Culinary Couture: Michelin-Starred Dining Experiences in Asia

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The star rating system was first introduced in 1926 by the Michelin tire company in order to help spur interest in automobile travel and consequently increase demand for Michelin tires. The premise was that the more independent travel people engaged in, the more wear and tear on their tires and the more likely they would be to purchase Michelin replacements. The guide would be distributed free of charge and included maps, instructions for changing a tire, listings of gasoline stations and mechanics, and of course, hotel and restaurant listings. Restaurants would only be graded on a 3 star scale and it wasn’t until many decades later that the system would be expanded to include recommendations for local establishments and street food. The rating system had the same general principles as it does today, 1 star denoted a good place to stop on your journey, 2 stars indicated a detour was in order, and 3 stars signified a restaurant worth a journey in itself. This guide was published for several different countries in Europe and would not be introduced in Asia or the Americas until much later.

The Prestige of Michelin Stars

The criteria for the stars has changed over the years, delving deeper and deeper into a focus on food. In the beginning, there was no fixed guide; readers had to simply know their stars. It was not until 1931 that the criteria were printed next to the stars, and the criteria were based upon five things: The quality of the ingredients, the skill in which they are prepared, the combination of flavors, the authenticity of the cuisine and, of course, the consistency of the quality. At that time, 3 stars meant that the restaurant was so exceptional that it was worth traveling to the region, 2 stars meant that the restaurant was of high quality and 1 star meant it was a good place to stop while traveling. In 1936, the criteria were changed to symbolize the stars as the hierarchy of need in food: 1 star meant a very good restaurant, 2 stars meant a restaurant worth a detour, and 3 stars meant an exceptional cuisine worth a special journey. The latest version of the criteria comes out of 2005, with the release of a fully fledged evaluation system and a pocket-sized version of the guide. This version has even more criteria than the last, delving deep into every facet of restaurant operation, and with a separate French and Benelux edition of the guide, the staff is bigger than ever.

The Michelin Guide is one of the best known and most respected restaurant and hotel guides in the world. It was first published in 1900 to create demand for automobiles and, consequently, car tyres. The brothers behind the guide, Andre and Edouard Michelin, had no idea how it would bloom into a global guide of great influence on restaurant and hotel culture. Today everyone knows Michelin as the tire company and the little white mascot, but the guides are the reason Michelin holds the prestige that it does. The guide awards one, two, or three stars to a small number of restaurants of outstanding quality. Stars are worn as badges of honor and are highly sought after by restaurants the world over.

Rising Popularity of Asian Cuisine

Asia has developed a sophisticated variety of cuisine, where often the quality of flavors, textures, and fragrances are achieved with an array of ingredients that accomplish the admirable feat of being unique to the rest of the world. And after years of striving to get its food recognized, in 2007 this ambition was finally fulfilled when Michelin launched its inaugural guide in Tokyo. The Guide to Tokyo 2008 was the first time that Michelin had produced a guide for anywhere in Asia and after much friendly and unreadable anticipation Tokyo was awarded a total of 191 stars across 150 restaurants, which is far more than New York or Paris, making Tokyo the world’s leading city in terms of quality dining. Michelin has since awarded stars to Singapore and Hong Kong and the prestige was also brought to Shanghai and most recently Bangkok with a “recommendations list”. This movement sees a global shift in to the acceptance and understanding of Asian cuisine not just within local culture, but something that is fundamentally worthwhile in a global context. Michelin has played an instrumental role in rating and grading dishes by using a “star system.” The criteria for the stars has changed over time, but the general principle remains the same; being that a single star is awarded for high quality cooking that is “worth a stop”, two stars are for excellent cooking that is “worth a detour”, and three stars means exceptional cuisine that is “worth a special journey”. The stars are a widely recognized and prestigious accolade in the culinary industry. This is a bold move from Michelin as for the first time in its century old history, it is officially providing a standard of criteria that is not based on European food. This embraces a more universal understanding and appreciation of culinary arts.

Michelin-Starred Dining in Asia

The most Michelin-starred restaurant country in Asia is Japan. Famous for their sushi, tempura, sukiyaki, and kaiseki multi-course dining, there is a myriad of food to enjoy in Japan. There are many top restaurants in Japan that have been awarded with Michelin stars, but the most famous chef in Japan to date is arguably Joël Robuchon, with his various restaurants in Tokyo and more recently in Osaka. His restaurant in Ebisu has been awarded three Michelin stars, and for 6900 yen (~$82 USD), one can have a taste of the renowned Robuchon mashed potatoes with black truffles. Coming to Japan has led to more global attention being focused on the Japanese food scene, and it may not be long before Japan becomes a culinary hotspot for food lovers around the world.

