First published over a century ago, the Michelin Guide, also known as the Michelin Red Guide, has been hailed as a culinary bible by lovers of food for more than a century. Taipei has, this year, finally been added to the series, becoming the 30th city around the globe where Michelin has planted its flag!
When you ask foreign travelers why they choose Taiwan as a play destination, one of the most frequently-given answers is that they want to explore Taiwan’s rich culinary scene. The Michelin Red Guide series landed in Asia in 2007, with Tokyo selected as the first city for inclusion, followed by Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, and Seoul. Taiwan’s cuisine has a globe-straddling reputation, and in no way comes up short against that of Japan or Hong Kong – so why did it take so long for it to win Michelin’s favor?
According to Cheng Ying-huei (鄭瑛惠), director of the International Affairs Division in the Ministry of Transportation and Communications’ Tourism Bureau, they began in 2009, energetically pushing the Michelin Group to publish a Taipei edition of their globally-renowned “red culinary bibles.” “It’s like standing on the shoulders of a giant, making us visible to so many more people,” she says. Great food has always been a key reason for visiting Taiwan, and with the endorsement of the Michelin Guide the international visibility of Taiwan’s superb cuisine will be raised.
After a Long Courtship, Michelin at Long Last Comes Calling!
So what stood in the way of a Taiwan edition for so many years? In the beginning it was discussions on sponsorship – which locations to survey, et cetera … with problems encountered with each potential subject. The Tourism Bureau at one point offered to pay for the Michelin team’s food, clothing, accommodation and transportation, but no agreement could be reached because Michelin inspectors must remain anonymous, and their identities not revealed. Also, it was inappropriate for the government to become involved with sponsorship matters involving private enterprise. Things dragged on for years, until finally, last year, a conclusion was reached to use Taipei, the city with the strongest and most diversified food and beverage culture, as Michelin’s portal. Michelin was finally ready to plant its flag in Taiwan!
The negotiations were long and arduous, and the optimal term of cooperation was subject to debate. A one-off thing, long-term cooperation, or a 5-year term? Those were the choices.
Explaining this in more depth, Cheng says that cooperation for one year is like a flower that blooms once; the benefits are insufficient. But long-term cooperation carries the risk of getting stale. Five years seemed like just the right number – presenting an achievable goal restaurants could work toward.
On the day the Michelin star list was publicly announced, some eateries were very pleased while others were vexed. However, those who did not make the list in this first year should not be discouraged – the struggle for next year’s recognition has already begun, and this serves as a powerful driver for dedicated work and progress. With the Hong Kong edition, for example, 22 restaurants were bestowed with stars the first year, and that almost doubled in the following two years, with about 20 added in each. A similar culinary miracle is hoped for in Taipei over the next five years.
A Taste Revolution – Seeing the Value in Fine Food
Recognition by Michelin not only enhances Taiwan’s culinary aura, at the same time it infuses the whole food culture with a burst of energy. Cheng hopes that Michelin’s critical appreciation of taste will provide guidance in the area of food evaluation for the whole country – shifting criteria from “price” to “quality.” It is hoped that diners will no longer blindly pursue the cheap and mundane “All you can eat for NT$299” experience. Instead Michelin will lead them to savor a chef’s dedication and inspiration, and be willing to dig a few more bills from their pockets in exchange for finely-crafted creations – each one a treasure!
As for the chef, a “spirit of professionalism” must be established, with fastidious attention paid to the use of ingredients and the enjoyment one’s culinary offerings bring to guests. Cost can no longer be the only consideration. In following this path, the use of cheap adulterated cooking oil will be reduced and food safety enhanced.
Self-Reflections – Spotlight on Great Local Flavors
The Michelin spotlight has now illuminated the stage. Nevertheless, there are differing opinions about the final results. For example, who so many Western restaurants on the list? Does Michelin really understand the appetites of the Taiwanese? Is it appropriate for popular street-food and night-market snack foods to be subjected to Michelin’s assessment criteria?
Yeh Yilan (葉怡蘭), who writes on food, travel, and lifestyle, believes that winning international recognition from the iconic Michelin Group is a splendid opportunity for Taipei cuisine to gain wider renown and approval, as well as a chance for self-improvement. Equally important, however, is that the people of Taiwan take stock of their own food culture, and not to allow selection criteria to influence or cause loss of local character.
In the past, the Michelin stamp of approval for the mastery of French cooking arts would be sought even if the products served were local cuisine. In the end, however, all this effort brought out nothing of a distinctive personality. “The more local, the more international” – this is the thoughtful insight author Yeh penned after traveling the world. To occupy a clearly defined position in the international community, the most important thing is to be yourself and to show off your unique local characteristics.
In recent years a uniquely Taiwanese sense of identity has grown stronger and stronger. At a number of the Western restaurants selected by Michelin, Taiwanese ingredients and flavors have been brilliantly blended with Western culinary techniques, creating a Western cuisine with its own special taste. This is the spirit of true fine dining. In the end, it is only through the infiltration of local elements that international cuisine can include the unique flavors Taipei has created, and thereby attract tourists to visit again and again in pursuit of wonderful tastes that can’t be found anywhere else.
