Cover Asia's 50 Best Restaurant Awards 2019

William Drew, content director at Asia’s 50 Best, explains why he decided to forge ahead with the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 ranking, how this year’s list might be different and the idea behind the new Essence of Asia list

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the F&B industry last year, and it continues to affect restaurants, cafes and bars around the world. Many have been closed for extended periods, have had to pivot to survive, or have shut their doors indefinitely. Yet both Michelin and Asia’s 50 Best chose to persevere with their respective awards this year, albeit virtually.

“We feel that our role as an organisation is to help promote great restaurants and by extension the hospitality sector as a whole. As the world tries to recover from the pandemic, the role we play in producing a list brings attention, energy and recognition to the restaurant world,” says William Drew, content director at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. “Of course, it focuses to some degree on the 50 restaurants that are named, but it spreads out further. Producing this list is the best means we have at our disposal to promote the restaurant sector in 2021, to drive its recovery and ultimately encourage people to go back to restaurants.”

Yet the last year has been very different. And the list has changed to reflect that. Voting by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy members has been adjusted given travel limitations––instead of highlighting 10 restaurants with at least four outside Academy members’ own countries, voters nominated seven restaurants including up to five from home. However, the reasons for nomination remain unchanged––and in fact, there have never been strict guidelines.

“In terms of what people judge a restaurant on, we just say on your ‘best restaurant experiences’. Your criteria of what’s a brilliant restaurant experience may have been changed by this situation; we have all been changed by this situation. It’s difficult to know if [restaurants] have been able to put their best selves forward, but equally it’s their best selves under the circumstances and voters understand that and will, I think, make allowances. It’s not the perfect system and it’s not going to be exactly like for like to previous years, but nothing is like for like at the moment,” says Drew.

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So, does this mean that Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 has the potential to be quite different to past years? “I think that’s possible. The usual rules are out. Everything is up in the air and things are very different for all of us in terms of our eating habits and opportunities to go out. Maybe it’s changed the way we look at going out to eat, how we feel about it, what’s important to us. It’s difficult to say it’s going to be similar to previous years; it’s always going to be unusual,” says Drew.

While we wait to see which restaurants rank when the list is announced on March 25, a new list has also been developed. Essence of Asia is an unranked collection of “casual restaurants recognised for preserving culinary traditions, honouring authentic flavours and providing a vital link to their communities”. Its launch follows that of El Espíritu de América Latina in December 2020, which celebrates restaurants in Latin America that “sit at the heart of their communities, helping to nourish diners, bring people together and foster a sense of solidarity and togetherness during such turbulent times.”

“The idea was driven by the pandemic, which reinforced the idea that we need to support the wider restaurant sector, not just those at the very top,” says Drew. “So, while we have long celebrated outstanding restaurants, brilliant talent, and memorable dining experiences, we also want to recognise restaurants who were at the centre of their communities, because the pandemic has taught us how important the restaurant and food sector is to society, and to recognise those people who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic to help others or their community.”

Drew was overwhelmed by the response to the El Espíritu de América Latina list. “The pride that both the restaurants and their countries had in being represented, sometimes for the first time, was the most interesting thing,” he says. “For them to have their culinary status validated in some small way seemed to be a very positive and popular thing.”

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Drew is unsure whether these new lists for Latin America and Asia will endure post-pandemic, but it seems clear that there is a place for such collections––there are always F&B professionals preserving traditions or looking out for their communities who deserve to be celebrated.

In Hong Kong, for example, we love Dignity Kitchen, which was founded in Singapore but expanded to Hong Kong in January 2020 and provides training and employment for the disabled in its restaurant; Gingko House, which creates employment opportunities for the elderly and supports Hong Kong’s farms through the use of local organic vegetables in its six restaurants; and Pei Ho Counterparts, whose owner Ming Gor provides free lunchboxes to the elderly and homeless.

In Singapore, local champion Damian d’Silva seeks to preserve the city-state’s heritage cuisine, recreating lost and forgotten recipes at Restaurant Kin; as does chef Violet Oon who has made it her mission to celebrate Singapore’s Nyonya cuisine, as well as the city’s Chinese, Indian and Malay heritage, through the dishes at her eponymous restaurant.  

Chef JP Anglo’s Sarsa restaurants in the Philippines serve traditional Filipino-Negrense cuisine while highlighting indigenous ingredients and the chef has also been involved in feeding frontliners during the pandemic; while we also love Gallery by Chele and Deli by Chele where chef Chele Gonzalez strives to discover the flavours, techniques and customs of the food culture of the Philippines, particularly by learning directly from local farmers.

These are just a few of the names we believe deserve to appear on the Essence of Asia list when it is released on March 16. Additionally, we hope that the Essence of Asia list will include restaurants in countries like Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, whose dining scenes merit recognition yet have been largely ignored by Asia's 50 Best in the past.

In these challenging times for F&B, any initiative that seeks to support the hospitality sector, spotlighting success and presenting opportunities for the industry to grow and leverage platforms that organisations such as Asia’s 50 best have built, is to be applauded. Of course, there will be many who are not recognised, but this celebration should nevertheless be a moment of hope and positivity amid the darkness of the last year.

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