The Michelin Guide is the oldest and best-known European hotel and restaurant guide which awards a star to those deserving restaurants listed in its famous red book. The acquisition or loss of a Michelin star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. Michelin stars are a much-coveted award in the culinary world, and the star is highly respected. Restaurants graded with a star are seen to be among the best restaurants, and those graded with multiple stars are usually held with high regard. It is this awarding of stars that has brought the attention of many food lovers over to Asia, to try some of the best dining the world has to offer. It’s not cheap, however, as fine dining in these restaurants can cost a month’s worth of wages in some Asian countries. But for those willing to part with their cash in search of the ultimate culinary experience, it can be money well spent.

Thanks to its rich culinary traditions and cultures, Asia has no shortage of staple dishes rich in flavors, taste, and history. Many Asian countries are known for their street food and food hawker scene; in some countries, these foods are the epitome of the local way of life. One of the few things that show the world that Asians can deliver fine dining to match the best in the world is the presence of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Iconic Restaurants in Japan

Although Tokyo is famed for its French and sushi establishments, there is a great variety of other cuisines available. The 2016 guide awarded Sant Pau with 3 stars for its top quality Catalan fare. Chef Carme Ruscalleda has recreated the ambiance of her famous Sant Pol de Mar restaurant, serving imaginative cuisine with a view of the Tokyo skyline. Japan’s love for Italian cuisine is reflected by the 14 Michelin-starred Italian restaurants in Tokyo, two of which have been awarded 1 star. Azabu Kadowaki serves the very best in contemporary Tuscan cuisine; the sommelier’s suggested wine pairs perfectly with dishes such as ‘charcoal-grilled Japanese Black beef’ or ‘roasted rabbit in a herb crust.’ Can Ricci in Nishi-Azabu offers a more traditional style of Italian cooking, with an extensive range of antipasti and pasta dishes made from the best Italian and Japanese ingredients.

For quintessential French cuisine, many of the most celebrated restaurants in Tokyo are run by Japanese chefs who have trained in France. Quintessence, 4-time winner of 3 Michelin stars, boasts modern French cuisine in a simple yet elegant environment. Signature dishes include the ‘Sautéed Akamutsu with butterbur and truffle puree’ and ‘Roasted Pigeon with cassis and red wine sauce’. L’Effervescence has been awarded 2 Michelin stars for its innovative and contemporary French fare – make sure you try the ‘Sakura Smoked Pigeon’, prepared right before your eyes. With 3 Michelin stars, Joel Robuchon’s Japanese flagship, Restaurant Joël Robuchon, offers modern French dining at its finest. The ‘menu dégustation découverte’ is a 9-course dégustation which highlights the ongoing seasonal specialties.

In 2009, the first edition of the Tokyo Michelin Guide was released, launching Japan into the international gourmet spotlight. To this day, Tokyo has retained the title of the city with the most Michelin stars in the world. A remarkable 13 establishments received 3 stars in the latest 2016 guide, ensuring that the city remains the most exciting place in the world to experience fine dining.

Exquisite Flavors in Hong Kong

The most awaited Michelin Guide to the cities of Macau and Hong Kong has included some of the most thrilling and inimitable dining options that are recognized throughout Asia. This guide ranges from the low priced meals to the high class dining experiences. 63 of Hong Kong and Macau’s restaurants have been included in the guide. Twenty-two establishments in Hong Kong and 1 in Macau earned their first star. Among these are some of the classic Hong Kong treats like Dim Sum, to other Chinese regional cuisine and also French, Italian, and Japanese options. Interviewing one of the chefs from a one-star establishment, he considered this a great achievement for a chef to receive such an award and the establishment, be it small or have a hundred employees, everybody benefits. The dinnerware, linen, and kitchen staff all had upgrades to provide better food and service. The guide creates healthy competition in the establishments and chefs, resulting in better dining and experience for their customers. And about two chefs from two-star and one chef from a three-star establishment shared the same opinion that it is good for the diners as there would be more affordable options in addition to their Michelin-starred dining, catering to a variety of budgets.