Flavor Discovery Touring – Creating a New Travel Trend
“The best way to get to know a city is to eat its food.” Trusting in the Michelin Guide, foreign visitors can follow the maps and “eat” their way through the city, thereby creating a strong incentive to come visit. Academic researchers also estimate that release of the Michelin Guide Taipei may attract around 100,000 tourists to Taipei to “chase the stars!”
Yeh says she recalls the year Tokyo became the first city in Asia to get its own Michelin Guide. The Michelin name had been considered something remote, largely associated with Europe, yet now it was suddenly something accessible, brought closer to home, and it caused quite a stir in neighboring countries. However substantial the tourism benefits prove to be, the Michelin Guide will be effective for Taipei in sketching the city’s food scene for foreign readers. Those who have an interest in coming to Taipei will also have a clear index they can follow.
Cheng says that from notice of publication to actual release, this guidebook has been a topic of intense interest, with media “hype” exceeding expectations. In one early example, a Hong Kong television program came to Taipei and shot “star-chaser” programming, predicting which eateries would be granted stars. And, after the official list was released, there was a frenzy in the Malaysian media to come interview those who had made it. “Strong interviews do not just focus on Michelin,” Cheng says. In addition to discussing listed eateries, they also introduce the overall gastronomic environment in Taiwan. Through the broadcast of a series of program reports, it is hoped that this interest will continue to be stimulated.
Happy Palate Surprises – Using Food in City Marketing
According to Su-Yu Chen (陳思宇), Taipei City Government’s Commissioner of the Department of Information and Tourism (DOIT), Taipei’s superb food has always been a key in marketing the city, and now the city has another badge of international recognition to use in telling the world: “Taipei is indeed a true culinary capital!” Michelin is certain to be a highlight topic of discussion at this year’s Taipei International Travel Fair, and will also be a focus at other large-scale city events and activities. For example, gourmet eating will be paired with flower appreciation for the annual Taipei Azalea Festival (台北杜鵑花季). Foreign groups will also be invited on special promotional tours to take in the Taipei experience.
Chen adds that DOIT is also engaged in planning the use of fine foods to link sightseeing attractions. For example, Beimen (the North Gate; 北門) in Taipei’s old West District has, in recent years, once again become a highly visible landmark, enabling sightseers to enjoy a unique historical streetscape, while visitors to the area can also enjoy internationally recognized fine foods.
In recent years, the Department of Economic Development (產業發展局), Taipei City Government, has grouped the city’s diversified cuisine according to theme, such as “The Most Memorable Taste in Taipei” and “International Cuisines in Taipei.” The annual Taipei Traditional Market Festival (台北傳統市場節) has also been staged for over a decade now, continually bringing “undiscovered” yet long-popular vendors of delicious street-market and market foods to prominence, such as Kuaiche (快車肉乾; various types of jerky), Yichang Yufang (億長御坊; traditional cooked foods), and Tong Jia Mantou (童家饅頭; traditional steamed buns). We sincerely hope that the wave of interest brought by the new Michelin Guide will enable the international community to see the great diversity of Taipei’s cuisine.
Beyond Tourism – What Other Benefits?
The anticipated effect on tourism caused by the Michelin Guide Taipei, in terms of material economic benefit, is that in addition to increased consumption of inexpensive fare and popular snack foods, there will be an upsurge in consumption of high-priced cuisine among tourists. Yeh Yilan believes that the most positive impact will be to the international community’s impression of Taiwanese cuisine, extending from night-market snacks to high-end fare. A depth and meticulousness not often seen in the past will now be recognized.
“Tourism development cannot solely be built on Michelin,” says Liu Hsi-Lin (劉喜臨), vice president of the National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism. Outside the industry there is a high expectation that Michelin will boost local tourism, and he also believes there will indeed be certain benefits. But what is now even more important is to leverage the momentum, and raise Taiwan’s profile as a key tourist destination.
From the government’s perspective, advice should be offered to related industries. For the travel, accommodation, and other sectors, for example, Michelin chefs could be invited to give demonstrations, and “In Search of our Roots” tours could be organized to show tourists where ingredients used in Michelin cuisine come from, and how they are prepared. Such initiatives will help with resource expansion.
Liu adds that food companies also need to be self-supporting. In the past, chefs from local hotels would, from time to time, visit Michelin restaurants in faraway lands for study. However, new approaches can now be taken. The Le Palais restaurant at the Palais de Chine Hotel (君品酒店頤宮中餐廳), which was awarded three Michelin stars, is able to rotate its chefs among fellow properties within the LDC Hotels & Resorts Group. Other starred restaurants can send their renowned chefs to visit hotels in Taiwan’s central and southern regions to serve as guest chefs, passing on Michelin benefits and know-how.
There is an old Chinese idiom: “Does the monk from elsewhere preach a better sermon?” Taiwan’s private sector suffers no shortage of food experts, associations, and other related organizations. Liu proposes that Taiwan make good use of these resources in setting up its own culinary appraisal system, with food and travel programs at educational institutions acting in a consulting role. The research and experimentation done in Taiwan’s various food industries could be systematically combed for evaluation and reference, showcasing local academic strength. “The ability for us and Michelin to learn from each other – that will be the most important thing.”