Saturday, June 16, 2018

Is Chinese Food Culturally Disadvantaged for Food Critics?

Watching an old Anthony Bourdain episode, I came upon the name Fuchsia Dunlop, a chef/writer specializing in Chinese cuisine.

I began reading some of her stuff online and watching some videos from her, and she brought up a point about food reviewers and Chinese food that blew my mind.  She's said the point several times, but for reference here's one place she brings it up on her blog.

The high point of Chinese cuisine is really the banquet meal, served family style, which requires minimally 8-10 people, but of course can go as high as hundreds of people (such as at wedding or a large celebration).

But food reviewers are typically 1 person, maybe 2 max.

So how does a food reviewer judge a high-end Chinese restaurant?

She suggests that Chinese cuisine has a disadvantage in the global culinary landscape because most reviewers won't be reviewing what is considered top Chinese cuisine.  In contrast, compare this to the tasting menus that usually top western restaurants serve.  Those menus can easily be served to a lone diner or a couple.

Here's another way to look at it as I thought about it more.

Since banquet meals can sometimes get large (i.e. for weddings), many top Chinese restaurants can seat hundreds of people.  It's the reality of the business.

Needless to say, these restaurants need to generate business when they don't have large banquets going on.  So they offer a large variety of menu options for the a la carte diner, possibly over 100+ dishes.   As a sample, I counted 130+ menu items at Lung King Heen, a 3 Michelin Star Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, and that doesn't count dim sum items for lunch or the items on their tasting menu.

So how does a reviewer review such a restaurant?  Only on the banquet meal?  Or random a la carte items?  Is the restaurant graded on some small subset of random a la carte items?

When reading reviews from Andy Hayler, he has given many Chinese restaurants poor reviews, wondering how they could have received Michelin stars.

So one might ask, how is Michelin reviewing high end Chinese restaurants?  Are they only reviewing the banquet meals?  The tasting menus (if offered)?  Are they reviewing a random subset of a la carte items?  The Michelin guide has stated before that they care about "every dish" being wonderful, but are all their reviewers really reviewing all 130+ items at Lung King Heen?  I doubt it.

Oh, I didn't yet bring up how a restaurant with 100+ seats and 100+ items is disadvantaged on culinary reviews.  It's far easier to concentrate on amazing flavors and to be very consistent at it when you have only 20 seats, 10 kitchen staff, and a menu of 10 items.

I thought Fuchsia Dunlop made an incredible point about how an entire country's cuisine simply might be disadvantaged in the international culinary landscape.  But this doesn't appear to be a West vs East issue.  For example, Japanese cuisine has had kaiseki meals for hundreds of years.  So they can be reviewed very easily by one reviewer.  I'm sure this problem isn't unique to just China either.

As time goes on (which was actually brought up in the Part's Unknown episode), what will likely happen is tasting menu only Chinese restaurants will appear over time, as that style becomes more popular in China as people begin to experience Western style tasting menus.  The same will likely happen in Western countries too as higher end Chinese food spreads in popularity.  I recall that one Chinese tasting only menu in San Francisco just opened up.

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