Gastronomic Delights in Singapore

Earlier this year, Michelin introduced a Singapore edition, signaling its recognition of the island city-state as a major player in the world of gastronomy. After exploring Singapore’s rich culinary landscape and uncovering some of its hidden gems, I was delighted to find out that these same hawkers were bestowed with the ultimate international recognition. Michelin is no stranger to Singapore, having conducted its famous Michelin Guide Street-Food Festival for the first time in Bugis in 2016. Merging luxury with heritage, The 5-footway Inn Project is set to introduce a new wave of dining concept in the form of stage@empire, a casual dining restaurant that celebrates creative expressions and experimentation with food, art, and music. Stage is definitely hoping to be listed in the Michelin Guide as Renny from 5-footway Ventures has expressed his interest in going into fine dining if he ever expands the stage brand in the future. He is thankful for the recognition from Michelin for their hawker business and believes that the guide will bolster the establishment of more local culinary entrepreneurs, like the Lolla guys. Renny also added that higher-end dining might help to rejuvenate old districts like Boat Quay and foster a healthier mix between tourists and locals. These sentiments ring true, for the experience at Lolla, a Mediterranean tapas bar at Ann Siang Hill is one that beholds inexplicable magic and fantastic vibes. With its first storey awarded with a Bib Gourmand, its passionate team still jealously guards the freedom of being true to their casual and unpretentious nature.

Unique Culinary Experiences

In this event, not even their special signature flower cocktails (that change seasonally) could steal the show from the exquisite dishes. From the first dish to the final dessert, the team was in awe of each beautiful creation being presented to them. The team has always been intrigued by the idea of food that doesn’t adhere to tradition, an area where French and Japanese cuisine often meld. Despite dining in Asia, the team felt that the various unconventional ingredients contributed to the strong French and Modern European style. This melding of techniques (often referred to as ‘Yoshoku’ in Japanese) was effectively illustrated by dishes such as Sauté Foie-gras served with Chinese Black Vinegar and Sansho (Sichuan Pepper), and Roasted Kueh Pie Tee of French Duck Liver and Ma Ying. It was the feel and presentation of the dinner that took the team on a real rollercoaster of dining emotions. The mood was first set by the warmest of welcomes from Chef Hasegawa, and the sheer friendliness of all the staff. Dishes during the Hors d’oeuvre and Poisson phase of the meal were described simply as ‘fun’, it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into making customers smile. Perhaps the most outstanding storytelling, however, was with the Wagyu Beef Tokiyaki, a collaboration with Iron Chef Yamamoto. As the story goes, halfway through eating, Hayashi San suddenly realized half the team were foreign and might not understand the complexities of ‘specially prepared’ beef organs. He then made a rare break of character to personally call a shocked Chef Hasegawa at home and request a more self-explanatory dish! This resulted in the meltingly tender beef being coated in a savory sauce and encased within a light batter. It was a story that left the team in stitches during the time of the interview. Of course, there were moments of high seriousness too, most notably with the Tronçon de Turbot (Turbot Fish Tail). Cooked in a foil pouch, it was a demonstration of flavor with the most simple of French techniques and really struck a chord with the purist of French cuisine.

Fusion of Traditional and Modern Techniques

In the neighboring land of Japan, the pinnacle of culinary tradition and modernism can be seen in the nation’s capital, Tokyo. With more Michelin stars than any city in the world, the pressure for high-end dining in Tokyo is intense. Tempura master chef Yuya Hoshino of two-starred restaurant Higashiazabu Masa demonstrates the epitome of technique while paying homage to tradition. Hoshino employs the use of low temperature “cooking on the stone” techniques. Fish and shellfish are wrapped in Japanese paper and cooked directly on the heated stones or submerged entirely in ash, cooked at precisely 45-70 degrees Celsius. This process requires acute control and precision and produces a finished product that is succulent, delicately flavored and devoid of excess oil.

In Seoul, Chef Jungsik Yim has artfully combined his Korean heritage with years of experience in fine dining to pioneer the movement of New Korean. At his restaurant Jungsik, with two coveted Michelin stars, the progression of each dish demonstrates the harmony of old and new. Jungsik explains, “One of the reasons I left Korea to cook in America was to escape the boundaries of the old. After my studies at the Culinary Institute of America, modern cooking was part of my repertoire, and thus it became a primary focus of my culinary philosophy.” Soy Sauce Braised Short Ribs, a staple of Korean family style cooking, is transformed into a contemporary work of art with meticulously plated cubes of meat glazed with a shiny reduction, adorned with delicate curls of fried taro and black truffle.

The marriage of traditional and modern culinary techniques is the epitome of innovation in haute cuisine. Traditional cooking methods are explored in depth, their science is examined intricately and thoroughly, and the end product is reinvented with modernist techniques.

