If Taiwan wants to develop a cuisine scene matching its reputation for fantastic night market treats, it still has some way to go.
If the world’s dining scene were a level playing field, you would expect Taiwan to be a winner. For historical reasons, it is a melting pot of the best cuisines from all over China, plus it enjoys an abundance of fresh produce because of the sub-tropical location combined with more temperate climates at higher elevations. It has also been ideally placed to absorb cultural influences from around the world for longer than most of its Asian neighbors.
Yet Taiwan’s place in the international gastronomic arena pales compared with culinary powerhouse Japan, and is wilting while Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, and South Korea continue to boost their reputations for gourmet dining. One could point to Taiwan’s excellent food in night markets, its wide variety of delectable “small eats” (xiao chi), and world-beating bowls of beef noodles. But that is hardly the stuff of a fine diner’s dreams, distinguished by star chefs, alluring ambience, and elegant food plating.
For good or ill, Michelin’s Red Guide is the Bible when it comes to restaurants. Whatever the merits of social network-based reviews on sites and apps like Yelp, Foursquare, and TripAdvisor, serious foodies religiously take note of the opinions of the anonymous Michelin critics who dispense stars, Bib Gourmands, or just a “fork and spoon.”
The “little red book” is a publication that causes chefs to quake in their toques, as it can make or break a restaurant. While Taiwan does have a Green Guide, which reviews and rates attractions other than restaurants (and is often the precursor to a Red Guide), rumors of the imminent coming of a Red Guide are just that at the moment.
The good news is that Michelin-starred chefs have had the red carpet rolled out for them in Taipei and are spreading their foodie wings. The world’s most decorated cook, Joël Robuchon, has established L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Taipei’s Xinyi District; his erstwhile disciple Angelo Aglianò decided to stay on after completion of his culinary tour of duty to establish his own eatery; and Stay (which stands for Simple Table Alléno Yannick) recently became the second restaurant in the capital to be opened by a three-star Michelin chef.
In addition, Taiwan-born kitchen maestro Andre Chiang has returned to his roots and recently set up RAW in conjunction with Hasmore Limited (whose dining establishments include Swensen’s and Ruth’s Chris). Looking south to Taichung, Lanshu Chen, the region’s top female chef, has been running Le Moût to great acclaim.
But while there may be a number of local restaurants that deserve honorable mentions in a list of the world’s best, much more could be done to improve the dining scene in Taiwan, starting perhaps with regulations to ease the entry into the market of prime ingredients like Spanish ham, Japanese beef, and certain seafood. Ken Yu, the Chinese executive chef at YEN, the impeccably designed establishment that is panoramically blessed on the 31st floor of the W Hotel, expresses impatience with import regulations that prevent him from easily acquiring the products he needs to create the dishes he desires.
Speaking after preparing a fastidious yet poetic table of “new Chinese cuisine” – including sea urchin drizzled with caviar in a poached lobster with egg-white nest – he described his style as traditional with a twist, incorporating Western elements. Trained as a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong, Yu is blunt about Taiwan’s advantages and disadvantages as a center for cuisine.
“There are a lot of great talents and ingredients here – and a lot of chefs outside of Taiwan have the same opinion as me,” he says. “The produce is good, but of course the variety is not as large and seasonal volumes are not stable. Therefore, it’s very difficult to provide consistency, which is essential.”
Another factor is pay. With Taiwan’s economy limping along and wages retreating rather than advancing, Yu says it can be difficult to motivate his staff. “If the government opened the gates to allowing the hiring of more experts from abroad,” he contends, “then the bar would inevitably be raised and everyone would benefit. If this took place, then Michelin would come.”
Michael Fei – an architect, foodie, and blogger (http://michaelfei.blogspot.tw/2012/02/restaurant-andre.html) who has kept a knowing eye on the dining scene, says that although it has developed somewhat over the past five or six years, it still lacks genuine star quality.
“I’ve heard rumors the Michelin Red Guide might come to Taipei, but I have my doubts, since I’m not sure there’s enough of a market for the guide to be viable. Michelin still needs to sell books. There used to be a Michelin Red Guide for Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but it was discontinued after a few years due to the low sales figures. If Michelin can’t make it work in L.A., I don’t know how it will work in Taipei. In my opinion, Taipei doesn’t have such a big tourist industry, and most of visitors are from just two countries: China and Japan. If I were Michelin I would expand to Singapore first.”
Though Michelin was contacted for this article, it did not provide any further information on whether it would indeed come out with a Red Guide for Taiwan in the near future. The organization is notoriously secretive, so the lack of response should be no surprise.
Offering some clues as to why Taiwan is behind the curve, Fei cites the traditional anonymity of the chefs in Chinese restaurants. “Even in the old days, Chinese restaurants were not chef-driven,” he says, noting that the key figure was usually the owner or maitre d’. “The chef in Chinese culture doesn’t have such an elevated position as in the West, where over the past 20 years or so they have become celebrities like artists and rock stars. In Chinese restaurants, you often don’t even know who is cooking the food.”
