Why Shanghai’s Michelin Guide Made the Wrong Choices

2016-10-31 04:21:18

The Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017 was officially published on Sept. 21. It awarded three stars to one restaurant, two stars to seven others, and one star to another 18 establishments. In addition, 25 other restaurants were listed as “Bib Gourmand” eateries: those that offer exceptional food at moderate prices. As Michelin’s first guide to be published on the Chinese mainland, its release sparked discussion among the city’s food lovers.

Whether or not the guide accurately reflects the diversity of opinion on Shanghai’s best restaurants, there is no doubt that it represents a significant milestone for the city’s food culture. The introduction of this new “little red book” is testament to the leading role Shanghai has played in raising China’s standard of living.

Since the release of the guide, business has been booming for Shanghai’s star restaurants, with some already taking bookings well into next year. However, the list has proved controversial both in the media and across the industry as a whole. One debate has concerned the extent to which it is reliable to let Western palates judge Chinese cuisine. This is a good point, particularly as the restaurants listed in the guide do not necessarily reflect the tastes of local Shanghainese people. 

As the owner of three restaurants, each of which serves a different cuisine, I have always believed that the importance of producing a unique, satisfying dish for the customer overshadows all else. Decent chefs can quite easily master the fundamentals, but truly great food has to be elevated to the plane of art. To channel the words of one of my inspirations, the exceptionally talented master of Sichuan cuisine Deng Huadong: “Food is art for the palate.”

Taste is subjective, but when you remove the cultural prompts that inform the generally agreed-upon standards of one area, you are left with a group of people who are arguably unfit to pass judgment on local cuisine.

In the context of Chinese cuisine, my personal interpretation of this statement is this: Truly great food holds within it not only a balance of color, fragrance, and taste, but also of form and meaning.

It goes without saying that Chinese food is very different from most cuisines developed in the West. Yet when it comes to color, it seems we all agree that we eat with our eyes as much as with our mouths. Of course, the factors that prompt us to decide whether the colors of a dish are suited to its heritage vary among cultures.

To me, fragrance is more tightly bound up with the temperature at which the dish is served. For instance, the spectacularly named “oil-sprinkled tiger tail,” a specialty of Huaiyang cuisine from eastern China’s Jiangsu province, uses eel meat. The last three inches of the tail are filleted and then fried in hot oil, its fragrance wafting through the room. Because the dish is at its best when its temperature is hottest, you have to seat customers who order it near the kitchen. They should then eat up while the eel is piping hot to enjoy the combinations of smell and flavor as much as possible.

Taste is more subjective. China has eight major culinary traditions, and whether the desired style is traditional or contemporary, the focus remains as always on striking the perfect balance among sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and bitter. In the search for equilibrium, Chinese chefs have developed broadly accepted ideas about which flavors work well together, and which do not. Fried eggs with tomatoes or chili peppers, for example, can be delicious. But unlike, say, Italian or Indian cuisine, we rarely mix fried tomatoes and chili peppers together. The effect would be similar to, say, putting string beans on a pizza.

In the past few years, Chinese chefs have absorbed new ideas from both domestic and foreign culinary traditions and are now more open to combining them on the plate. This has led to a deeper level of thinking about what new dishes can mean to the customer when they lack traditional reference points. In terms of form, many restaurateurs have become more receptive to the idea of individual meals in the Western sense, and rely less on the Chinese tradition of sharing communal dishes. Meanwhile, the emergence of creative concept restaurants and all manner of fusion cuisines also indicates how the industry is becoming more willing to reframe the question of meaning in food in a way that still resonates with the diner.

Having read through the new Michelin Guide Shanghai, I’m not entirely convinced that it has fully respected the principles on which local people judge Chinese cuisine. For one thing, the majority of stars were awarded to Cantonese restaurants. While the healthy, high-quality ingredients that feature in Cantonese food are rightly well-regarded, I feel that this primarily reflects Western ideals of taste and presentation. If only Cantonese food is spotlighted, then the award seems poorly researched and too insular.

It’s no wonder, then, that we have witnessed something of a backlash against the guide since its publication. Everyone has their own culinary memories. Whether it’s the braised pork that Mom used to prepare after school or the restaurant where Dad used to take us for getting an “A” on the end-of-term test, flavors that have stayed with us influence our personal taste preferences later on. Despite this, local communities often have relatively consistent ideas of what constitutes good food. To me, it does not seem that the Michelin Guide accurately reflects those ideas in Shanghai.

As the Michelin Guide is written by outsiders, Shanghai’s foodies already have a ready-made response to its choices: Chinese food cannot be judged fairly by Western standards, as the cultural differences between us have given Western palates a host of different expectations. Taste is subjective, but when you remove the cultural prompts that inform the generally agreed-upon standards of one area, you are left with a group of people who are arguably unfit to pass judgment on local cuisine.

At the same time, though, the guide does have its benefits. It brings both economic advantages and upgraded quality to Shanghai’s food and beverage industry. Future editions of the guide may see restaurants promoted, demoted, or removed completely, which will introduce extra competition to the market. The guide also recognizes chefs for the effort they put into their cuisine and service. My only hope is that future Michelin Guides to Shanghai will feature a better understanding of local flavors.

(Header image: Justin Tan, the head chef of Shanghai's T ’ang Court restaurant, at work in his kitchen, Sept. 21, 2016. Johannes Eisele/AFP/VCG )