MACAU -- Bubbling with fountains of champagne and tabletop fields of sushi and caviar, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards boasted the glitz of a red-carpet Hollywood opening and the suspense of a potboiler novel. Often referred to as the Academy Awards of Asian cuisine, there was no mishap here over the wrong envelope. Instead, it was a simple case of deja vu.
The winner was charismatic Indian chef Gaggan Anand, 39, whose eponymous "progressive Indian cuisine" restaurant in Bangkok took the number one ranking for an unprecedented fourth time in a row. "Beating yourself is the hardest thing," he said on receiving the prize.
Gaggan has grown accustomed to challenging himself as he regularly revamps his tasting menu, while collecting a stream of honors from 50 Best and others. In December, he received two stars in Michelin's first Bangkok guide. Michelin, known more for its prestigious restaurant guides than its vast tire-making operations, launched its Bangkok guide after adding Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai in 2016. A guide to Taiwan debuted in March, bringing the French-based group's Asian collection to eight markets.
Gaggan and other speakers at 50 Best said that the event should not be viewed as a competition but rather as a conference of those devoted to cuisine: chefs, restaurateurs and gourmets. Over several days in Macau before the March 27 award ceremony, a packed schedule of food talks, cooking demonstrations and networking events stretched into the night.
This was the first time that the Asia's 50 Best event was held in Macau after two years in Bangkok and three in Singapore. "We want to keep moving around," said William Drew, group editor of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. "Part of this is about bringing more exposure to great food everywhere."
Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, which was launched in 2013, is an offshoot of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, which also produces a Latin American restaurant list and one for the world's best bars.
While the event was held at Wynn Palace Macau casino complex, many chefs spent much of their time in old Macau, which began as a Portuguese colony in the 1500s and was Europe's earliest port in Asia. Macanese cuisine can claim to be the world's first fusion food, blending flavors from Portugal, China and Portuguese colonies from Asia to Africa. "We raced into the old town, and went everywhere," said Luca Appino of La Bottega di Luca in Bangkok. "We wanted to try everything."
Italian legend Umberto Bombana hosted a star-studded Gastro-Tour degustation at his 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana. After gaining three Michelin stars for the restaurant he opened in Hong Kong in 2010 -- the guide's only three-star Italian restaurant outside Italy -- Bombana opened in Shanghai in 2012, Beijing in 2013 and Macau in 2015.
His Macau Gastro-Tour featured nine dishes from eight distinguished and upcoming star chefs. Guests gorged on signature dishes from Sri Lanka's Ministry of Crab (25th in the 50 Best list); crayfish and pickled oyster from young Thai chef Ton Thitid Tassanakajohn's Le Du (14th); and roasted New Zealand scampi with vanilla and lemon from chef Tetsuya Wakuda of Waku Ghin in Sinagpore (23rd).
"We thought, let's make it fun," explained Bombana. "We'll get an Indian chef, a Thai chef, French modern, some Italian, and Japanese. Old and young. It's really about sharing. We're all passionate about food. It's all about the food."
The Macau event attracted around 640 guests, a third more than in 2017, and included 47 of the 50 chefs on the awards list.
Although the list of the top 50 restaurants was dominated by long-standing mainstays, eight new restaurants made an appearance. They included La Cime, a French dining establishment in Osaka, which debuted at No. 17. Two other young establishments leaped up the charts by 25 places, the biggest jump this year: Mume in Taipei, to 18th, and Hong Kong's The Chairman, to 22nd.
Japan dominated the ranking with 11 listings, while Hong Kong and Thailand had nine. Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines were all shut out, although Manila's Toyo Eatery won an award as a special place to watch.
Singapore had seven listings, South Korea and Taipei three each, India and Sri Lanka two, and Indonesia one -- Bali's Locavore. Mainland China had only two listings, both for Shanghai restaurants. One was Paul Pairet's inventive Ultraviolet, where just 10 diners are served nightly with a 20-course meal in a multimedia environment. It ranked eighth in the list while the other Shanghai restaurant was Fu He Hui at 30th.
Michelin and 50 Best have widely disparate systems for ranking restaurants. While Michelin says it sends staff experts to survey dining rooms in the running for its highly-coveted stars, 50 Best uses a system of anonymous judges. Asia is divided up into distinct regions, each chaired by a food expert who taps volunteer voters, divided roughly in thirds between food critics, well-traveled gourmets, and chefs and restaurateurs, said 50 Best's Drew. Each voter nominates 10 restaurants, up to six in their country of residence, with at least four more in other parts of Asia. Voters must have dined in nominated restaurants within the last 18 months.
"We'd definitely like to see more diversity, and some of these other countries represented," he said in response to complaints from nations without a single mention. "We look at the system all the time, but think it works well. You can see that in all the new restaurants that emerge every year."
One of the youngest chefs to be honored, Bee Satongun of Bangkok's Paste restaurant, won Best Female Chef. She joined three past winners to put on a showcase lunch and gave an inspiring talk about women's role in professional cooking. The Philippines' Margarita Fores, the 2016 winner of Best Female Chef, conceded that the very existence of this award emphasized how male-dominated the industry remains. Only two women made this year's list, Satongun and Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava of Bangkok's Bo.lan. Both are part of husband-wife teams.
The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award went to Taiwan's Andre Chiang, who is best known for the acclaimed Restaurant Andre in Singapore. He spoke passionately about Asia's growing community of chefs, and highlighted the impact of a new generation pushing the limits of gastronomy.
"This is the kind of award you are more often given at the end of your career," quipped the 41-year-old chef. Chiang shocked the culinary world with the sudden closing of his small celebrated restaurant in February, resulting in a rock-star-style farewell event with ticket prices soaring to $600.
In an eloquent presentation, Chiang likened cooking to art, and Restaurant Andre to a finished work. "You want to sign your name in a corner and move on," he said. Chiang was coy about his next move, but after spending most of his career abroad, he will likely be opening a restaurant soon in his native Taiwan.
Gaggan spoke about the need to continually challenge oneself. He opened a small Bangkok eatery entirely devoted to tofu the same week as the Macau event. But he plans to close his flagship Gaggan restaurant within two years and move to Japan. "It's all about moving on, challenging yourself and pushing the limits for food."
Drew said the awards celebrate the diversity and growing appreciation of Asia's numerous cuisines. "Nowadays, people travel for food. This is not just about feeding people, but the entire dining experience. It's really like show business."