Photos: La Liste, Michelin Guide

When it comes to finding the best places to eat, there is no lack of top restaurant listings, from the established Michelin Guide and 50 Best Restaurants rankings to those curated by many lifestyle platforms. 

With Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants set to unveil its anticipated list in Seoul this March, the impact and relevance of awards on restaurants and diners have once again surfaced. Over the past five years, at least four dining accolades from Europe and China-based organisations have appeared in Singapore’s dining scene, which begs the question: Are too many cooks spoiling the soup?

Unsurprisingly, most restaurants and chefs The Peak spoke to tread the diplomatic line of “all awards are welcomed”. The Michelin Guide and 50 Best Restaurants lists, which have been around since 1900 and 2002, respectively, remain the most highly regarded due to their global influence, never mind the fair share of controversy over their assessment criteria and voting methods over the years.

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Photo: Michelin Guide 

Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, who owns the Unlisted Collection of restaurants, including a few ranked on both lists such as Zén, Cloudstreet, and Burnt Ends, says: “The Michelin Guide is probably a bit more rigorous and professionally judged. It has been around for a long time, and for most chefs, it’s seen as the gold standard for dining guides. The 50 Best list is created by a panel of industry people, and it’s not always very clear why certain restaurants get on the list, and some don’t.

Multiple factors come into play, such as the trendiness of a restaurant or how well-known the chef is. It’s often not about the quality of the cooking or the standard achieved by the restaurant. Having said all that, the public does look out for the list, and therefore, it has an impact (on restaurant bookings).”

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Emmanuel Stroobant, Food Inc’s co-owner, includes two-Michelin-starred restaurants, Saint Pierre and Shoukouwa. (Photo: Saint Pierre)

Obtaining a Michelin star can boost reservations by 20 to 30 per cent, says Daniele Sperindio, chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred Art di Daniele Sperindio, while Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of Saint Pierre and co-owner of Shoukouwa, noted an increase in bookings, media coverage, and requests for collaborations when Saint Pierre and Shoukouwa obtained their second Michelin star in 2019 and 2016, respectively.

Chef Cheung Siu Kong, who heads one-Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion, whose diners are a mix of locals and tourists, says: “Over the years, diners have developed a more affluent palate, leading to a more profound appreciation for food and fine-dining. These accolades or guides, including Bib Gourmand, indirectly form a ‘bucket list’ of must-try F&B establishments for food enthusiasts.”

It is a double-edged sword, though, when a restaurant makes it to the Michelin Guide or 50 Best list, which raises expectations and, hence, the potential for disappointment. Denis Lucchi, resident chef of one-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Buona Terra, says: “The amount of pressure to consistently deliver excellence is relative to the ranking and the number of stars received.”

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Chef Dennis Lucchi, resident chef, one-Michelin-starred Buona Terra. (Photo: Buona Terra)

Sperindio adds: “This pursuit (of an accolade) encourages continual improvement in quality and service and draws talented professionals. However, it requires a substantial financial investment in quality ingredients, equipment, and decor. With the accolade comes the pressure of maintaining high standards and managing high customer expectations. The reliance on external recognition can sometimes overshadow a restaurant’s unique identity.  

An influx of new accolades

Distinguishing themselves from the stalwarts are lists such as Gambero Rosso, an Italian food and wine magazine group that assigns a rating of one-to-three forks to the best Italian restaurants around the world; La Liste, an algorithm-powered ranking of the world’s top 1,000 restaurants;  the Black Pearl List by Meituan-Dianping, China’s largest restaurant-review and group-buying platform.

The Paris-based La Liste is arguably the most objective system, which was founded in 2015 by Philippe Faure, former French ambassador and head of the French restaurant guide Gault & Millau, as a scientific pushback against the British-based 50 Best Restaurants list.

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Hélène Pietrini, managing director of La Liste, which was launched in the UK in 2015. (Photo: La Liste)

La Liste derives a list of the world’s top 1,000 restaurants using a meta-classification method of aggregating all ranks, ratings, and media coverage from more than a thousand international sources (including Michelin Guide and 50 Best) before calculating an average score out of 100 for each restaurant.

My win proves that despite being tiny, Singapore is a culinary powerhouse, an amazing melting pot, and a cultural hub.

Chef Ian Tan, winner of the World Young Chef Young Waiter Competition 2023 (chef category)

Singapore’s three-Michelin-starred and 50 Best winners, Odette, Zén, and Les Amis are among the top 10 highest scorers on this year’s list. Hélène Pietrini, Managing Director of La Liste, says: “Think of us as a plane tasked with mapping the globe’s gastronomic terrain. We have not dispatched inspectors or created another voting method.”

Italy’s famed gourmet guide, Gambero Rosso, published its first edition of the Top Italian Restaurants guide in 1986 before expanding to international rankings in 2016.

Lorenzo Ruggeri, who is the senior editor of the Top Italian Restaurants guide, says: “We are specialists in Cucina Italiana. When we evaluate a restaurant, we look for Italian flavour, ingredients, and sensibilities differently from the Michelin or 50 Best guides.”

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Lorenzo Ruggeri, senior editor of Gambero Rosso’s Top Italian Restaurants guide. (Photo: Gambero Rosso) 

Buona Terra, Braci, and Ristorante da Valentino are among the latest ones included in the Singapore list, while Art di Daniele Sperindio won Restaurant of the Year 2024, which is given to the best Italian restaurant in Italy. It is the first time that a Singapore restaurant has clinched this accolade.

