The pandemic has drastically shifted our priorities and focus. Maida Pineda considers whether the limitations of lockdowns, social distancing, and travel restrictions mean fine dining is now an irrelevant luxury in Asia
Every year coveted Michelin Stars are bestowed and awards given for the World’s Best Restaurants. But if you are unable to travel to these restaurants would you still care as much for these lists?
This year Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants introduced Essence of Asia, an unranked collection of restaurants representing the spirit of Asian gastronomy spanning 49 cities across 20 countries and territories. During this difficult time for the restaurant industry, the guide aims to support them by highlighting Asia’s authentic and diverse dining experiences. This was unveiled to complement the ninth edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It encompasses street vendors, dining institutions, philanthropic business, and even newcomers.
However, beyond lists, the best indicator of the relevance of fine-dining restaurants during these trying times would be their performance. At time of writing (April 2021) the number of Covid-19 cases reached record highs, hospitals once again hit full capacity, and lockdown has again been enforced in Metro Manila. Talking with Chele Gonzalez, the Spanish chef behind Gallery by Chele, ranked 90 in Asia’s Best Restaurants 2021, he recounts: “We were doing so well. At Christmas we were fully booked at the restaurant.”
Gonzalez disagrees that fine dining is dead. “Fine dining is quite trendy these days, even with other restaurants in Asia. The landscape has changed so much,” he says. “People go out less often, and it is their only time to relax. People are choosing only places with social distancing and safety protocols implemented. They want to spend more and go out much less, but have an experience. That’s what we offer.”
Diversifying beyond the restaurant
Gallery by Chele became the chosen location for intimate wedding receptions – as necessitated by Covid restrictions – in Manila. Couples, families and friends also choose his restaurant’s nine-course tasting menu for to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Gonzalez implements strict protocols for his restaurant staff such as administering antigen tests and strict sanitation rules. Restaurant guests have temperature checks upon entering the restaurant, hand sanitizer is available, plates are sanitized before serving, and there are air purifiers inside the restaurant.
The restaurant offers outdoor seating and private dining rooms, limiting interaction and promoting social distancing among diners. But the pandemic has pushed Gonzales to think outside the box and diversify beyond the confines of his restaurant. He created feasts at home for five to six people, for pick up or delivery. Menus included The Truffle Beef Wellington Feast, a nine-course meal for people to enjoy in the safety of their own homes.
He is offering Spanish signature dishes such as tapas, paella, and lengua for consumption at home. His latest innovation is Deli by Chele, creating products using sustainable local ingredients including charcuterie, cheeses, kombucha – with unique Filipino flavors such as red dragonfruit, jackfruit, and cacao – sauces, jams, vinegars, and bread. Restaurant opening hours have also been tweaked from Tuesday to Saturday to include Sunday, when people come to dine out or order their feast offerings.
Gonzalez describes his food as modern cuisine using local Filipino ingredients. At this time of the pandemic when sourcing foreign ingredients can be a huge challenge, he remains unfazed. He has been committed to sourcing the best local ingredients since the restaurant opened in 2013.
In Bangkok, chef Ton Thitid Tassanakajohn’s restaurant Le Du ranked fourth in this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list. Thailand’s hospitality industry has been heavily reliant on foreign tourists. In January, at least a million hospitality workers have been laid off. I spoke to chef Ton during Songkran, what should have been Thailand’s busiest holiday. “We are doing good. We are on the third wave, but still fighting,” he said. When asked whether fine dining is dead, this Thai chef is quick to answer: “I think fine dining is still relevant, but it must now also serve and satisfy locals.”
He adds: “Those [restaurants] serving only tourists have closed down. We have seen that through this pandemic.”
Thankfully, Le Du’s concept is all about regional Thai dishes using seasonal local ingredients, with a modern French interpretation. The restaurant has always appealed to local diners, while also attracting foreign travelers.
“I always have 50% local diners even before the pandemic, that’s why we survived this difficult year,” says Ton. It also helps that he uses 100% local ingredients, hence, sparing him the problems of procuring imported specialty ingredients.
Like many other restaurants in Bangkok, Le Du started offering delivery services allowing their diners to enjoy the signature dish Khao Khluk Kapi (river prawn with shrimp paste in brown rice risotto) in their own homes. Chef Ton has also been vocal in petitioning the government to consider prioritizing distributing vaccines to restaurant entrepreneurs and their staff to encourage more people to dine out safely and to save the restaurant industry in Bangkok.
In Hong Kong, chef Vicky Cheng just opened Wing, a fine-dining Chinese restaurant right at the heart of Central. With the success of his French Chinese restaurant VEA gaining one Michelin Star and ranking 16 in Asia’s 50 Best, he seems unfazed by the current pandemic.
Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez remains determined to open Maz, a fine-dining restaurant in Tokyo this year, despite the pandemic delaying the original plan to open in time for the July 2020 Olympics in Japan. While the restaurant industry may be struggling during this pandemic, fine dining is not dead. But as Chele Gonzalez points out: “We are not fine dining. We are a restaurant that provides a new experience.”
As restaurants now cater primarily to local diners, there is an emphasis on creating a memorable dining experience suited to their palate and relying on the best local ingredients. The challenge for fine-dining restaurants now is to create dining experiences worth going out for or even creating a luxury dining experience to keep their local customers safely in their own homes. There is a bold invitation to adapt and innovate what fine dining means. This is the only way restaurateurs can stay relevant and keep their businesses afloat during this pandemic.