From ‘Here’s what they queue an hour for’, 23 July 2016, article by Benson Ang, ST
After his hawker stall was awarded a prestigious Michelin star, hawker Chan Hon Meng, 51, decided to open 45 minutes earlier than his usual 10am.
On Thursday night, right after the awards were announced, the owner of Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle at Chinatown Food Complex said: “I know more people will come. I want to open earlier so the crowds will be more manageable.”
He was right. Some customers were there as early as 8.50am. By 9.15am, a queue had formed and it grew to more than 20 people at 10.30am.
…Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Crawford Lane, the other hawker stall with one Michelin star, also saw a longer queue. The stall sells about 400 bowls a day, with prices starting at $5 a bowl. Customers said they usually stand in line for about 45 minutes but yesterday, some queued for more than an hour.
Ms Lynn Chen, 42, who lives in the same block, started queuing at 11.10pm, but got her food only at 12.15pm. The part-time telemarketer, who has been patronising the stall two or three times a week for more than a decade, said: “The good thing is that we now have a Michelin- starred eatery below our block. The bad news is that the queue now will be as long as the Great Wall of China. The stall wins the award, but we customers lose.
“But I will still queue because my husband and I like the food.”
Now that we finally have a place in the ‘little red book’, Singaporeans can proudly say our cuisine is of ‘global standard’, and in typical kiasu fashion, despite our hyperbolic complaints about long queues, we still do it anyway. Come on, 1 hour is nothing! We have queued longer for things far less deserving. Like goddamn Krispy Kreme. Yes, there was a time when you could literally fly to visit the actual Great Wall of China during the period you spend queuing overnight for donuts.
While it’s easy for us to say we should take the Michelin Guide with a ‘pinch of salt’ and that this will spark meaningful conversations among Singaporeans about local cuisine regardless of our preferences, it may place unnecessarily high expectations on its recipients. The Michelin folks are known to take away stars should the quality of food fall below minimum standards. One chef took the grade so seriously he shot himself in the mouth when he heard that his 3 star restaurant might be downgraded to a measly 2 star one.
The pressure to maintain the rating could deter hawkers from experimenting with new flavours, or prevent them from retiring early lest their successors are unable to fill their Michelin shoes. IF they have any successors left. It would be interesting also to see how NEA would grade a one-star hawker stall, though I doubt a hygiene rating of D or a sporadic roach sighting would make the queues for Tai Hwa Bak Chor Mee any shorter. On the other hand, a one-star could make an already ya-ya hawker even worse. He may ditch his straw hat and put on an actual chef’s hat instead. He may change the stall name to ‘Le Baque Chor Mee’, or ‘Poulet de Soy’.
Some critics call the whole thing a publicity stunt, similar to Gordon Ramsay pitting his Western culinary skills against locals in laksa cooking contests. Others cry foul because trailblazers and veterans who dabble in true-blue Singaporean food like Wilin Low and Violet Oon were snubbed. We should remember, however, that Michelin critics are anonymous foreigners with taste buds probably attuned to ‘Michelin-friendly’ cuisine who’re unlikely to award a restaurant that’s renown for serving the best durian pengat in the country, or something you could find in a SAF cookhouse like fried chicken wings.
Looking at the nagging disparity between the unpronounceable L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon with its sommeliers and fine customised cutlery vs the humble pork noodle hawker with his sweaty towel and smelly trays, the results somehow reek of gastronomic tokenism, given that Singapore has marketed itself so aggressively as a hawkers’ paradise. Michelin could be saying ‘OK people, let’s do the MBS thing and then choose a few small-timers just to show we appreciate hawker food too’.
Let’s hope our one star hawkers don’t let the Michelin star go over their heads and keep up the good work. For the rest who didn’t make the cut, don’t fret, there’s always Singapore Day.