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Has Michelin's Affair with Singapore's Hawkers Stalled?

13 October, 2021
Singapore Hawker Stall

Photo by Ethan Hu on Unsplash

Hours after the Michelin Guide Singapore 2021 results were announced, the outpouring of criticism on social media was fast and furious.

“Would you trust an anonymous - Michelin - inspector? Neither would I,” author and litigator Adrian Tan chimed in on a lengthy Linkedin post about the Lion City’s hawkers. “Do you think there are international standards that can be applied to our hawker food? I don’t. Are these inspectors using the same standards to judge thousand dollar meals in Paris with SGD2 meals at a Singapore hawker stall? Apparently.”

By his estimate, Singapore has about 10,000 hawker stalls situated in hawker centres, food courts and coffee shops. Any platform that wishes to recognise hawkers in Singapore, Tan said, needs to be “absolutely transparent”. This means complete disclosures not just on all the stalls that have been included in the evaluation process, but also the identities of the reviewers.

“It undermines credibility if the identity of the inspector is kept a secret. Has this person had a history of trying similar stalls? Do they know that chicken rendang isn’t meant to be crispy?”

Tan hit the nail on the head when he questioned the standards by which our hawker stalls are judged. Is the same Michelin assessment criteria for restaurants similarly applied to the judging of hawker stalls - namely quality of produce; mastery of flavours and cooking techniques; personality of the chef in cuisine; value for money; and consistency?

If they are indeed judged by the same criteria, hawkers would technically not qualify for Michelin stars - for a start, the ingredients used in hawker dishes are vastly different in quality, price and provenance to those used in most Michelin-rated restaurants.

Just for fun, I conducted a poll on Instagram Stories and asked my Singapore followers if they refer to the Bib Gourmand guide when sourcing for local hawker dining options. Of about 600 respondents, 65% replied with a ‘no’. When I asked if they thought the Michelin Guide was the right platform to recognise great hawkers in Singapore, an overwhelming 87% of about 800 respondents also replied with a ‘no’. 

Several industry insiders, including chefs, weighed in, saying that Michelin stars were never made for hawkers, and that the Bib Gourmand recognition would be more appropriate.

“Michelin for hawkers is like an arrogant rich man trying to do a bit of charity just for show,” said Ms Chui, one of my Instagram followers. Whether or not mentioned in jest, Chui may have a point.

Most respondents liken the comparison of restaurant and hawker dining experiences to apples and oranges, the latter being fast, affordable and accessible while the former emphasising presentation, cooking techniques and service. Hence, the popular opinion is that different yardsticks and possibly even different inspectors should be used to assess the two. 

Some deem Michelin unqualified to evaluate hawker fare given its deep, decades-long experience in fine-dining only. Yet others cite the inspectors’ lack of understanding of our local hawker culture and its rich diversity, resulting in half-baked results that have become the butt of Singaporeans’ jokes. The public is also of the opinion that the Michelin Guide is better for an entire cuisine, rather than a one-dish meal that hawkers serve. 

The overriding sentiment could also be summarised in an observation by food blogger @danielfooddairy that Michelin has not been “ thorough enough” at rating hawkers, “with no new hawker additions since the first two”. 

Meanwhile, a constructive comment from a hawker caught my attention: “If Michelin wants to rate hawker food in Singapore, they should not patronise us by giving out a star/(s) to just a handful of hawkers,” said Melvin Chew, owner of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap hawker stall. He suggested that Michelin should solicit the help of local hawker food experts if it wants the public to take the guide seriously.

Antonio Soriano

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