? This is the reverse xenophobic argument that the Frenchman of Michelin can’t understand Chinese food. Local food scene, should be introduce to a wider audience, instead of only highlighting the top-end locations. Why should’nt “foreigners” experience the taste of the locals?

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Chester, I find myself wondering how well you have read the guide. Sure, the guide is geared mostly towards high end eating, but there are quite a few reviews for basic and affordable eateries and also for restaurants that are well outside the typical touristy destinations.

Chester 16 years ago

Those affordable restaurants are few and far between, none of them are starred restaurants. Of course I have nothing against the Michehlin guide per se, I just don’t see how it is this unassailable and unquestionable guide that has to be right on everything about food. It’s ridiculous to suggest that just because a restaurant is or is not starred, it somehow determines the fate of the Hong Kong restaurant industry. That’s just absurd.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

OK, Chester, we get it. You don’t like the guide. No one, certainly not me, is claiming it is “unassailable,” “unquestionable” or always “right.” There’s a few reviews I certainly don’t agree with. Moreover, no-one is saying that stars will determine the fate of the local food industry. That fate is always in the industry’s own hands, in terms of the quality of food and service it provides.

You claimed that the guide was only focussed on restaurants in hotels, which I think I’ve shown to be untrue. You then claimed the guide did not highlight local food, which is also not true. Now you are making further claims and I’m not sure if they are directed at me or someone else, but they are not really focussed on the discussion at hand.

The people who work for the guide have done a pretty good job for the first time out. They managed to retain the high-end focus and give a sense of the kinds of places where quality is available. Michelin have offered a lot to all Hong Kong food lovers and I’m glad this guide is prompting many discussions around the city. For me, it is far ahead of any other restaurant guide available for Hong Kong. Criticism is always helpful, but random attacks will not advance anyone’s cause.

Chester 16 years ago

Ok, maybe my words were a little blunt, I got a little carried away since I am passionate about Hong Kong food. Apologies for any hurt feelings. I don’t want to get into any personal attack-type of argument either. So I’ll avoid any further controversies and leave by saying I hope the Michelin guide will bring increased business and tourism to the city, raise overall restaurant and food standards. At the same time I hope local restaurants won’t simply be dictated to by this one guide only because I don’t think this guide encompass all aspects of Hong Kong cuisine.

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