As a new generation of chefs come to the fore, it’s a familiar face at No.1 for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018
When Gaggan Anand took to the stage at the Wynn Palace, Macau, on the evening of March 27th to collect his fourth consecutive award for the No.1 Restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, he raised both arms triumphantly. A mischievous schoolboy’s grin stretched across his face. Happiness… or relief?
As Gaggan stood in front of his assembled peers – chefs, restaurateurs, industry journalists – there was applause. Cheering. Some whooping too. The academy chairs sitting in the front row stood up. Mobile phones were raised in unison, spoiling my view. Standing at the podium, Gaggan turned to Rydo Anton, his head chef (who will take over the restaurant in 2020, re-opening as Raa), and said, “You’re going to need to learn how to talk because you’ll be taking this over.” Then, he addressed the audience.
“I didn’t have a speech. I started cooking 22 years back, and dreams do come true. It’s incredible, but I want my friends back. I don’t want to make 49 enemies, so I don’t want to be part of the misery. This will be my last Asia’s 50 Best.” It was a thunderbolt statement from the honoured luminary.
Opening the ceremony, and the sixth edition of the awards, the Director of the Macau Government Tourism Office (MGTO), ), Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, introduced the event as one of the leading highlight activities to mark the local ‘Year of Gastronomy’, after Macau Special Administrative Region was awarded the status of a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in November last year. In February, MGTO said visitor arrivals to Macau had topped 32 million, a rise of 5.4 percent from 2016. For a rather diminutive population of 600,000 – compared to neighbours Hong Kong at 7.4 million – they appear capable of serving more than 30 million tourists; including some of the most demanding and grouchy of international gastronomes, as they more than proved this year.
The setting of Macau, on the tip of mainland China west of Hong Kong, can be described as the “Vegas of China”. Indeed, globally it has the reputation as a mecca of gambling and glitz, and yet, it is also establishing itself as a thriving culinary destination; shaped by its Portuguese and Asian heritage. And, with the Wynn Resorts (Wynn Palace, also referred to as Wynn Palace Cotai, and Wynn Macau) having signed a two-year hosting contract, you can expect Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 to be an even bigger extravaganza than this year.
Before the ceremony, I spoke to Chef Tam Kwok Fung of Jade Dragon, a restaurant set within the vast City of Dreams resort in Macau. I asked him how the new UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy status would benefit Macau and where, currently, he sees their place in the global culinary world.
“The quality of restaurants in Macau has impressed the world,” he told me. “We have a personal touch here, and this is important for visitors. For organizations to give recognition, though, everything needs to be at the very highest standard, always. Not for one service, but for 365 days a year.”
On the evening of the awards ceremony, William Drew, Group Editor of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, commented on an outstanding year for restaurants in Asia. “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list welcomes eight new entries in 2018, recognising the ongoing culinary innovation happening in this region,” he said. “In its sixth year, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants continues to recognise new talents, identify trends, and celebrate excellence. We are thrilled to honour the 50 restaurants on the 2018 list, as well as the individual award winners, who inspire us with their singular visions and remarkable achievements.”
Of the eight new entries, two were re-entries: No.46 Caprice (Hong Kong, China) and No.48 La Maison de la Nature Goh (Fukuoka, Japan). Nicolas Lambert from Caprice was also awarded Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, an award sponsored by Valrhona. The highest new entry was La Cime (Osaka, Japan) coming into the list at an impressive No.17. Representing Macau, Chef Tam’s Jade Dragon was No.35, the sole representative for Macau. Japan was the overall country winner with 11 entries, while Hong Kong and Bangkok were tied with nine.
The fact that nine restaurants from Bangkok appeared on the list this year is a cause for celebration, building on an impressive showing since the awards first launched in 2013. Look how the city has performed in the past: Nahm at No.3 in 2013 (Gaggan No.10, Sra Baa by Kiin Kiin No.29, Bo.Lan No.36), then scooping the No.1 spot in 2014 (it placed No.10 this year). Gaggan was No.3 in 2014, then claimed the No.1 spot in 2015, 2016, 2017, and again in 2018.
This year’s results confirm Bangkok’s status as a culinary force in Asia, although there is work to be done beyond the capital in a continued effort to spread the diverse range of Thai cuisine across Asia and the world. Japan, by comparison, had representatives in three cities: Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka. Time will tell, but regional Thai food must continue to push and innovate, then, perhaps, we’ll see the likes of outposts in Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Phuket appearing on the list. Thailand and Thai food deserve full recognition, and I’m sure all other Asia nations would say the same of themselves.
Of the nine Bangkok entries this year, The Dining Room at The House of Sathorn came in at No.43, and Issaya Siamese Club at No.39. List stalwart Bo.Lan was at No.37, and Eat Me came in at No.33. Then, at No.31 was list newcomer Paste with Chef Bee Satongun also winning the award for Asia’s Best Female Chef 2018, an award sponsored by Elit Vodka. Meanwhile, Le Du climbed an impressive 23 entries to reach No.14, and Nahm came in at No.10. Finally, Sühring leapt from No.13 to No.4.
After the ceremony, whispers abounded that Sühring could very well be a future No.1 winner, their modern German offering of schnitzel, sauerkraut, and wurst proving a hit across Asia. Of course, this year, that spot was already occupied by their beneficiary, Gaggan. Again.
Other awards presented on the evening went to Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet (Shanghai, China) for The Art of Hospitality; Toyo Eatery (Manila, Philippines) for the Miele One To Watch Award; and André Chaing, of Raw (Taipei) and formerly of Restaurant André (Singapore), this year’s recipient of The Diners Club Life me Achievement Award.