Rather than haute cuisine, Fei says, the emphasis in Taiwan is on xiao chi snacks and night market food. Indeed, a Tourism Bureau survey showed that some 62% of visitors head straight to the night market, and possibly to Din Tai Fung (Michelin-starred in Hong Kong, but based in Taiwan) if they’re feeling flush. It’s like patronizing a bistro in France or a gastropub in Britain, Fei says.
As for Western food, “my feeling is the Western dining scene here is not so good,” Fei continues. “It’s a bit like eating Chinese food in Manhattan. You’re not getting the real thing most of the time, so there’s a limited number of places to go to.”
Another factor is the nature of the clientele. “High-end Western restaurants need customers with deep pockets to support them,” says Fei. “In London and New York, there are a lot of people with expense accounts.” In addition, top-tier Western restaurants depend on wine consumption to make money, since food has a relatively low profit margin. “We [Taiwanese] didn’t grow up drinking wine with meals,” he explains. “That’s why the business model here is so much more difficult.”
If a Michelin Red Guide did arrive, Fei wonders whether it would be able to find a restaurant worthy of three stars. He’s a big fan of Angelo Aglianò, is impatiently awaiting his first reservation to dine at RAW, and has followed Robuchon since it arrived in 2009. He gets on well with the current chef, Olivier Jean, whom he regards as setting the standard around town.
Jean is French, tall, handsome and young – in fact, the youngest chef at a Robuchon restaurant. Repaying the faith that his “heart father” Joël Robuchon placed in him is a tall order, but on four hours’ sleep and an afternoon catnap of 15 minutes a day, the 27-year-old is certainly working hard to please.
He is a believer in the school of thought that if customers are prepared to shell out a lot of money for a meal, then they deserve to have a very special experience – “the best mashed potato, or roast chicken or vegetables they have ever had.” To do accomplish that feat, he says, “we must 1) have great creative products, 2) technique, and 3) fantastic service. Top service involves rigor and artistry. If it isn’t at that level, it can kill a meal.”
Though still young, Jean started his culinary career at the tender age of seven or eight and has received both formal training and intense mentoring from the masters. He admits it is challenging to find the best local ingredients to add to the food items imported from abroad, but says he has been lucky with his team, who learn quickly and fortunately stick around, to provide the consistency of food and service that is essential.
As for stars, he’s more than hopeful of one or two when the anonymous Michelin inspector eventually does come by. “It’s for sure, because we have the same standards as in Paris. In the past five years we are full every lunch and most nights. We have a mission. It’s a gift to be here in Taiwan, to have this life and give pleasure.”
While bookings every night sounds great, in the great centers of the culinary arts, the leading restaurants can count on three or four covers a night. Taipei, at least at present, just can’t provide the same volume of business.
Michael Fei compares the high-end dining business model to designer culture: “You need major international talents and a consumer base that is willing to pay for, say, fancy handbags. The people who buy them don’t think they’re necessarily expensive because they have value added. The customers are the world’s 1%. Hong Kong has the bankers and international customer base to support it. Here there are few expats with so much money to spend on fine wines and dining.”
While Fei doubts there is a true three-star restaurant in Taipei yet, he nevertheless perceives a positive evolution here towards a more cosmopolitan rather than provincial outlook. If indeed the country is to make a real breakthrough in the Western side of the culinary arena, however, local chefs will need to develop some distinctive and innovative cuisine.
Certainly, Andre Chiang fits the bill, as does Lanshu Chen, another French-trained chef (the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts and a pastry diploma from Le Cordon Bleu) who has returned to her place of birth. Chen won Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef award earlier this year from Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, which praised her Le Moût for bringing “a slice of French haute cuisine to Taiwan, and little has become lost in translation.”
In an interview in February with the Fine Dining Lovers website, Chen praised the “large variety of vegetables and seafood in Taiwan, giving me a lot of opportunity to be creative.” The creativity often involves incorporating some Taiwanese techniques and ingredients in preparing Western dishes. She mentioned borrowing the “traditional Taiwanese method to ferment mustard leaf and use it to wrap a whole pigeon and truffled pearl barley.” She also uses such ingredients as dried osmanthus as well as the aromatic leaves of the Chinese toon tree, which goes into making “very special pesto or sauce” that tastes “non-like but more nutty and floral.”
“Growing up in Taiwan, food has always been an integral part of my heritage,” Chen told Taiwan Business TOPICS by email. “From an early age I appreciated the pleasures that derive from preparing and sharing meals.” She added that “passion, intuition and an aesthetic appreciation of food are the keys to become a good chef, and when it comes to leading the kitchen, it requires absolute efficiency and organization.”
It’s an attitude that sums up what it will take to lead a renaissance in the country’s cuisine and gain the recognition it surely deserves.