In Asia, the hot action these days is in the kitchen, where a new generation of celebrity chefs are stirring unprecedented recognition, as evidenced by the growing popularity of food festivals. In the run-up to the World Gourmet Summit, sort of Singapore's own World Cup of Cuisine, we take a look at this tasty trend.
By Ron Gluckman/In Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand
THE CELEBRITY CHEF, a concept already enshrined in the West, has finally arrived - for better or worse - in Asia.
While most of the region's culinary praise has traditionally been enjoyed by hotel restaurants, those days may be coming to an end. Chefs in Asia are stepping out -- taking food-crazed crowds with them.
Most of the new stars hail from overseas, at least for now. But the increased attention given to cooks rather than kitchens already suggests a minor revolution that could increase the profile of promising Asian chefs.
This relatively new phenomenon was on display at "Grand Indulgence," the 10th anniversary of the annual dining extravaganza that was hosted in February (2005) by Singapore's Raffles Hotel.
Festivities included lavish meals, wine tasting and talks, cooking classes, and private dinners where world-famous chefs prepared and explained their scrumptious creations -- to the audience's thunderous applause.
While food celebrations are hardly novel in Asia, their size and scale are reaching unprecedented levels, and have a newfound emphasis on chefs who are revered like rock stars.
Indeed, the atmosphere at "Grand Indulgence" may have most resembled that of a rock-and-roll concert -- with grills instead of guitars. Celebrity chefs like the multi-starred Carlo Cracco from Italy, Joachim Koerper of Spain and French chef Gerald Passedat gathered on stage for the grand finale Sunday brunch.
Mr. Passedat's floppy hair and bemused, self-deprecating humor only added to his rock-star luster. His fresh seafood created a stir at previous events, so it was no surprise to find his eggs floating on an olive-oil rich bed of ginger jelly, with chunks of fresh lobster. Mr. Cracco presented a variation of his signature goat-cheese raviolis.
But the real stars were the event's headliner chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, who between smiling for photos and signing autographs created a tour-de-force with blended eggs poured into martini glasses. The Pourcel brothers were the youngest chefs -- and first twins -- to earn top marks of three stars from Michelin, the rating that is considered the industry standard. Two months ago they opened Shanghai's French eatery Sens & Bund, and have a handful of chic Asian operations, all opened in the last few years.
As the wine flowed, and guests gorged themselves on hand-crafted chocolates and raspberry sorbet with champagne mousse, Singapore resident Scott Weeks explained the appeal of an event where a brunch consisting of eggs can set you back $100. "Singapore is mad for Sunday brunches," he said. "Here, it's super-high quality, with the best taste and service."
None in his circle professed to be a foodie, but that didn't stop them from getting caught up in the excitement. "It's a real thrill to see all this fantastic food prepared right in front of you by these famous Michelin three-star chefs," his friend explained.
"I don't think I'll eat again for a week," proclaimed another giddy guest after an 11-course dinner. His resolution lasted as far as the next morning, when he was back in the dining room to sample eggs that were scrambled, poached and sautéed by the world's top chefs, to be washed down with buckets of champagne and fresh-squeezed juice.
The Raffles annual food festival is just one event in a booming Asian culinary scene that welcomes new company each season. Every fall, the World Gourmet Festival bowls over Bangkok. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur hold irregular food extravaganzas and last November China launched two more. In April, Singapore hosts a veritable World Cup of cuisine, the two-week World Gourmet Summit, now in its sixth year.
And sometimes the pomp is even for a good cause. In February (2005), Bangkok hosted a charity "superchef cook-off," where the famed Jean-Georges Vongerichten was joined by David Thompson of London's Nahm, the first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin star, and Australian cooking icon Neil Perry. Diners paid $265, with all proceeds going to tsunami victims.
While the rise of the superstar chef in Asia in many ways mirrors what happened in Europe and the U.S. about a decade ago, in Asia the trend is moving slower and chefs have yet to attain the same celebrity status as in the West.
"I don't think it's such a trend yet in Asia, it's still very much influenced by the West, and it's usually Western chefs who are the `rock stars' with matching egos," says Maria Kuhn, regional director of public relations for Bangkok's Four Seasons hotel, which hosts the annual World Gourmet Festival.
The difference may be in part due to more widespread spending on fine dining in the West. "In Europe one is actually stopped in the street, asked for autographs, invited to A-list parties and so on. One of the primary reasons for the chef to evolve into a celebrity is a combination of a wealthy society, a true love and appreciation for the art and toil of a cook's life, more leisure time, not to mention chefs arriving who can actually carry it off," says David Laris, an Australian chef who broke out last year with "Laris," his lavish restaurant on Shanghai's Bund.
Mr. Laris notes that Asia has long eschewed leisure icons in favor of those from the business realm. But there are other explanations as well. Perhaps Asia's lag is due to diminished exposure, as seen in the small number of cooking programs on Asian television, as compared with the West.
In Asia, customer loyalty has traditionally been to a restaurant or hotel brand, rather than to a particular chef. But this may be changing. "The [celebrity chef] trend really started I guess about ten years ago in places like Hong Kong and Japan who where the first brand-crazy Asian nations, and at the end of the day we are a brand-type commodity," says Mr. Laris.
Asia's food-lovers will reap the benefits of this trend. The heightened interest in chefs and cuisine brings better taste and choice to the consumer, who is becoming more educated thanks to events like cooking classes and wine tastings. Meanwhile, dining celebrations like Singapore's Grand Indulgence allow chefs to gain valuable job training and exposure to new ideas.
So it's a win-win situation for most everyone, except for those who don't want to spend $100 for brunch.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who roams around Asia for a wide variety of publications like the Asian Wall Street Journal, which ran this story in its weekend edition on March 4, 2005.
All photos by Ron Gluckman.
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