A journalist from Hong Kong asked me if I was surprised with the result? I answered that I haven’t eaten at the other 49 restaurants, so couldn’t possibly compare them. In truth, I’ve eaten at about one-third, but still, how can you draw comparisons and select an ultimate winner? The idea is preposterous.
I have eaten at Gaggan and believe that, much like Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, and Massimo Bottura, he demonstrates a creative flair with an ever-evolving menu. Above all, like all of the aforementioned chefs, he shows consistency while being adaptable, demonstrating a constant creative evolution. Gaggan is a talented chef, no doubt, everyone on the list is, but he’s playful too – mixing a childlike sparkle with fine dining ethics. Is this what sets Gaggan apart?
The Gaggan restaurant is more of a project than a simple standalone dining venue. Never stuffy, always fun. It’s a place where chefs cook, experiment, teach, and educate. The food here is merely the result of much travel, research, and exhaustive experimentation on, with the warmth of Gaggan overwhelming any deficiencies of the food. It tastes good because it’s made with lashings, smears, drizzles, and nests of goodness. Plus, some heavy metal rock music, too
An emoji menu at Gaggan is tacky, but a stroke of modern genius during a time when images are replacing words and diners judge a plate, even before they’ve tasted it, purely on the description alone. Gaggan wishes his guests not be influenced by ingredients and lengthy descriptions; to dive in, bravely, and uninhibited. The menu is a dip and dive, it’s up-and-down, sometimes requiring cutlery, then no cutlery, then fingers only, then licking the plate clean. It is sensory eating and, in turn, like no other restaurant in Asia (that I’ve eaten at, anyway). I suppose it is, for want of a better word, “progressive.”
While I find it difficult to select a single restaurant in all of Asia to sit atop the mountain, we must applaud Gaggan and his team and the work of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Although they have their critics, they do break away from superannuated Michelin in a fun and dynamic way, providing a barometer of gastronomic trends as it competes to be the most famous arbiter of good taste in the world. It is a list, of course, but also an inventory of restaurant recommendations and kitchen observance, as well as a celebration of the universality of cuisines.
This is a time of fast-paced restaurant openings and closings. Any financial advisor worth their ridiculously-overpriced suit would advise against opening a restaurant. Why would you? The hours are crazy and the pressure immense. The odds are stacked against you. That’s why chefs are a loopy lot. As AA Gill once observed, “The reason that chefs become chefs is that they’re not allowed into rooms with windows.” And yet, we see new restaurants opening week after week in cities across the world. That has to be encouraging.
As the Mick Jagger of the kitchen, Gaggan travels tirelessly, as do all of the Top 50 chefs – travelling the world together, visiting each other’s restaurants, cooking together (4-hands, 6-hands, 8-hands, there was even an 18-hand lunch at 81⁄2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Macau). They cook, present, discuss, and entertain ravenous ‘foodies’. They’re a travelling circus of short-fused chefs with their pans and spatulas; hanging out at global food gatherings like GELINAZ, Identità Golose, Care’s, Gastronomika, and Bangkok’s own WIG and BITE (powered by Gastronauts Asia) – supporting, challenging and encouraging across universal lines.
For me though, what is more exciting now is the rise of new chefs and new restaurants. Seeing Chef Bee from Paste take the stage to collect her award, not merely a female chef (although, one of only three female chefs to appear in the Top 50 along with Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava from Bo.Lan and Suraja Ruangnukulkit from Nahm -all Thai), but a chef, outperforming and out-achieving many other chefs, whatever their sex. Along with her husband, Jason Bailey, they have achieved something extraordinary; researching, cooking and presenting foregone Thai recipes, many based on old family recipes, with a twist of modernity. I ate lunch there recently and was stunned by the colours, tastes, and attention to detail.
And then Le Du, jumping so high; the achievements of Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn and his business partner Rungroj ‘Tao’ Ingudananda, recognized and aptly awarded. And what about Sühring? The identical twin German siblings are cooking in Bangkok to a mostly Thai customer base. Who do they think they are? Their climb is impressive, and they don’t show signs of slowing.
Post-ceremony, Gaggan commented further on the remarks made during his acceptance speech. “I want all the voters to stop voting for me,” he said, controversially. “After four wins, I’ll finish it there, like Björn Borg at Wimbledon. This is controversial, but this is honestly how I feel. Over the past couple of days, I’ve met so many chefs who are friends, behaving as if I’m number one and they’re number two, or number three, or number 10, or whatever. They’ve given up, what’s the point to compete? They’ve stopped smiling at me. I didn’t do any personal harm to them. I want my friends back.”
The reality for Gaggan is that it might not be as straightforward as expelling himself from the list. As William Drew noted, “Restaurants cannot choose to be in the list—they are voted for—so by the same token they cannot choose to be removed unless they closed or are closing imminently (within three months of the publication of the list).” And what about The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in Bilbao on June 19th? Gaggan restaurant is currently placed at No.7. Will this be his farewell tour, his last dance with his kitchen peers?
“I think we can expect to see Gaggan on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019,” added Drew. “Whether it remains number one or not will only be revealed at this me next year.” So again, eyes will turn to the glitz and vibrancy of Macau in 2019 as we wait in suspense of Gaggan’s appearance (or absence) from the list.
And how will Bangkok as a whole perform next year? Personally, I anticipate the city eclipsing its nine restaurants set this year. Perhaps debuts for 80/20, Le Normandie, Gaa, Appia, JUA, or Upstairs at Mikkeller? Let’s not forget the city’s new GohGan project, Gaggan and Chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama’s tofu restaurant, Mihara Tofuten Bangkok. And will we see a representative from wider afield in Thailand? I hope so (if you’re reading this, voters). Let’s speak again in 12 months.
For a full list of the Top 50 restaurants, visit: www.theworlds50best.com/asia/en/
All photographs supplied by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.