Sun, Jan 11, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Reaching for the stars

Michelin recently launched a restaurant guide for Hong Kong and Macau. Does Taiwan, which is more famous for its street food than its fine-dining scene, have what it takes to get its own version of the ‘little red book’?

By Alison Jenner  /  CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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Last month, chefs in top kitchens across Taiwan were clanging their pots and pans and juggling their precious white truffles in exhilaration over a piece of news.

The Michelin Red Guide, the revered food bible on which chefs pin their careers — and lives — was reportedly coming to Taiwan.

“The Government Information Office (GIO) has invited the French Michelin Co to issue a Michelin restaurant guide for Taiwan,” reported the Deutsche Presse Agentur news agency on Dec. 22, quoting the Chinese-language United Daily News. “The GIO has reached a consensus with the Michelin Co to issue the guide for Taiwan, hopefully by 2012.”

This piece of news, if true, could potentially propel the careers of Michelin-starred chefs here to levels never seen before and, according to Michelin, increase receipts at their restaurants by nearly one-third. Some figures in the local culinary community might even attain celebrity chef status.

The celebrations were premature. “There are no discussions and no projects between Michelin and the government of Taiwan regarding a possible guide on Taiwan,” Marie-Benedicte Chevet, a spokeswoman for Michelin, said in an e-mail interview.

A follow-up interview with Manfred Peng (彭滂沱), head of the GIO’s Department of International Information, revealed that the report was the result of a mix-up. Taiwan was looking at a travel guidebook, not a restaurant guide.

The revelation was more than a little disappointing for those hoping to earn a star or two from Michelin, which had awarded editions to neighbors Tokyo, at the end of 2007, and, in December, Hong Kong and Macau.

STILL IN THE OVEN

In a nation where people greet each other by asking “Have you eaten?”, eating is, as the Chinese proverb goes, “even more important than the emperor.””

Such is the fame of Taiwan’s xiao chi (小吃), or snacks, that they have become an important feature in tourists’ plans. Sixty-two percent of inbound visitors in 2007 chose to chomp their way through the fare on offer at the country’s night markets, according to a survey by the Tourism Bureau. The next highest-ranked attraction listed by tourists was the National Palace Museum, at 44 percent.

While some would argue that Taiwan does not need Michelin-star restaurants to showcase its cuisine, because its street vendors and night markets are capable of fulfilling a gourmet’s desires, is the country enough of a gastronomic haven to compete with neighbors like Hong Kong and Tokyo, whose culinary scenes have been stamped and honored by Michelin?

Don’t bet on it is the sentiment from industry insiders here.

“Taiwan’s culinary standard is wonderful because it has a mix of local and different cuisines from China,” said Tony Chang (張志騰), a professor at Chinese Culture University’s (中華大學) Department of Hospitality Management. “In my opinion, Taiwan’s Chinese food is of a very high standard, probably among the top three in Southeast Asia. However, the standard of the Western cuisine here is about 10 years behind Hong Kong.”

Another hurdle is the economic cost involved in setting up and maintaining fine-dining establishments that the holy grail of restaurant guides frequently honors.

Although Michelin states that “the criteria to award stars — quality of the products, skills in their preparation, combination of flavors, levels of creativity, value for money and consistency throughout the year and on the entire menu — are the same whatever the country and whatever the type of cuisine,” one would find it hard to imagine that your friendly neighborhood beef noodle stand — even if it fulfils all of Michelin’s requirements — would garner a star.

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