MACAO -- Those who have not followed the boom in Asian fine dining might have missed the rise of Julian Royer. In an era of superstar celebrity chefs, Royer -- a boyish-looking Frenchman in his mid-30s -- may seem an outlier, more traditionalist than modern showman. But in late March, this perfectionist of fine French cuisine took top honors at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards in Macao for his Odette restaurant in Singapore.
It was the first time in five years the top award did not go to gastronomic genius Gaggan Anand of Bangkok. His two-Michelin star Gaggan placed second. It was also the first time in six years that a Bangkok restaurant failed to take the top slot.
Even so, Bangkok still won big at the annual awards, reflecting the seemingly unstoppable rise of the city's vibrant restaurant community, gaining two of the top four places (Suhring and Gaggan), as well as five others in the Top 20. Tokyo had the most listings, with 10 restaurants (led by Den at No. 3, and four in the Top 10), followed by other regional gastro-powerhouses, with Hong Kong (9), Singapore (7) and Taipei (3).
The awards are decided by a panel of judges comprising chefs, restaurateurs, journalists and other food experts, and enlisting over 300 voters, across Asia.
Royer looked surprised at taking the biggest prize in what has been called the "Oscars of Asian cuisine." He is from a long line of farmers in Cantal, France. Odette is named for his grandmother, who introduced him to cooking as a child. He arrived in Singapore in 2007 and embarked on what he called "an amazing journey of discovery."
In recent years, fine dining in Asia has benefited from the rise of a more affluent and food-conscious middle-class -- and with it, a hunger for celebrity chefs and innovative cuisine. "In the past, all fine dining in Asia was in hotels," said Kristoffer Luczak, executive vice president for food & beverage at the Wynn casino properties in Macao, which hosted the awards. He praised the recent trend toward chefs opening signature restaurants, once more of a novelty in the region.
Among other notable trends in Asian high-end dining is a growing emphasis on fresh produce, particularly important to Chinese customers who constitute the bulk of business in Macao, he noted. Other food critics and chefs agree it is a significant regionwide trend, as seen in the steady push toward local sourcing.
Sustainability -- a broad concept of minimizing environmental impacts through the supply chain, supporting local food producers, and cutting food waste -- is another hot issue that was high on the agenda during the three-day event in Macao.
After winning his award, Royer noted the particular challenge of promoting sustainability in cooking in Singapore despite its reputation as one of the most supportive cities for Asian culinary innovation. "Singaporeans are cuckoo for food," he said. "But getting fresh ingredients is a challenge, since so much is imported." He said his menus are designed to utilize every part of food supplies in order to minimize waste.
Chef Shinobu Namae, who last year won the inaugural Sustainable Restaurant Award for his Tokyo restaurant L'Effervescence, which ranked No. 26 on the Asia's 50 Best list, said all his ingredients come from Japan and are organic. He plans to create a carbon-neutral operation, while experimenting with systems to turn restaurant waste into usable compost for farmers.
Sustainability in cuisine is an especially hot topic in Japan, according to Hiroko Sasaki, a food writer who helped organize Chefs for the Blue, a group of 30 Japanese chefs who meet monthly to share ideas their ideas on such issues. . This is particularly important to Japan when it comes to preserving seafood resources. There are growing concerns about declining stock and overfishing. "It's a crisis. Last year's catch was down a third from 30 years ago," said Sasaki. "Japan is way behind on this." Although Japan seafood is meticulously scrutinized in terms of processing and preparation, "there is no information about sourcing," she noted.
Mobilizing chefs is important to heighten public awareness of the need for conservation since change comes when consumers demand it. "Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin restaurants in the world," she added. "We can make a difference."
While a growing number of chefs are pursuing new methods and ideas to promote sustainability, their customers are also seeking fresh dining ideas, including new restaurant concepts, mixes of cuisine, and novel cooking methods, said Litti Kewkacha, Southeast Asia chair for Asia's and the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards.
"We are seeing so many new ideas, and original concepts. That's really important nowadays," said Kewkacha, chief executive of his family-owned Kacha Brothers, which operates 55 eating outlets in Thailand. "Everybody has good food and service. That's a given at this level. But you really need to have an unique concept."
"You really need to tell a good story not just verbally but through your food and what the chef stands for," he noted as he cited the extraordinary diversity among the top seven award winners. "We see a French restaurant in Singapore, Indian and German food in Thailand, and Nordic-inspired cuisine in Taipei... What is common to all is the passion of the chefs, and the detail of everything, the food, the flavor, even the design... They are unique concepts that give foodies a reason to visit when they go to those cities," he added.
Top-ranked restaurants have succeeded in telling a strong story. Gaggan Anand, for example, uses his Indian heritage and flavors to create a uniquely modern, molecular gastronomic menu that can run to more than two dozen courses and cost upward of $300 per person. As proof of his popularity, reservations must be made months in advance.
"Nowadays, it's more about content, not just dining," says Richard Ekkebus, culinary director for the two-Michelin star Amber, a modern French restaurant in Hong Kong. which ranked 21st on the list.
When Amber opened 15 years ago, he recalled: "fusion was in your face. It was very obviously Chinese-Western, or Thai-Western. Now, everything is more nuanced, more subtle. And categorization is gone. People more go for the personality of the chef."
For example, Andre Chiang has become one of the most adventurous, and bankable celebrity chefs in Asia. Born in Taiwan, he spent much of his early life in Japan, but wound up studying French cuisine, eventually becoming head chef at the three Michelin star restaurant Le Jardin des Sens in France.
In Singapore, he opened his signature Restaurant Andre, now closed, which became a sensation among high-end diners. His staff developed original daily menus based on his "Octo-philosophy" of eight divergent elements that ranged from French influences to a vast range of Asian ingredients. With just 30 seats, reservations at Restaurant Andre were hard to come by, even with prices above $350 per person.
But at the height of this success, he closed Restaurant Andre in 2018 to move onto other projects. He opened Raw in Taipei (30 on Asia's 50 Best list), serving "bistronomy cuisine," a Parisian cooking style that utilizes locally sourced, seasonal ingredients in a bistro presentation. He launched Sichuan Moon, his take on fiery Sichuanese cuisine, at the Wynn Palace in Macao in March. The degustation menu runs to 20 courses and just a week after opening was booked for five months, according to Luczak.
Against this backdrop, awards such as Asia's 50 Best are fueling the craze for high cuisine and the cult of the celebrity chef. Ekkebus said the annual event helps consumers, motivates chefs and boosts business for winning restaurants. "We're competitive, and like to push ourselves. Of course, the recognition is important for the restaurants, and great for the staff... I'd say they're responsible for 20-30% of the business [at winning restaurants]."
At the same time, the organizers of Asia's 50 Best acknowledge the need for the awards to be more inclusive, as they are now heavily weighted toward a few countries and main cities. India and China -- the world's two largest countries by population -- received fewer awards than tiny Singapore. Mainland China received two mentions, matching host Macao, a partial autonomous special administrative region of China, with a population of just 650,000.