Lucchi said: “Being ranked tenth for the second year in a row on the 50 Top Italy 2024 World List (an Italy-based ranking of the top 50 Italian restaurants around the world) and getting the esteemed three-fork rating from Gambero Rosso is extra meaningful for us as the awards recognise Italian restaurants around the world for showcasing flavours of my home country, Italy. They also give Buona Terra visibility within Italy.”

More visibility for chefs 

Besides rankings and ratings, some dining accolades include awards for chefs, outstanding service and skills, and dedication to culinary advocacy. 

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Ian Goh, head chef and co-founder of European restaurant Inicio. (Photo: Inicio)

Chef awards can be instrumental in driving support for culinary projects. Ian Goh, head chef and co-founder of European restaurant Inicio, found that the connections he made while participating in the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition  2022/2023 and finishing among the top three led to “a strong turnout of support” during his restaurant’s opening in January.

He adds: “It also gave me access to Singapore’s inner circle of established chefs. On the other hand, it also meant pressure to continue with the success, having more eyes on you, and any slip-ups would be more noticeable.”

Bottega Di Carna’s chef Ian Tan won the chef category of the World Young Chef Young Waiter Competition 2023. (Photo: Bottega Di Carna)

Ian Tan, a chef at Mondrian Singapore Duxton’s Bottega di Carna, took top honours in the chef category of the World Young Chef Young Waiter Competition (YCYW) in Monaco last November. The UK-based competition was started in 1979 to promote hospitality as a respectable and viable career. Singapore took a clean sweep of the competition last year, which saw the addition of a mixologist category.

Having received more visibility from his win, Tan’s three-day dinner pop-up at Mondrian Singapore Duxton in late January was completely sold out. Orders for three-Michelin-starred Odette’s pastry chef Louisa Lim’s Christmas dessert box were also snapped up within a few weeks last December, in no small part due to her title as Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2023 doled out by 50 Best.

Chef Damian D’Silva of Singapore heritage cuisine restaurant Rempapa was awarded La Liste’s Artisan and Authenticity Award 2024. (Photo: La Liste)

Some chefs feel that these awards are more of a validation of a city’s cuisine and the talent of its chefs than a significant impact on bookings. Damian D’Silva, chef-partner of Rempapa, was named the first Singaporean to win La Liste’s Artisan and Authenticity Award since it was created in 2021, an endorsement he feels celebrates the heritage of different cuisines, including the Singapore heritage cuisine at his restaurant.

Singapore’s candidate for the Bocuse d’Or 2024/2025 competition, Mathew Leong, who is the head chef of two-Michelin-starred Re-Naa in Stavanger, Norway, shares that an award like Bocus D’Or is a confidence booster not only for him. He says: “It motivates the whole team (at Re-naa) to pursue excellence and instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in them.”

Mathew Leong, Singaporean candidate for Bocuse d’Or 2024/2025 and head chef of two-Michelin-starred Re-Naa in Norway. (Photo: Re-Naa)

Tan says of his YCYW win: “Last year was the first time an Asian participant from an Asian country won with Asian dishes. This proves that despite being tiny, Singapore is a culinary powerhouse, an amazing melting pot, and a cultural hub. We take our culinary traditions extremely seriously while innovating them.”

One of Ian Tan’s dishes for the World Young Chef Young Waiter competition is Madju, a creative Asian dish of squid, watercress, birds-eye, Hijau, Jicama and leek nest. (Photo: Re-Naa)

Do awards matter to diners?

With dining accolades and titles piling up, how useful and relevant are they to diners? Avid gourmands and food influencers like Veronica Phua and Leon Chua, who try new restaurants at least three times a week, feel that rankings are good reference points for those unfamiliar with finding the best eats, such as tourists and have limited time and budgets to risk being disappointed by a meal. 

Dining influencer Leon Chua, @uncle_lim_chiak. (Photo: Leon Chua)

Both of them refer to award lists as often as they enjoy asking for recommendations and seeking out hidden gems locally and overseas. Chua says: “For the average diner, the more recognition a restaurant gets, the stronger the affirmation, and therefore, easier for them to decide where to dine and to spend. As a foodie looking at the rankings, though, I do wonder how one cuisine is qualified as better than another, especially when tastes and preferences are so subjective.”

Phua feels that awards spur restaurant teams to push their craft, ultimately benefiting diners continually. However, winning an award does not always translate to a better meal. She says: “Many of my most memorable meals have been at restaurants helmed by excellent chefs who do not yet have (Michelin) stars to their names.”

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Dining influencer Veronica Phua, @veronicaphua. (Photo: Veronica Phua) 

The recent influx of dining awards validates their value to chefs and has proven to bring in revenue gains and raise awareness for well-deserved talents and the lesser-known aspects of the F&B industry. It would be a pity, though, if accolades were positioned as the ultimate goal and a reason to peg menus at prohibitively high prices rather than a spur towards genuine hospitality and culinary creativity.

As chef Stroobant remarks: “As a chef-owner, I have no control over how these awards are run; it’s more important to stay focused and true to our culinary approach.” Which is more likely to lead to higher quality and creativity — a win-win for restaurants and diners alike.