Innovative Ingredients and Presentation

This factor is what differentiates Michelin-starred dining from other dining experiences, as it reflects the aim of chefs to push culinary boundaries and innovate. In offering a unique eating experience to customers, many chefs in Michelin-starred restaurants look for rare, unusual, exotic, and exclusive ingredients. Chef Matthew Krantweiss of the now-defunct “L’espalier” in Boston, USA, searched for and coupled a rare French truffle with an Australian abalone, creating an amazing new world surf and turf combination. Chef Joho of Everest in Chicago, USA incorporated Alaskan King Crab with Espelette pepper and a corn velouté when looking for an alternative to using scallops or lobster. Chef Ken Oringer’s usage of Japanese ham in a carbonara dish at “Clio” in Boston was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to upstage a rival chef who had just upgraded his own carbonara dish by swapping bacon for Serrano Ham. In using these high-end ingredients, chefs hope to create exotic, flavorful, and one-of-a-kind dishes while also proving that anything that can be done elsewhere can be done at a higher level. Coming up with new combinations is simultaneously an enjoyable and arduous process that requires much trial and error, but when successful can bring amazing results. Alinea’s 3-star molecular gastronomy Chef Grant Achatz summed up creativity in cooking when he said, “I’d like to be able to reconstruct a memory close to the actual event, as opposed to an interpretation of that recollection. In many ways, I think it’s like creating a work of art” (2013). This philosophy has spilled over from Michelin-starred dining to different levels of cuisine and is the cornerstone of innovative ingredient usage.

Exceptional Service and Ambiance

In an exceptional ambiance, food and service become a singular art form. Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilège in Tokyo has said that it is essential to create a “harmonious flow from the moment when the customer enters the restaurant to the time they leave”. In his art-laden restaurant, Kawate has won acclaim for his inventive and emotional foodscape, known as “Le Bonsai”, which led to Florilège becoming the first independent Tokyo restaurant to win two Michelin stars in four years. He is also the sole chef to have retained a title of One to Watch from the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants prize for three consecutive years. From the live seafood and water lily pond, to your fantastical journey through a field of moonlight and a mirage, every dish is underpinned by the seasonal ingredients and a simple French methodology. It is florilège, or “flower gathering” of the finest ingredients – a sculpted treasure box that creates a balance between aroma, taste and visual beauty.

While the food is the main focus of any restaurant, the service and ambiance are crucial for a truly exceptional dining experience. Service in Asia is renowned for its attention to detail, and many Michelin restaurants take this to a new level. The famed Japanese Shiba Ryotaro of Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto is said to be “so dedicated to detail in the visual presentation of each dish that he has sent his apprentices to the local Kiyomizu pottery district to learn from potters how to better enhance each dish with the correct vessel.” Korean chef Jungsik Yim has said “it is my goal to have every dish be a highlight for every customer. I hope to prepare each dish tableside and explain to the customer how it was made, and the ingredients as well.” This level of dedication to intricacy and personal service is found across all the Michelin restaurants of Asia. Chef Julien Royer of Odette in Singapore, honored with three Michelin stars in 2019, finds inspiration in the art and science of cuisine, which is reflected in the exquisite plating and presentation of the dishes.

Culinary Traditions and Cultural Influences

The differing influences of tradition and culture are revealed in the style of the signature restaurants. For example, Nadaman at Shangri-La, Tokyo, a kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal) restaurant, focuses on the traditions of Japanese cuisine with its seasonal menu using only fresh ingredients. Kagurazaka Ishikawa, another Tokyo-based establishment, is also a kaiseki restaurant, but Michelin’s thoughts for Ishikawa follow, “Ishikawa is a kaiseki restaurant, not just billing itself as one. The skill in preparation and elegance is on par with a 3-star rating.” This suggests Ishikawa, despite only retaining 2 stars, is on the border of 3-star status with exceptional food quality and is probably the most highly regarded restaurant with 2 stars. Kagurazaka reflects the simplicity and detail of kaiseki dining, with many seasonal dishes reflecting the season, often changing every few weeks. In contrast, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a French restaurant, is a hub of innovation and strong worldwide tradition. The restaurant, with branches in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tokyo, and Singapore, adopts an open kitchen with bar-style seating, the customers being able to witness masters at work. The strong influence of French cuisine is undeniable, but sometimes Asian ingredients are used. This is the case with La Cime in Osaka, a 2-star French restaurant. The chef Yusuke Takada has an intimate knowledge of French cuisine with experience in France, but his Japanese heritage is integrated into the menu, Takada using only the best locally grown, and recently foreign, ingredients in his cooking. This contrasts with Robuchon who uses imported French ingredients with a minority of local world-class produce. These restaurants illustrate the different ways in which traditional styles of cuisine and various cultural influences have played a part in achieving Michelin stars.