Since the advent of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 (and in particular 2016 and 2017 when the City of Angels hosted the 50 Best awards) and the first Michelin Guide Thailand in 2017, the buzz has been undeniable. But the feelings about the prizes from industry folk have been mixed: excitement and goodwill have lately been overshadowed by growing scepticism and even resentment.
Any informed foodie has heard the (unconfirmed) rumours involving the awards being beholden to the whims of sponsors or selection processes that benefit the highly influential. Many people are disillusioned by the uneven playing field between the restaurants that lavish all-expense paid junkets to attract potential influencers and possible voters and those that cannot. Others point to blatant conflicts of interest.
Additionally, there are the restaurants that worked tirelessly to raise the exceptional standard of French, Italian and other cuisines in Thailand long before the trend for fine-dining boomed, but are now overlooked in favour of flashier venues both international and Thai.
With all this drama being aired on social media, blogs and forums, I beg to ask: how do we fix it? Should the winners return their awards? Of course not. Frankly, not one establishment in Thailand bestowed with a Michelin Guide listing or 50 Best rankings has refused the honour, nor did they decline the free publicity and influx of customers that often (but not always) came with it. And you know why? Because they are happy to have it! If not for themselves, then at least for their team who are energised by the recognition and for all the people whose lives are affected by success. We foodies know that owning a restaurant is notoriously considered the Russian roulette of the business world where failures far outnumber successes.
Why then do some of us harbour so much animosity for the guides when they have driven a new breed of culinary tourism to Bangkok, giving Thailand something to brag about other than prostitution, tuk-tuks and picture postcard beaches? Don’t awards give the recipients a platform to dig deeper into their culinary roots, explore their creativity and promote growing movements like locavorism and sustainability?
Do we even need to mention that the standard of cuisine has soared since Bangkok came under global scrutiny? Talented chefs have upped their game, competing for recognition that they couldn’t even dream of before.
Even so, some may argue it has brought a commercial hunger with hotels, investors and yes, even some chefs, shamelessly developing brands designed to make the cut. So how do we see through the bull? Maybe it’s time to change the format of the awards, adding more transparency, more rigorous auditing and stricter regulations to keep sponsors, voters and their culinary cronies from being tempted to manipulate the system. Most of all, maybe instead of bitchin’, we should be eatin’, lovin’ and fixin’.